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The EditorsNovember 16, 2023
America editors Ashley McKinless, Zac Davis and Colleen Dulle hold an editorial meeting in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Sebastian Gomes)

What does it mean to be a truly synodal church? To find out, several members of America’s staff traveled to Rome for an up-close look at the October assembly of the Synod on Synodality. Here are a few of the lessons learned from an experience that will stay with them for a lifetime.

A synodal church requires sacrifice

This year, I spent my fourth wedding anniversary in Rome. In a typical year, my wife and I would have been getting ready for a weekend getaway somewhere in upstate New York, filled with flannel and apple cider and leaf-peeping. But this is not a typical year: I had the opportunity to cover the Synod on Synodality.

It has been a great privilege to report on this historic church meeting, so I am not looking for sympathy. (We worked hard, but we also managed to try some great gelato and rustic wines.) I am grateful to have a spouse who is supportive of my career. And being a Catholic couple, we hold that feasts are moveable. She was able to join me in Rome after the synod. But my choice to be at the synod made me think more deeply about the things that delegates left behind in order to be present for the monthlong event.

In one sense, it was probably easy for delegates to answer the call. I am sure that it is an honor to participate in such a historic event in the life of the church. If the pope calls, you go. But I am thinking about all the things that people had to coordinate and sacrifice to be in Rome for one month (not to mention another October in 2024), on just a few months’ notice: caring for an elderly parent, child care, college classes, career obligations, just to name a few. In addition, many dioceses were deprived of their bishops, and religious orders of some of their leaders.

One of the incredible aspects of this year’s synod meeting was the deep involvement of laypeople throughout the process. Even though it brings its own inconveniences, bishops assume that an occasional trip to Rome is part of the job. But if we want a church that involves all the baptized at all levels, then the laity will have to shoulder some of these sacrifices (and financial obligations—someone has to foot the bill!). It is easy to get caught up in doctrine and theology, but this is the kind of concrete issue that deserve our attention if we want to make a truly synodal church a reality.

Zac Davis is an associate editor and the senior director for digital strategy for America. He also co-hosts the podcast “Jesuitical.”

A synodal church asks us to be willing to change

When I was studying theology in my early 20s, I had to read the Catholic “mystics.” I say “had to” because I had no particular interest in our mystical or contemplative tradition at the time—a tradition of penetrating self-reflective prayer as a means to meet God. As a young man, I was first drawn to theology as an intellectual exercise, a compelling historical narrative and an impulse to build human fraternity and work for justice.

I struggled through Origen, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas à Kempis, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. At one point, my professors and other influential people in my life encouraged me to read Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I hated it. I found it exhaustively boring, and, though the book recounts his quest for meaning and purpose as a young man, I couldn’t relate to his experience in the slightest.

Ten years later, I decided to give it another go. I couldn’t put it down. Yes, there are long, detailed sections of the book about his life that seem superfluous, but then suddenly he offers a deep spiritual insight that makes the previous 50 pages worth it. Today, when people ask me about my Catholic faith, I start with the mystics.

What changed? I changed. I was a little bit older, wiser and more self-reflective. I had a wealth of experience working as a Catholic journalist: meeting popes and other fascinating people from around the world, covering events like the synods of bishops and the 2013 conclave. These experiences opened my eyes to the complexities of our church and our tradition. I learned that there are very real and serious disagreements among us. I no longer held idealistic views about the institution we love and call home. I learned that the church is made up of sinners as well as saints. I realized how long a journey I had made, but even more important, how far I still had to go.

The great mystics are people who changed. Because I had changed, I could see a bit of my own experience in their interior journeys. Jesus’ call to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15) means “change your mind,” or change your way of looking at life. Change is the way of the disciple. As Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

A similar awakening is happening at the Synod on Synodality. The major development at this year’s synod meeting in Rome was its being structured for listening. Not only was there an unprecedented “climate of prayer,” but the bishops and other delegates were given a methodology for their discussions called “conversation in the Spirit.” For the first time, synod members sat at round tables—not in hierarchical order—at which they took equal turns speaking without interruption, pausing for silence, prayer and personal reflection, and then responding to what was said with the aim of discerning what the Spirit is calling for from within the group.

This methodology was so structured and intentional that it practically forced the members to be open to conversion. Of course, authentic conversion cannot be forced, but it is important to understand the extraordinary lengths to which the synod secretariat has gone to encourage and accompany each member into a disposition of openness so that maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit can act. The degree to which the members buy in to this process and allow themselves to be changed by what they hear from other delegates and the entire people of God articulated in the instrumentumlaboris, the synod’s working document, will determine the “success” of this synod. As my colleague, Gerry O’Connell, told us on the “Jesuitical” podcast, “The litmus test for this synod is if there is a conversion among the members.”

I don’t know if any of the members of the synod like to read the mystics. It is possible that some members would find Merton’s autobiography completely unrelatable. But what happened to me over the course of 10 years is being concentrated here in Rome over the course of the synod. It’s a truly remarkable objective and an even bolder leap of faith.

Sebastian Gomes is America’s executive editor of audio and video.

A synodal church listens to a diversity of voices

As participants in the October assembly of the Synod on Synodality had their final discussions on the theme of mission, the question they were tasked with addressing was: “How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel?” The conversation has focused largely on women, including women’s ordination to the diaconate.

In his introductory speech for this session on mission, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., drew attention to the question of gender right away: “Most of us are men. But men and women receive the same baptism and the same Spirit. The baptism of women is not inferior to the baptism of men. How can we ensure that women feel they are an integral part of this missionary church?” He challenged synod participants, most of whom are ordained men, to examine whether they feel “enriched or threatened” when sharing responsibility for the church’s mission with women.

Only 54 of the synod’s 365 voting members are women: a historic number, but certainly not anything near gender parity. In the synod hall, it meant one or two women and 10 to 12 men at each table.

Outside the Vatican, several groups advocating for greater inclusion of women in ministerial roles in the church have held events in recent weeks. Speaking with a few of the organizers makes it clear that these (mostly) women support Pope Francis’ effort to incorporate more women into the synod, even in the face of internal resistance from some clerics. But, they say, having one or two women per table is not enough.

The women who were in the hall, though—the church’s first “synod mothers”—are extremely qualified. We have heard from other synod participants that the women are some of the most hardworking members; many are experts in synodality, and they have contributed powerful testimonies in the synod’s open discussions.

At a Vatican press conference during the synod, my colleague Zac Davis asked Patricia Murray, I.B.V.M., the secretary of the International Union of Superiors General, whether the women in the synod hall felt they were heard, despite being in the minority. Sister Murray replied as any tough nun might: “We have been well able to make our point and use our time and space well.”

As the synod continues discussion of participation, the question of women’s role in the church’s evangelizing mission will, without a doubt, remain at the forefront.

Colleen Dulleis an associate editor at America and co-host of the podcast “Inside the Vatican.”

A synodal church offers space for real conversation

As a participant in the synod, the main method of taking part was through “Conversations in the Spirit.” These conversations, more than anything else, were the main contribution of the synod to the church. It took me a while to understand that the Synod on Synodality was less about issues, even important ones, and more about how we discussed those issues. Thus, the most powerful message of the synod was the image of 350 delegates sitting at round tables, talking to one another and, more important, listening to one another.

What made this method different from sitting around and talking? The first step was prayer. Everything we did was grounded in that, and we frequently paused to reflect. Each module (or section of the synod) also began with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. We also found it helpful to ask everyone what name they wanted to be called at the tables. Even with so many eminences and excellencies, as well as professors and priests. Usually they said, “Call me Jim.” “Call me Chito.” “Call me Cynthia.”

Next, everyone went around the table and for three minutes (strictly timed) shared their response to the question at hand. Our questions came from the working document, or Instrumentum Laboris—for example, “How can a synodal church make credible the promise that ‘love and truth will meet’?” No one could interrupt and everyone had to listen. That meant that the cardinal-archbishop of an ancient archdiocese listened to a 19-year-old college student from Wyoming. Or the patriarch or primate of a country listened to a woman theology professor. No interruptions, responses or talkbacks at this stage.

In the second round, after more prayer, we shared what we had heard, what moved us and what resonances we felt in the discussion. Where was the Spirit moving? Again, no interruptions. I was at tables where the facilitator (it helps to have them) would say, “Cardinal, she hasn’t finished yet.” Finally, the third session was a freer discussion, where we could answer questions, share experiences and challenge one another.

The genius of this method lies in its ability to convey the complex reality of our discussions honestly. A secretary would write up the convergences, divergences, tensions and questions. Then a reporter (“rapporteur”) would present the table’s discussion to the plenary session. In this way, there was no need to force a false consensus when there was not one; rather, any differences and tensions were honestly communicated. I found this refreshing. This method meant that everyone was listened to, everyone got a chance, and an honest summary was offered for further reflection.

We also had the chance for “interventions” (speeches) at the plenary level. In other words, beyond the contributions by the tables as a group, individuals could address the entire synod, including the pope, who was often present. For the most part, these were fascinating, as you heard about issues affecting churches from around the world. What did I know about Catholics living as a persecuted minority in some countries? At the beginning of the synod not much, now much more. Every member could speak, and priority was given to those who had not yet spoken.

As we sat in the great Paul VI Aula (much more fun to say it in Italian: “Aula Paolo Sesto”) and saw everyone discussing things on an equal footing, with even the pope at a round table, I realized that the message of the synod is this method, which could help the church immeasurably in a time of great polarization.

James Martin, S.J., is editor at large at America.

A synodal church requires buy-in from parish priests

During the final days of this fall’s synod meeting, the question of what will happen next loomed large. How will the people of God use the 11 months between this first session and the October 2024 gathering? When I imagine how that time can be used most fruitfully, I think about something, or rather someone, who was largely missing from the synod in Rome: the parish priest.

It is unclear if there was anyone at the synod whose main role is that of a pastor. If there were any parish priests present, I have been told it is a very small number—maybe one or two. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, the parish is most Catholics’ primary experience of church, and even if parishioners are not plugged into the community, they know who “Father” is. Second, if synodality is to take root throughout the entire church, it must begin at the parish level. If you do not have the buy-in of your parish priest, the soil for synodality will be rocky.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said as much in a Vatican press briefing on Oct. 26. The archbishop, who also leads the Archdiocese for the Military Services of the United States, noted that only 1 percent of U.S. Catholics took part in the listening sessions of the synod’s diocesan phase. In response, Christopher Lamb, the Rome correspondent for The Tablet, asked Archbishop Broglio, “To what extent do you have personal responsibility for that lack of participation?” pointing out that the synod was not on the agenda at the bishops’ recent June meeting.

“I’m sure we do have some responsibility for it,” the archbishop said, before addressing how the bishops could encourage greater participation in the interim period. The process, he said, “is going to have to be very capillary. The diocesan bishops can do a number of things, but if the parish priests aren’t on board, it won’t go beyond the chancery. So that’s certainly something we have to do, engage the priests so that they will then engage their people.”

There was much talk about the role of bishops at the October meeting—understandably, given this is a synod of bishops. And there has rightly been excitement about the fact that bishops were sitting side-by-side with, and listening to, lay women and men. But I worry about the lack of priests in the synod hall. Fighting clericalism does not mean forgetting about priests.

While in Rome, I spoke with a young woman who has been very involved with the synod in her diocese. She decided to fly over to Rome for the final week of this synod meeting, and when she told her priest, he seemed skeptical about the process. She ended up talking to him for over an hour about his thoughts and fears about the synod. His concerns were more practical than ideological. His experience of the first two years of the synod had been receiving orders from on high without any real guidance. He wanted not only an intelligible explanation of synodality but also models of where it has been done well at the parish level. He needed a toolbox, not a barrage of emails.

Of course, the synod is discussing precisely how to build those parish and diocesan structures for a more responsive and consultative church. But for the synod to succeed, we cannot wait until we have the perfect structures in place or until the final document comes out in 2024. Over the next year, we are asking parish priests, and the entire people of God, to fly this synodal plane while it is still being built.

We know that many parish priests are already stretched thin and burnt out. Many of them also do not trust their bishops. We cannot expect them to become the footsoldiers of synodality before asking them about their fears and hopes for the synod. When the U.S. bishops return to their dioceses, I hope they each take the time to sit at a round table with their priests, share their experience in Rome and then just listen.

Ashley McKinless is an executive editor at America and co-host of the podcast “Jesuitical.”

A synodal church acknowledges disagreements

As the synod session entered the home stretch of a four-week marathon, a sense of relief began to be felt among participants. They could see the finish line on the horizon: Sunday, Oct. 29.

Since there is no prize at the end—in terms of concrete results on controversial issues—many participants began asking themselves: “What are we taking home?”

Is it just the memory of an experience? That for sure, but not only that. There is also a letter to the people of God and a 41-page synthesis document. The letter informs all the baptized that their task over the next 11 months is to reflect on and discuss the synod’s synthesis document at the national and local church levels, and then provide input for discernment at the final session of the synod in October 2024.

The synod members approved the synthesis document on Oct. 28, and the pope, too, authorized its publication.

That synthesis document contains three sections: substantial points of “convergence” reached by the assembly, “questions” that need to be deepened, and “proposals” that require additional work from various actors, including theologians and canon lawyers over the next eleven months.

Surprisingly, however, the synthesis text no longer included a section on points of “divergence” because, Cardinal Hollerich said, they thought it wiser to build on the common ground, namely the convergences, and so changed the process. It seems the points of divergence are to some extent fused into the section on “questions,” rather than presented as a stand-alone one.

Still, I believe that the recognition of the “divergences” is one of the original elements of this synod. “Recognizing the divergences is unitive,” a bishop member of the synod told me. “It can provide healing.”

It is certainly an important step toward overcoming the polarization that so bedevils our church and indeed the world. Recognizing that we are not all on the same page on many questions, and yet accepting this without animosity or breaking communion, can help renew church life in a significant way. It can also, perhaps, open the way to the acceptance of a richer diversity in the church, while maintaining unity.

This whole synodal journey reminded me of the approach advocated by Pope John XXIII in his first encyclical, “Ad Petri Cathedram,” on “truth, unity, and peace, in a spirit of charity.” In the encyclical, written after he decided to hold the Second Vatican Council and published on June 29, 1959, he wrote:

The Catholic Church, of course, leaves many questions open to the discussion of theologians. She does this to the extent that matters are not absolutely certain. Far from jeopardizing the Church’s unity, controversies, as a noted English author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has remarked, can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark. But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.

The recognition and acceptance of “divergences” is a key element of the methodology adopted at the synod; it opens a way forward that avoids polarization. It appears to be profoundly countercultural in today’s world and requires charity, and also humility, as many participants told me.

In the last of his profoundly spiritual and inspiring talks to the synod on Oct. 23, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., offered this warning to the synod’s participants as they prepared to return home: “The global culture of our time is often polarized, aggressive and dismissive of other people’s views. The cry is: Whose side are you on? When we go home, people will ask, ‘Did you fight for our side? Did you oppose those unenlightened other people?’”

He advised them:

We shall need to be profoundly prayerful to resist the temptation to succumb to this party-political way of thinking. That would be to fall back into the sterile, barren language of much of our society. It is not the synodal way. The synodal process is organic and ecological rather than competitive. It is more like planting a tree than winning a battle, and as such will be hard for many to understand, sometimes including ourselves! But if we keep our minds and hearts open to the people whom we have met here, vulnerable to their hopes and fears, their words will germinate in our lives, and ours in theirs. There will be an abundant harvest, a fuller truth. Then the church will be renewed.

It will indeed be a challenge for the 365 members of the synod to sow the seeds of synodality in their local church communities when they return home. It is a tall order, but, as Pope Francis emphasized, “the Spirit is the protagonist” at the synod, and what is required is that all believers “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church” in the 21st century.

Gerard O’Connellis America’s Vatican correspondent.

These reflections were adapted from America’s Synod Diaries, a series of online essays documenting the editors’ experiences covering the Synod on Synodality in Rome. America’s special coverage of the synod was supported by foundation grants and by donations from readers.

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