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Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the synod, responds to a question during a news conference at the Vatican Sept. 8, 2023. To the right is Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis’ worldwide consultation of Catholics asking them how they would change the church, failed to yield the tangible results that many reformers had hoped for. A decision to allow blessings for same-sex couples, published months after the synod ended, barely advanced the practice, which has been going on for years in some parts of the church. The likelihood of women being ordained even as deacons seems as farfetched as ever.

But the synod’s organizers at the Vatican say that the now three-year-old process is already changing the face of Catholicism.

When hundreds of bishops and other clergy gathered in October with lay Catholics and a smattering of nuns at the Vatican, they took up an agenda drawn from the consultations in local parishes and dioceses, which showed that many people in the pews were concerned with some of the most controversial issues in the church, from LGBTQ inclusion to female ordination. The small group roundtables yielded boiling discussions, but the final document that emerged at the end of a month, the Instrumentum Laboris, consisted mostly of tepid recommendations.

But when synod participants meet again at the Vatican in October 2024, “the second session will be different in the sense that it has to achieve a final document that has to make more specific propositions,” said Sister Nathalie Becquart, the first female undersecretary of the Vatican’s Synod office, in a recent interview.

The expectations raised by the synodal process include women’s ordination, broader lay involvement and an opening toward marginalized groups, especially migrants and members of the LGBTQ community.

In a deeply polarized church, these propositions will have to strike a balance between proving the efficacy of synodality — “a new way of being church,” synonymous in many minds with inclusivity, transparency and dialogue — and reassuring traditionalists that it is not turning church decision-making into a democracy.

The expectations raised by the process include women’s ordination, broader lay involvement and an opening toward marginalized groups, especially migrants and members of the LGBTQ community.

The Instrumentum Laboris, meanwhile, did not even contain the term LGBTQ for fears that it would be too divisive. 

The synod planners must also balance these mixed expectations with the pope’s willingness to exercise his supreme and final authority. Francis has often taken into his own hands matters he regards as important, such as giving approval to the Vatican’s doctrinal department to allow gay blessings. The decision got an only lukewarm welcome from LGBTQ rights groups, while eliciting a statement from Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, president of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, saying that African churchmen will not be blessing gay couples.

Becquart insisted that even the controversy over blessing same-sex individuals is an example of synodality working.

Even some gay Catholics saw the pope’s move as too abrupt. “Heavy-handed papal interventions won’t work and are even likely to harden resistance,” observed Catholic theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill in an essay published on Monday (Jan. 22) in Outreach, a Catholic magazine focused on LGBTQ inclusion in the church.

Becquart insisted that even the controversy over blessing same-sex individuals is an example of synodality working. “The fact that people react, including bishops and bishop’s conferences, is a fruit of the synod in a way,” she said, adding that Ambongo quoted from the synodal documents in his statement and called for an open consultation with all African bishops on the matter.

“Many decisions are up to the pope, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t reflect, discern and propose to him,” Becquart said.

In February, at a meeting of the Synod council, Francis will be presented with a list of topics that require further reflection, including women deacons, the formation of priests and proposed reforms to the church’s catechism. He will then appoint experts and theologians to collaborate with the Vatican’s curial offices on a report to be submitted in time for the synod’s second session.

Meanwhile, time is short for the organizers to gather feedback from local churches in time for the next assembly. In a worksheet issued to help local churches reflect on the results from the first session, synod organizers suggest picking three priorities and initiatives to focus on. The document also encourages local communities to submit a sample of their reflections to a local committee of theologians, canonists and pastoral leaders.

“If you look at just the numbers of those who participated, we are far from all the baptized,” Sister Nathalie Becquart said, “but synodality is step by step.”

Each country’s bishops’ conference is charged with overseeing this process and drafting a summary of no more than eight pages, to be sent to the Vatican’s Synod office by May 15.

“We are aware of the question of time,” Becquart said, “but from the beginning we also emphasized that it’s not just about being a good student and sending documents and books. The most important thing is how you continue in this synodal process.”

Becquart said that it’s up to local dioceses to figure out ways to widen participation, particularly among those who have drifted away from the church or live on the margins. “If you look at just the numbers of those who participated, we are far from all the baptized,” Becquart said, “but synodality is step by step.”

A new Instrumentum Laboris summarizing all these deliberations is expected to be published between June and July, “a first possible draft,” Becquart said, for synod members to discuss and amend.

There are plenty of other tasks on Becquart’s to-do list. A major takeaway from the first assembly last fall was the need for theologians and canon lawyers in the synod hall to address questions in real time, Becquart said. Another unresolved question is media access: Francis, looking to promote a free exchange of ideas, issued a gag order on participants until after the synod.

Despite the challenges, Becquart pointed to numerous initiatives that show how synodality is being adopted in concrete ways. In Africa, there are synodal schools and in Switzerland synodal church structures. Catholic educators and religious orders are developing resources and trainings on synodality. Those who attended the first synod “lit a fire” of synodality in their local churches all over the world, she said.

“If you look at the beginning of the synod, where we were and where we are now, synodality is an important topic and reality,” Becquart said. “Not to say that it’s perfect everywhere, we know there are resistances. But I see that something big is going on, even though it doesn’t make a lot of noise.”

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