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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 09, 2024
Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the synod, speaks during a news conference at the Vatican on July 9, 2024, to present the working document for the second assembly of ongoing the Synod of Bishops. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The General Secretariat for the Synod at the Vatican has published a document in preparation for the second session of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality that will be held in the Vatican in October. The 30-page text, commonly referred to as an instrumentum laboris (working tool), was presented at a Vatican press conference on July 9 by Cardinals Mario Grech and Jean-Claude Hollerich, the general secretary and relator general of the synod, respectively.

In addition to being only half the size of the preparatory text for last year’s assembly of the synod, this document is much different in content as well. The coming meeting will not deal directly with many of the issues that were discussed at last October’s session, including the question of the diaconate for women. Pope Francis assigned those important issues to 10 working groups that will give an initial report to the October synod gathering and are then expected to present their finished work to the pope by June 2025.

The new working document focuses on one specific question: “How to be a synodal church in mission?”

Cardinal Grech said the working document was drafted in the light of the answers to that question when it was asked of churches worldwide at the end of last year. Responses came from 108 out of the world’s 114 bishops’ conferences, nine of the Oriental Catholic churches, four of the international meetings of bishops conferences, the Union of Superiors General and of International Superiors General and many others. Cardinal Grech said this is a clear sign that we have “a church that is listening.”

Cardinal Hollerich said these reports “show a living church and a movement” and reveal that “it is a time of grace that is already bearing numerous fruits in the life of the church.”

The working document opens with an introduction that recalls the synodal journey since October 2021 and includes input from the international meeting of parish priests held at the end of April 2024, as well as from five working groups set up by the synod secretariat that “deepened the theological and canonical reflection of the meaning of synodality and its implication for the life of the church.”

The reports received from local bishops’ conferences included repeated calls for greater participation of women in the life of the church, including access to decision-making processes, positions of responsibility in dioceses, seminaries and other institutions, and a greater role in all canonical processes like church tribunals and trials. Another call repeated throughout the document is for greater attention to be paid to inclusive language and to a range of images from Scripture and tradition in preaching, teaching, catechesis and the drafting of official church documents.

At every stage of the synodal process, the working document says, “the need for healing, reconciliation, and restoration of trust within the Church and society resonated strongly. Walking this path of healing and restoration is a missionary commitment of the People of God in our world and a gift we must invoke from above. The desire to walk further on this path is a fruit of synodal renewal.”

On the subject of church ministries, the document notes:

As an expression of the Spirit’s freedom in bestowing gifts and as a response to the needs of individual communities, there is in the Church a variety of ministries that can be exercised by any baptized man or woman. These take the form of a regular service offered to and recognised by the community and those who guide it. They can be called baptismal ministries to indicate their common root (baptism) and to distinguish them from ordained ministries rooted in the sacrament of Order [sic].

Speaking of ordained ministries, it calls for “a reimagining of the ordained ministry within the horizon of the missionary synodal church” and for “a renewed vision of ordained ministry, moving from a pyramidal way of exercising authority to a synodal way.” It adds: “Some theological and canonical questions concerning specific forms of ecclesial ministry—in particular, the question of the necessary participation of women in the life and leadership of the Church—have been entrusted to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, in dialogue with the General Secretariat of the Synod (Study Group No. 5).”

The working document also looks at the synodal church “from the perspective of the pathways that support the dynamism of our ecclesial relationships.” The document gives close attention to formation, a topic that Pope Francis highlighted during the first session, saying that “to be a synodal church requires prioritizing formation pathways” and adding: “Just as there is no mission without context, there is no Church which is not rooted in a given place, with its particular culture and unique history. This is why it is impossible to envisage abstract formation initiatives. These should be defined by local Churches, and their groupings, Episcopal Conferences, and equivalent Eastern hierarchical structures.”

“The purpose of formation in the perspective of missionary synodality is to form witnesses, that is: men and women capable of assuming the mission of the Church in co-responsibility and cooperation with the power of the Spirit (Acts 1:8),” the document notes. “Formation is therefore based on the dynamism of Christian initiation, aiming to promote the personal experience of encounter with the Lord that entails a process of continuously converting our attitudes, relationships, mentality, and structures. The subject of mission is always the Church, and each of its members is a witness and herald of salvation by virtue of Baptism.”

“Special attention,” the working document states, “is required to promote the participation of women in formation programs alongside seminarians, priests, religious, and lay people. It is crucially important that women have access to teaching and formation roles in theological faculties, institutes, and seminaries. It is also suggested that priests, bishops, and the laity be offered formation to make them aware of the roles and tasks women can already perform in the Church.”

Stressing the importance of discernment in church processes, the document states:

In a synodal Church, the responsibility of the bishop, the College of bishops and the Roman Pontiff to make decisions is inalienable since it is rooted in the hierarchical structure of the Church established by Christ. However, it is not unconditional. An orientation that emerges in the consultative process as the outcome of proper discernment, especially if carried out by the participatory bodies of the local Church, cannot be ignored.

The working document devotes an entire section to “transparency, accountability and evaluation,” noting that these have not always been hallmarks of the church:

In our time, the demand for transparency and accountability in and by the Church has come about as a result of the loss of credibility due to financial scandals and, even more so, sexual abuse and other abuses of minors and vulnerable persons. The lack of transparency and accountability fuels clericalism, which is based on the implicit assumption that ordained ministers are accountable to no one for the exercise of the authority vested in them.
If the synodal Church wants to be welcoming, then accountability and transparency must be at the core of its action at all levels, not only at the level of authority. However, those in positions of authority have a greater responsibility in this regard. Transparency and accountability are not limited to sexual and financial abuse. They must also be concerned with pastoral plans, methods of evangelisation, and how the Church respects the dignity of the human person, for example, regarding the working conditions within its institutions.

The working document then offers reflections on changes in church life today, noting the realities of ongoing urbanization, increased human mobility and a flourishing digital culture. “Today, this vision of a Church rooted in concrete contexts encounters the socio-cultural conditions of our times, which have profoundly altered our experience of being rooted in a given territory. A place can no longer be understood in purely geographical and spatial terms; rather, it points to our belonging to a web of relations and a culture that is more dynamic and mobile than in the past,” the document notes.

“This reality challenges the Church’s organizational forms, which are structured based on a different concept of place. This also requires adopting differentiated criteria appropriate to different contexts, which do not contradict each other, in order to incarnate the one truth in people’s lives,” the document says.

The working document concludes with a section on “the service to unity of the Bishop of Rome.” Noting that the pope is “the guarantor of synodality,” the document quotes from the 2022 apostolic constitution “Praedicate Evangelium” in stating that “reflection on the forms of exercise of the Petrine ministry should also be conducted from the perspective of ‘sound decentralization’ (EG 16), as urged by Pope Francis and requested by many Episcopal Conferences.”

This decentralization, the document notes (again quoting from “Praedicate Evangelium”), entails leaving “to the competence of Bishops the authority to resolve, in the exercise of ‘their proper task as teachers’ and pastors, those issues with which they are familiar and that do not affect the Church’s unity of doctrine, discipline and communion, always acting with that spirit of co-responsibility which is the fruit and expression of the specific mysterium communionis that is the Church.”

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