Delegates take part in the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, at Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican, on Oct. 13. (Photo: AFP / UCAN files)
The first session of the Synod of Bishops ended on Oct. 28. It lasted 24 days (from Oct. 4) and comprised 346 participants from around the world. The next session will follow next October.
In many ways, this was an unusual gathering. Most synods are “ecclesiastical talk shops,” their membership being restricted to bishops, cardinals, theologians and priests.
This synod was completely different, and its members included a large quotient of the laity — men, women and religious sisters. In fact for the first time since the establishment of synods in 1965, about 50 women were granted voting rights by Pope Francis at this assembly.
A different method
The process was different too. Instead of long speeches, the participants were gathered around tables, ten apiece, in the Paul Vl Auditorium. Each one was encouraged to speak and listen to what the others would say. Silent prayer preceded and followed each session. Verbal discussion was frowned upon. This did not suit some who were used to speaking in public and dominating the group. They grumbled.
The idea was to encourage everyone to listen to what the Spirit was saying through each member. In fact, Pope Francis encouraged each participant to “take the synod to your parish,” and thereby begin a new way of interaction.
There were those who found this procedure unsatisfactory. They would have liked the synod to reach specific decisions on specific topics, as in former times.
This new method was revolutionary and it didn't have to do with who wears a clerical dress.
We are learning how to have a different kind of conversation within the Catholic Church, one that gives voice to all the baptized, avoiding the clericalism of recent centuries. What is happening under Pope Francis is extraordinary.
The synod is forging a new kind of conversation among groups in the Church that is the opposite of what has passed for conversation recently. Specifically, the synodal conversation is rooted in the worldview of Vatican II and is not subject to the pathologies of social media.
There were two issues however on which a clearer position from the synod would have been appreciated — LBGTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning or queer) in the Church, and women’s ministries.
Jesuit Father James Martin, a popular spiritual author and editor of the LGBTQ Catholic publication, Outreach, who took part in the synod as a voting member, said he was "disappointed, but not surprised" by the result for LGBTQ Catholics.
"There were widely diverging views on the topic," said Martin. "I wish, however, that some of those discussions, which were frank and open, had been captured in the final synthesis."
While the final report of the Synod did not call immediately for the ordination of women as deacons and did not even mention calls for priestly ordination for women, it did offer some remarks about the role of women in church leadership.
In one example, the text says women in the assembly "spoke of a Church that wounds" through "clericalism, a chauvinist mentality and inappropriate expressions of authority which continue to scar the face of the Church and damage its communion."
The text also states that there was a "clear request" from the assembly that women's contributions "would be recognized and valued, and that their pastoral leadership increase in all areas."
It also asks how the Church can include more women in existing ministries, and poses an open-ended question: "If new ministries are required, who should discern these, at what levels and in what ways?"
The possibility of ordaining women was considered "unacceptable" by some assembly members "because they considered it a discontinuity with tradition."
"For others, however, opening access for women to the diaconate would restore the practice of the Early Church. Others still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church."
Pope Francis has previously established two special commissions to examine the historical questions surrounding the ordination of women to the diaconate, though neither commission's work has been made public.
The synodal process has clearly shown that there is a need for renewal and structural change.
Pope Francis has initiated a process that is inclusive, respectful of differences, and innovative. There are many in the old guard of the hierarchy who are distrustful of his innovations and who yearn for a time when ecclesial power was firmly in their hands.
Pope Francis knows that the Church of the future can no longer be ‘Eurocentric’ as it was these last centuries. But what shape will the new “people of God” take?
In Francis’s book, ‘synodality’ holds the key.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.