Prelates see synodal process as Holy Spirit’s realm to inspire the church

Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of bishops’ conferences from around the world at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2021. The meeting came as the Vatican launches the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service

As Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis sees it, the church-wide synod called by Pope Francis is all about the Holy Spirit.

For the next several months, people from throughout the church — laypeople, clergy, religious, administrators and even those who have stopped practicing the Catholic faith — will be coming together to encounter each other, listen and discern as they shape the church’s presence in a world experiencing joy and confronting tragedy.

“If there’s no Holy Spirit, it’s not a synod,” Archbishop Hebda said.

With the Spirit’s inspiration, the two years of preparation leading to the Synod of Bishops on synodality called by Pope Francis for October 2023 will provide the framework for what the pope envisions as a synodal church — one in which people are “walking together on the same road” to respond to God’s call to serve one another.

Archbishop Hebda speaks from experience. He has seen the Holy Spirit at work in Minnesota’s archdiocese, inspiring and shaping the faithful as it has navigated its own synod process since 2019.

The exercise will culminate in a planned archdiocesan synod on Pentecost in June, followed by the release of a pastoral letter from Archbishop Hebda expressing the synod’s outcomes on the feast of Christ the King, Nov. 20, 2022.

“It certainly taught us there is a desire on the part of our faithful to engage in meaningful dialogue and sharing,” Archbishop Hebda said.

The synodal process opened by Pope Francis Oct. 10 at the Vatican and commencing a week later in dioceses worldwide is not meant to undo or supersede what is transpiring in any local synod.

The Vatican’s “vademecum,” or handbook, that offers guidelines for dioceses in the worldwide synodal process, recognizes that some dioceses have recently concluded or are in the midst of their own synod and that there is no need to fully reboot.

Such local synods may be focused on specific ministries, such as young adults or family life, that lead to tangible outcomes. Not so with the broader synodal process called for by the pope, several prelates told Catholic News Service.

In opening the synodal process, Pope Francis described the effort as one to discover how the Holy Spirit is calling the church to be of service to the world and evangelizing through living the Gospel.

The pope’s call to synodality is rooted in his deep involvement as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2007 in drafting a document for CELAM, the acronym for the Spanish name of the Latin American bishops’ council, which met in Aparecida, Brazil. The document issued repeated calls for a “continental mission,” a church that goes out in search of ways to proclaim the Gospel to all.

Synodality — listening together — calls for as many voices as possible to be heard, explained Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey.

“It’s kind of like a pilgrimage. It’s not the destination. It’s what happens on the way,” he told CNS.

Cardinal Tobin compared the steps that are just beginning in the synodal process to the V Encuentro, or Fifth National Encuentro, in the United States. It was a multiyear process in which Latinos gathered locally, then at the diocesan and regional levels and finally, in 2018, nationally to discern how to respond as church.

“Try to imagine the Encuentro on steroids,” he said of the current process.

That’s because the 1 billion Catholics around the world are invited to offer their aspirations, hurts and prayerful insights to shape the church going forward.

Some church observers have questioned the idea of having a synod on synodality, wondering why the church needs to have meetings about more meetings. Such a view misses the point of the synodality, the prelates said.

“It’s a way of being church,” Cardinal Tobin said of synodality. “The pope is inviting all to be a part of that. The justification for that is that we all share the baptism, and we’re all incorporated into Christ.”

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, said the process will help inform not just clergy and the pope, but the entire body of the church about the material and spiritual needs of people in the world.

“It’s what you read in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles,” Bishop McKnight said. “I think that’s the way we’ve got to start conceiving of ourselves in everything.”

Admittedly, Bishop McKnight continued, such a way of being church poses challenges in the way the church operates across all its entities, parishes, dioceses and institutions, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It also presents a challenge to laypeople, who, he said, may have defaulted to “a passive role because they’d rather have church officials take care of everything.”

“How we conduct our mission needs to be done together,” he said.

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego said the process can serve to unify people throughout the church as they encounter each other. “We must engage people,” he said.

As the listening, or engagement, stage unfolds from now through June, Bishop McElroy expects that opportunities will arise for the diocese to become more synodal in its operation. He said diocesan leaders will take what they learn, send it on to the USCCB and then start to incorporate the main thoughts into diocesan operations.

The bishop wants synodality to become the norm even before any final conclusions are reached by the Synod of Bishops and Pope Francis in October 2023.

“I hope this is an opportunity not only for us to assess the level of synodality, which is already present in the life of our local church, but to advance it dramatically,” he said.

In the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the synodal process is largely in the hands of 260 delegates commissioned by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano to go out and prayerfully meet with people.

From parish town hall gatherings to one-on-one conversations, the delegates will be hearing from people about concerns, hurts and hopes, he told CNS.

“In the end, we’re not trying to solve a problem,” Bishop Caggiano said. “What we’re trying to do is discern the solution that is already there. The Holy Spirit already knows what the solution is.”

That requires, he explained, listening and being present to people so that they can express their deepest desires for their spiritual life — and ultimately the life of the church as society emerges from the pandemic.

“This synod, the way I understand it, is unveiling a new methodology where all the people of God, the baptized in the church, has a role to listen and discern and give feedback so those who are the shepherds of the church will be informed,” Bishop Caggiano recalled telling the delegates before they began their monthslong outreach across the diocese.

The effort in each diocese is expected to stretch beyond those who are traditionally active in parish life.

Pope Francis has encouraged that people from the margins of society — elderly shut-ins, the disabled, the mentally ill, the struggling poor and hungry, those who sleep in tents and cars and people who have been hurt by the church in some way — be invited to participate in the synodal process.

The Diocese of San Diego is planning to include outreach to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated and their families. Young adults, who are becoming increasingly disaffiliated with the Catholic Church, are being given added emphasis in the Bridgeport Diocese.

No part of the effort runs contrary to traditional church teaching, said Bishop Robert J. McClory of Gary, Indiana, who came to the diocese a month before the pandemic hit and on the heels of a diocesan synod convened in 2017 to determine ministry priorities.

“It’s not overturning fundamental church teaching, but trying to focus our mission and engaging the laity,” Bishop McClory told CNS.

“The Holy Father says it is about evangelization and its is about advancing our mission. So we can ask ourselves how we are engaging people able in the life, ministry and mission of the church,” he explained.

None of the bishops who spoke with CNS expressed a desire for a certain outcome from the two-year process other than that they hope the church becomes one that listens more carefully, cares a little more deeply and more concretely advances charity and love.

“It’s still a bit of discovery for me,” Bishop McKnight said. “We’re doing what the Holy Father is asking. I’m looking forward to what comes of it all.”

Like Archbishop Hebda, Cardinal Tobin has turned the effort over to the Holy Spirit.

“The church is not our project,” he said. “It is a project of the Holy Spirit, who gathers the church together and makes reconciliation possible.”

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