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Gerard O’ConnellMarch 14, 2024
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the synod on synodality, speaks during a news conference at the Vatican March 14, 2024, about study groups authorized by Pope Francis to examine issues raised at the synod on synodality. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

While the second and final session of the Synod on Synodality will conclude at the end of October 2024, Catholics should not expect major pronouncements on the particular issues raised during the first session and included in its synthesis document. Those issues include the role of bishops, the possibility of women deacons, the formation of priests and more. But the synod continues to open significant new horizons for the life, organization and mission of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

Next October’s synod will mainly focus on the key question of “How to be a synodal church in mission?” Most, if not all, of the particular issues raised in the 2023 synthesis document will be addressed at a later moment in an ongoing synodal process, once the method for doing so has been agreed at the October synod. It appears clear that many who were expecting answers or conclusions to some of the vexed or pressing issues raised through the synod process will have to wait until at least mid-2025, if not later.

This became clear at today’s press conference at the Vatican at which Cardinal Mario Grech, the secretary general of the synod, released a letter from Pope Francis that outlines the road ahead. Dated Feb. 22, the letter said that the synthesis report from the synod’s first session in October 2023 raised “many important theological issues, all of which are to varying degrees related to the synodal renewal of the Church, and not without juridical and pastoral repercussions.”

Pope Francis identified 10 issues (listed below) from that report that “by their very nature require in-depth study” and which he assigned to 10 study groups. But, he said, it will “not be possible [for them] to complete” their studies by the session in the fall.

The 10 topics presented in the pope’s letter are in summary form and come with the relevant reference to the specific section of that synthesis report (SR).

1. Some aspects of the relationship between the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Latin Church (SR 6).

2. Listening to the Cry of the Poor (SR 4 and 16).

3. The mission in the digital environment (SR 17).

4. The revision of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis in a missionary synodal perspective (SR 11). [This deals with formation of priests, deacons and seminaries.]

5. Some theological and canonical matters regarding specific ministerial forms (SR 8 and 9). [This pertains to the relation between charisms and ministries in the church, the participation of all the baptized in the mission of the church, the role of women and their participation in decision-making, etc.]

6. The revision, in a synodal missionary perspective, of the documents touching on the relationship between Bishops, consecrated life, and ecclesial associations (SR 10).

7. Some aspects of the person and ministry of the Bishop from a missionary synodal perspective (SR 12 and 13).

8. The role of Papal Representatives in a missionary synodal perspective (SR 13).

9. Theological criteria and synodal methodologies for shared discernment of controversial doctrinal, pastoral, and ethical issues (SR 15).

10. The reception of the fruits of the ecumenical journey in ecclesial practices. (SR 7)

Francis assigned the topics to 10 study groups and directed the synod secretariat to establish these “by joint agreement with the competent dicasteries of the Roman Curia.” Moreover, he said, the organizers are to call on “pastors and experts from all continents to take part” in these study groups, which are to work “according to an authentically synodal method.” The study groups are to present “an initial account of their activity” at the October 2024 synod gathering. “If possible,” Francis said, they are “to conclude their mandate” by June 2025. Their final reports “will be one of the fruits of the synod process” that started in October 2021, he said.

Given the fact that the study groups will not have completed their work by the October synod, Pope Francis said this “will enable the synod to focus more easily on the general theme” that he had originally given it and can be summarized in the question: “How to be a synodal Church in mission?” (italics in the original).

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general for the Synod of Bishops, emphasized that this central question has to be seen “in the light of the transformation of the church envisaged in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (‘The Joy of the Gospel’),” in which Pope Francis speaks of “a new protagonism of all the baptized” according to the different gifts and charisms given to each one.

Given that it appears that the synod process will continue even after the end of the October session, I asked whether there could be a third session of the synod. I recalled that when the Second Vatican Council opened, bishops and others thought it would end at the first session, but it went on for four. Could something similar happen with the synod? Cardinal Hollerich replied, “All I know is that my mandate ends with the October synod and its completion.” He said the reports of the study groups will be given to the pope in June 2025, and it will be up to him to decide what happens next.

The Synod on Synodality

Cardinal Grech said that between now and the October synod the secretariat has asked the 114 bishops conferences to organize meetings at the parish and diocesan level to focus on the “how” of synodality. This input will be gathered first at the national level, then discussed at international meetings that the secretariat will organize, and finally given to the synod secretariat, by the end of May, in time for the drafting of the working document (instrumentum laboris) for this October’s synod. Cardinal Hollerich said that text will be drafted in the month of June.

Giacomo Costa, S.J., one of the main consultors to the synod secretariat and a member of the panel at today’s press conference, announced that the secretariat has set up five working groups to focus on this central question and the contributions from the worldwide church.

He said the synod secretariat also published two documents on March 14. The first is entitled “How to be a synodal Church in mission?” This text offers five perspectives to deepen the theological discussion ahead of the October synod. The second document elaborates on each of the topics that the 10 study groups will examine in depth and has the long title: “Study groups on questions arising in the First Session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to deepen in collaboration with the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia.” The texts are expected to be soon available in English.

Cardinal Grech said the synod is receiving necessary biblical, theological and canonical support from three commissions: the International Theological Commission, the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Commission for Canon Law. He also emphasized the important contribution that the secretariat expects from the meeting of 300 parish priests that will be held in Rome at the end of April and early May.

Commenting on the 10 study groups and the topics they are assigned, Monsignor Pietro Coda, the secretary general of the International Theological Commission, made three observations. First, there is “an important ecclesiological development” in these groups, because “Predicate Evangelium,” the constitution for the reform of the Roman Curia, called for synodal coordination between those dicasteries and the Synod of Bishops, and that will happen with the 10 groups.

A second new element is that the 10 themes assigned to the study groups “are to be addressed in a synodal way.” He underlined that these topics cannot be dealt with in the necessary depth by the October synod.

Third, the pope calls for the involvement not only of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, but also of experts, theologians, canon lawyers, and pastors from the worldwide church. Mgr. Coda summarized by saying that taken together, this is a whole new way of approaching theological and other complex issues.

Simona Brambilla, M.C., the first woman secretary of the Dicastery for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, who participated in last October’s synod, said the key question of how to be a synod church requires “developing processes” at different levels and “creating” new forms and structures to be such a church, but “it’s above all a spiritual process.”

“We’ve discovered that we are living a strong moment of the Spirit,” she said. “The Spirit speaks through each of us.”

Archbishop Filippo Iannone, O.Carm., the prefect of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts, said, “Every reform [in the church] requires norms to make it operative,” and since the synodal process in the church is bringing about reform, it will require revision of the two codes of canon law—the one for the Latin church and the one for the Eastern rite churches. Revision of the norms will be needed to enable the participation of all men and women according to their different charisms in the church, and to distinguish between consultative and decision-making moments in the church to ensure the contribution of all. He said “Predicate Evangelium” has opened the way for this by separating the power of orders from that of governance.

Cardinal Grech said that the synod has already created much interest at the ecumenical level, so much so that the pope has agreed to invite four more “fraternal delegates” to the synod in October, thereby bringing the number of non-Catholic participants to 16. “Maybe we’re having an expansion in ecumenism that was not anticipated at the beginning,” the cardinal said.

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