2023 Synod on Synodality: A Process About Processes

COMMENTARY: The protracted ‘synod on holding synods’ runs a grave risk of diverting the Church’s energies from the mission field to the sacristy.

A view of St. Peter’s Basilica shows the façade and the sky.
A view of St. Peter’s Basilica shows the façade and the sky. (photo: Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe / Unsplash)

Just as the 2019 Amazon Synod marked the death of the Aparecida vision of 2007, the 2023 synod on synodality risks marking the death of Evangelii Gaudium, the bold call to missionary discipleship that serves as the charter for Pope Francis’ pontificate. The Church may find her energies diverted from the mission field to the sacristy.

Pope Francis announced that the 2022 synod on synodality — formally entitled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission” — will be postponed until October 2023 in order to leave time for a massive two-year consultation at the diocesan, national and continental levels. 

The Vatican proposal calls for six months of meetings at the diocesan level from October 2021 to April 2022. There will be a delegate to coordinate this local consultation. It will conclude with a “presynodal meeting” at the end of that phase, and all the paper generated with be sent to the national episcopal conferences, where it will be reflected upon and massaged into some kind of document. Then the bishops of each continent will meet from September 2022 to March 2023. 

Gathering all this material from around the world, the Vatican secretariat for synods will produce an instrumentum laboris (working document) that will be taken up in October 2023 by the actual Synod of Bishops.

And the topic of all this consultation? The synodal process itself, which is a way of governing the Church. That much is clear — and not clear.

“The dynamic of the synod is such that everybody had a sense of what it meant, because we were doing it,” Cardinal Michael Czerny said at the conclusion of the Amazon Synod. “Whether everyone could explain it in words, I’m not so sure, but I’m not sure that mattered.”

What exactly will it do? That remains to be seen. What is clear is that there will be a 24-month diocesan to intercontinental process to survey a vast array of views on how to listen to a vast array of views, a broad consultation on how consultation should be done. It’s a process about processes. 

Oscar Wilde quipped that the problem with the participatory processes of socialism is that they took up too many evenings. Synodality may suffer from the same flaw.


Pandemic and the ‘Panzer-Synod’

In a letter to bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the synod secretariat, anticipated the principal object to his surprise announcement. 

“As I write this letter, I am aware of the many difficulties caused by the pandemic, as well as those countries suffering from war and violence,” Cardinal Grech wrote with admirable understatement. “I hope that this synodal process, in a sense of renewed communion, might help the local Churches notwithstanding the great challenges they face.”

Given the global struggle to get back to regular Mass attendance, sacramental life, school function and charitable works — to say nothing of reestablishing a secure financial basis for all that activity — the timing could hardly be worse. After a year of limiting the number of people at Mass, few local pastors will have as a priority convening meetings to discuss a synod about how to conduct synods. 

So why now, when the timing is obviously most unsuitable? 

A possible answer might be that the Holy Father is attempting a clever maneuver to contain the “panzer-synod” in Germany, formally called the “Synodal Path.” Pope Francis has made it clear that he does not want the German synod to proceed as planned, but the Germans have paid him no heed. It may be that, in having his own intercontinental “synodal path,” the German process will be swallowed up in several cascading layers of additional bureaucracy at the European and Vatican level. 

If the whole panzer-synod gets dumped into the cataract of paper requested by Cardinal Grech from thousands of diocesan discernment processes, the German contribution will be diluted. Submerging the Germans in Cardinal Grech’s protracted process means that the end of the panzer-synod will not be parliamentary style votes in Germany but a synod of bishops in Rome. 

After a Roman synod, the pope alone gets to say what it decided and what it meant. 

In 2016, with Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis went further than what the twin Synods on the Family actually decided, and in 2020 the Holy Father did not go as far as the Amazon Synod wanted. The protracted “synod on holding synods” may be directed at the German process and analogous processes in Australia and Ireland. The time and costs imposed on everyone else is just collateral damage.


Synods by Fiat

The incongruity of announcing without consultation a worldwide consultation was lost on no one. Call it synodality by centralized fiat. 

In 2015, Pope Francis, in his role as primate of Italy, suggested that there be a national Italian synod. The bishops respectfully declined — not explicitly, but by simply doing nothing about it for five years. Last year the Holy Father insisted that it begin soon, whether the Italians wanted to or not. This week, the Italian bishops produced a plan for how they might begin. They will be sorely tempted to now simply adopt the universal plan as a reasonable facsimile of the national synod being imposed upon them.

In 2018 at the Synod on Youth, the synod fathers were shocked to discover that a third of the summary document was devoted to synodality. It had only been a marginal discussion in the plenary sessions. The synod secretariat was flogging synodality then, even though it would be hard to conceive of a topic less interesting to young Catholics than the processes of bureaucratic governance.

The intercontinental consultative process is the latest and most far-reaching flogging of synodality. The question is whether the universal Church will be receptive to this latest imposition of synodality, unlike the Italian bishops in 2015 or the synod fathers in 2018.


The Great Gamble

Pope Benedict XVI chose to mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II with a Year of Faith, calling the entire Church back to the vision of Pope St. John XXIII, that the Council would renew the fervor of faith, more winsomely present Catholic doctrine, more fervently advance her mission, and more abundantly win souls for Christ. Despite that vision, the immediate decades after the Council were marked by a great inward turn, as factions in the Church fought mightily over faith, morals, liturgy and governance. 

For the 60th anniversary of Vatican II, Pope Francis is taking a great gamble that his “synodal process on synods” will not similarly turn the Church inward, sapping vital energies and frustrating his desire — articulated in Evangelii Gaudium — that everything in the Church be rethought in a missionary key. It was certainly the Holy Father who insisted that the word “mission” be included in the synod’s official title.

It is possible for any Church gathering to be a new Pentecost. It is also possible for it to be a never-ending parish council meeting, stifling the Spirit. 

Pope Francis has repeatedly said that a self-referential Church becomes sick, confined and suffocating in the sacristy. The “synodal process on synods” has a great risk of doing that just. 

There are only so many free evenings for the faithful who are attempting to reestablish their parish life, education, work and finances post-pandemic. After signing on to the synodal consultations, will there be any evenings left for mission?