By CINDY WOODEN (CNS)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Describing how the October assembly of the Synod of Bishops would work, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, told his fellow US bishops, “Some things you just have to start doing in order to learn how it can be done, and how it can be done better”.
The bishop, a papally-appointed member of the synod’s preparatory committee, was letting the bishops know that the current synod process, which has been innovative since it began with local listening sessions around the world in October, 2021, would continue to be different from any celebrated since St Paul VI reinstituted the synods in 1965.
The release of the working document for the October 4-29 synod assembly at a Vatican news conference on June 20 made clear just how different this synod will be – and not simply because a small number of women and laymen will be voting members for the first time.
Under Pope Francis, synod officials tried to establish a practice where speeches were grouped by topic rather than by the order in which speakers signed up. And although he continued the practice of having a “free discussion” in the hall each evening, the synods still basically began with a week or 10 days of speeches followed by a week or 10 days of small-group work.
The working document for the October assembly said that this time the gathering will alternate more frequently between plenary sessions and work in small groups as they discuss topics in the order they are presented in the text.
Members will begin by discussing the characteristics they believe are essential for building a “synodal Church”, starting from the experience of people who participated in the parish, diocesan, national and continental processes.
And the members, who have not been named yet, have homework.
The working document itself is only 24 pages in English; but the worksheets they are asked to use to prepare for the synod take up another 36 pages.
The worksheets begin with a short reflection based on input from the listening sessions, and are followed by a series of questions that bishops and other members are asked to pray about before arriving in Rome.
Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the synod, told reporters on June 20 that no one can claim that the listening sessions over the past 18 months were simply preparatory, and that the actual synod will take place in October.
“The listening was necessary because a synodal Church is by definition a Church that listens,” he said. “I know that many do not understand or underestimate” how laypeople, by their baptism, share in the prophetic mission of Jesus, but “to me this is a serious insult”.
“Where bishops have initiated and accompanied the consultation,” he said, “the contribution has been alive and deep.”
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator-general of the synod, said members will not be debating the working document or trying to mould it into a final document. Instead, it will guide the members’ preparation in study and prayer and provide the order for synod discussions.
The text “has no pretence to be a theological treaty about synodality”, Cardinal Hollerich said. “The text does not give answers but merely puts questions. The bishops, as those called to perfect the discernment started in the worldwide synodal process, have to fulfil their episcopal mission and try to give some answers.”
But the key difference from the past, said Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, a consultant to the synod secretariat, is the synod’s model as a “conversation in the Spirit”.
The gathering will be preceded by an ecumenical prayer service in St Peter’s Square on September 30, and by three days of retreat outside Rome for all synod members.
That prayer should continue throughout the synod, which will be a “conversation in the Spirit” – a process the working document describes as “a shared prayer with a view to communal discernment for which participants prepare themselves by personal reflection and meditation”.
If the members do prepare as asked, their speeches will be “a meditated word nourished by prayer, not an opinion improvised on the spot”, the document said.
After more silence and prayer, each person is invited to speak again “to express what from their listening has touched them most deeply and what they feel challenged by most strongly”, the working document said. “The third step, again in an atmosphere of prayer and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to identify the key points that have emerged, and to build a consensus on the fruits of the joint work.”
Sister Nadia Coppa, superior of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ and president of the women’s International Union of Superiors General, told reporters that the method ensures “the experience of synodality is first and foremost an experience of the Spirit; it is an open path, not mapped out in advance, which is woven through encounter, dialogue and sharing that comes to broaden and change everyone’s vision”.
Living and acting in synodality, she said, “is a dance together in which all, pastors and faithful, thanks to a living dialogue and sharing in trust, move in relationship with one another, in mutual and common listening to the music of the Spirit”.
That “dance” – and the fact the number of bishops and other members present will be higher than ever – means that the synod will be held in the Vatican audience hall rather than in the synod hall, Father Costa said. The Vatican is expecting 370 synod members – about 79 per cent of them bishops – plus dozens of expert advisers. They will be seated in the audience hall at round tables of 10 or 12 people.
Cardinal Grech told reporters, “It’s not that in October 2023 and 2024”, when the second synod assembly will be held, “we have to find answers to all the questions everyone is asking”, but the idea is “to help each other listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church today”.
(Photo: The people who presented the working document for the Synod of Bishops pose for a photo in the Vatican press office on June 20, 2023. From the left are Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, a synod participant from Switzerland; Sister Nadia Coppa, president of the women’s International Union of Superiors General; Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the synod; Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the synod; and Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, a consultant to the synod. (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden))