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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 13, 2023
Pope Francis greets Australian Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth at the Vatican June 24, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“I don’t think we experienced the inversion of the pyramid model of the church at the synod; rather we experienced a different model altogether of the church,” the Australian archbishop Timothy Costelloe, S.D.B., one of the president delegates of the synod, told America’s Vatican correspondent in this exclusive interview in Rome on Oct. 30.

A member of the Salesian order, Archbishop Costelloe has been archbishop of Perth in Western Australia since Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to that post in 2012. The 69-year-old archbishop is the president of the Australian Catholic bishops’ conference, served as president of the Plenary Council of the Australian church (2021-22) and is a member of the preparatory committee for the synod.

In this interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, he described “being a synodal church” as “an experience” that “we have to live in order to understand it.”

Gerard O’Connell: You were one of the nine president delegates of the synod. What’s your overview of what you’ve experienced?

Archbishop Costelloe: I remain very positive about the whole experience. I think it’s important to remember that this is the end of the first assembly and there’s another assembly in 12 months’ time. So, the question I would ask is: Are we well positioned now to take the next steps in the discernment process? The answer is yes.

If people were expecting final decisions at the end of the first assembly, they’ll be quite disappointed. But it was always going to be the case that at the end of the first assembly we would hopefully have clarified what the main issues were, delved into them a little deeper, allowed things to rise to the surface so that we now know what it is that we really need to discern more deeply as we move forward. I think we achieved all of that.

One of the synod’s conclusions is the need to do more theological reflection on what synodality means and and how to codify it in the canon law.

That’s true! But I think before we can codify it in canon law, we need to understand it better theologically.

We’ve had a lot of talk about the inversion of the pyramid model of church, where the pope is at the top, then come the cardinals, the bishops, and so on with the laity at the bottom. Pope Francis has talked about the inversion of the pyramid. But I don’t think we experienced the inversion of the pyramid at the synod; rather we experienced a different model altogether of the church, as a community of people which has within it, at its service, the ministry of the ordained.

It’s a different model. So rather than levels of authority, it’s the presence of a body of people who are called to be at the genuine, humble service of the whole people of God as we try to be what God wants us to be. So for me it’s not so much an inversion of the pyramid as, in a sense, the moving away from a pyramidal model altogether to a different kind of model. I see that as a very important step forward.

One of the transformative elements was having non-bishops, including lay people, with a vote, at the synod. I understand there was a lot of discussion about that and the role of bishops. Since it was a synod of bishops, I think that for a lot of bishops, this was a difficult thing to come to grips with.

Cardinal [Mario] Grech clarified that the pope had made very clear that this is a synod of bishops, but it was being conducted in a way in which the bishops exercised their particular ministry within the church rather than separate from the rest of the church. That’s saying something about the way the ministry of the bishops should be exercised, not as a kind of a separate thing standing over against the rest of the church, but from within the church.

I’ve thought about this a lot and what’s come to my mind is the phrase of St. Augustine: “With you I am a Christian, for you I am a bishop.” I’ve always been taken by that phrase, but I experienced it in a different way at the synod because we were both with our people as one of them and with them in order to be for them. I think there’s something here to be explored more deeply.

This gives fuller expression to Chapter 2 of Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (“Lumen Gentium”), which speaks about the people of God. This was emphasized by the focus on baptism at the synod.

Theologically speaking, there’s nothing new about it; we’ve always known that baptism brings you into the body of Christ, into the people of God. But the emphasis on that as the foundation of everything in terms of the life of the church is new, and it’s an invitation to everybody in the church to ask themselves: What does this mean for the life of the church? We need to examine more deeply what that means in practical terms.

The synod gave considerable attention to the role of women in the church. How has that come out in the synthesis document?

This final document of the first assembly has presented us with a transitional text. It’s bringing to the surface issues that need further development. There’s no question that the need for the church to better understand how to engage women in the life of the church is absolutely essential. I don’t think there’s any opposition to that. The question is how, and that’s what we need to consider moving forward.

There was a lot of talk in the synod about participation in leadership, in decision taking and decision making. That’s already happening in many parts of the church worldwide. Certainly in Australia, women are involved in very significant leadership positions in the church. We have to continue along this path and find more and more ways so that it becomes the reality of our church, so that we all together work for the good of the people of God.

How do you read the synod’s attention to the question of women’s diaconate?

They’re asking for further study, a greater understanding. There was a fairly strong feeling that the work that’s already been done by the two commissions set up by Pope Francis needs to be reviewed. I think it’s an open question. There are conflicting understandings of what exactly was the reality of this diaconal ministry in the early church. There’s also the idea that we might be able to develop something new in the church, an instituted ministry of service, a diaconal ministry.

Detached from order?

Yes. But these are open questions, and it’s precisely because all these questions have risen to the surface through the consultation period since 2021, and have continued to rise during the first assembly, that this means these are the very things that we now need to focus on more deeply as we move forward.

The question of an ecclesial assembly has been floated, raising the question of whether this could be the last synod of bishops.

As I understand it, when Paul VI set up the Synod of Bishops, he opened the door to further development of this model as the need arose. I think it’s quite possible that after the second assembly in October 2024, this whole experience will be evaluated and discerned, and we’ll decide whether this is the right way to go in the future or whether there’s a need for major changes to it.

Many recognize that this synod is a work in progress, and some envisage a development in the future somewhat in the way [Cardinal John Henry] Newman talked about, both theologically and in concrete reality.

It’s interesting you say that because I think there was a figure who was floating around in the synod and who wasn’t really named, and it was Cardinal Newman. This whole idea of the development of doctrine is really key to us moving forward to something that could be quite significant for the life of the church, which may mean that the next synod after this one could be very different from what we’ve experienced hitherto. Newman’s theology of the development of doctrine enables us to be grounded in our tradition and open to ways in which we can grow in our understanding of it. That’s a key to this whole process.

Newman came out of the Anglican tradition, and the synod’s synthesis document speaks a lot about ecumenism. The development of synodality is seen as a step on the long road to Christian unity.

I agree. And it goes back to something you mentioned earlier about the synod’s strong focus on the significance of baptism, because to be baptized is to be brought into the body of Christ, into the people of God, and most major Christian denominations all recognize each other’s baptism. We’re already deeply united as people who belong together to the body of Christ. I don’t think we’ve given that as much significance as we should.

Some hot-button issues got attention at the synod, although the synod was not about single issues; rather it sought to develop a way by which the church can discuss and address controversial issues in a nonconfrontational or polarizing manner. Hence, there was no polarization in the synod. Right?

There were differences of opinion, and people spoke strongly from different points of view. But I’d agree there was no polarization. There were moments of tension, but not really significant in terms of the overall experience. I think this is the genius of the conversations in the spirit methodology, because it’s based on the premise that we have a profound respect for each other, we are prepared to listen deeply to each other, even when we’re hearing things that we might disagree with, because there still might be something there that the Holy Spirit is wanting to say to us.

How did you see the role of Pope Francis in this synod?

First, at a human level, his generosity on the occasions he came; he would come early, sit at the table, and long lines of people formed to greet him. It was very generous of him to do that, and he obviously enjoyed being able to speak to people. That was a very pastoral presence in the synod.

Second, we were all conscious of his presence and of the importance of his role even when he wasn’t there. He tended to come almost exclusively when there were reports from the groups to the whole assembly. So he was following all of that very closely.

His presence was a formative presence because he did intervene on three occasions, and, of course, people take very seriously that he’s called the synod to provide advice from the church to him, and so it was important that he be there.

What are you going to take home from the synod?

It’s a long trip back to Australia from Rome, so I’ll be reflecting on something that I said earlier: We mustn’t see this assembly as a standalone thing. It’s the result of more than two years of intensive consultation right across the face of the church.

We’ve reached a pivotal moment now, and I think what’s happened over the last month here in Rome is that out of that respectful listening and discernment, key themes have emerged quite clearly as the things that we need to deal with in order to answer the question which the Holy Father’s posed to us: What does it mean to be a synodal church?

We’ll have our bishops’ conference plenary meeting in a week’s time, and together with the other bishops and people from Australia who’ve been part of the synod process, we’ll give a report to the bishops’ conference.

I’ll try to highlight those key areas where it seems to me the Holy Spirit is asking the church to delve more deeply, to share them with our people, to continue the consultation in that sense, and to allow that sense of the faith to begin to emerge about all of these different things, because even the second assembly of the synod will not be about solving particular issues or giving specific answers to specific questions.

But some of these key themes, like “What does it really mean to be a welcoming, open church?” lead to questions specifically about different groups in the church who have perhaps felt alienated or excluded. We have to think deeply about those things, and we mustn’t rush to the quick answer. Jesus described himself in John’s Gospel as the way, the truth and the life. We often focus on the truth side of things, but I think we sometimes miss the way.

In the Gospels, we’re constantly being presented with the way Jesus approaches people, individual people. We see him encountering different people in the concrete reality of their own situations and responding to them in their situation. That’s what we’ve got to learn: the way of Jesus. This is the gift of Pope Francis to the church. He’s constantly saying to us: We need to be the signs and the bearers of Jesus’ way of being in relation to people. That’s what the church is being called to be.

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