After Six Years’ Resistance, Pope Francis Gets His Synodal Way for Italy
The five-year plan for the Italian Church is seen as a long-held wish to build on a 1976 national conference that aimed to give the laity a greater voice.
VATICAN CITY — Six years after Pope Francis’ first raised the possibility — and after his persistent efforts afterward to make it happen — Italy’s bishops plan to launch their own five-year “Synodal Path.”
Expected to begin later this year, Italy’s synodal process is likely to harmonize with the upcoming two-year synod on synodality for the universal Church.
According to a “Charter of Intent” that the Italian bishops’ conference agreed upon at their general assembly in May, the synodal process will take a similar approach to that planned for the universal Church that runs from 2021 to 2023 but will play out over a longer period.
Italy’s bishops envision their Synodal Path beginning with what they call a “bottom up” approach involving the “people of God with moments of listening, seeking, and proposing” (a three-fold theme repeated throughout the document) in dioceses and parishes. That stage will run through 2022.
A second phase, “from the periphery to the center,” will comprise a “unified moment of gathering, dialogue, and encounter with all the souls of Italian Catholicism,” that will take place in 2023.
The third and final stage, described as “from top to bottom,” aims to be a “synthesis of the issues” discussed at the regional and diocesan level, with pastoral action subject to assessment and monitoring. That will take place in 2024, with the final assessment and verification taking place at the national level in 2025.
In their Charter of Intent, the bishops stress that the path proposed for the universal Church, entitled For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission, “can be harmonized with the ‘Synodal Path’ of the Churches in Italy.”
Vincenzo Corrado, spokesman for Italy’s bishops conference, told the Register June 18 that he could not say much about their process, as it had “just begun” and the general assembly that met in May has “referred the matter to the permanent episcopal council that should meet in the coming weeks.”
But he added, “Certainly, as the bishops indicated, there is the issue of harmonizing this path with the universal synod on which the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops will be giving an update in the coming days.”
Italy’s Synodal Path comes after considerable resistance from the country’s hierarchy, the Italian veteran Vaticanist Sandro Magister reported in 2019. “Pope Francis wants [it] at all costs — contrary to his predecessors — but to which the Italian episcopal conference continues to turn a deaf ear,” Magister wrote.
According to the plans presented on June 1, Italy’s plan appears to be broader in scope than the highly disputed Synodal Path in Germany, which grew out of the sexual abuse crisis. That process, which runs until 2022, is debating issues of power, sexual morality, priestly life and the role of women in the Church as part of an effort to ostensibly root out abuse.
Critics have warned that the German process threatens to lead the Church in Germany into schism, as bishops and others use the Synodal Path to promote ideas at odds with the Church’s teaching and tradition, such as women’s ordination, the acceptance of homosexual relations and an end to mandatory clerical celibacy.
By contrast, Italy’s process, which is titled Proclaiming the Gospel in a Time of Rebirth, has a different starting point and appears, at least on the surface, to be avoiding such contentious issues.
But like both the German Synodal Path and that of the Synod the Bishops, the point of departure is the faithful, or the People of God and their current situations, rather than the Word of God or Divine Revelation — an aspect consistent with Pope Francis’ desire for a more collegial, decentralized and “listening” Church and a vision of an “inverted pyramid” of Church governance.
For the Italian bishops, this means first of all examining the effects of the COVID-19 crisis that, they say, have brought dioceses and parishes “to their knees.” This situation demands listening to the needs of these communities with “prophecy and parrhesia [frankness]” in order to “identify new questions and try new languages,” taking into account regional diversity, the charter says.
The post-coronavirus era also calls for the “reinforcing the good and beautiful things that have already been accomplished in recent years,” the document continues, “rekindling pastoral passion, taking seriously the invitation to renew ecclesial action through constant community discernment.”
The bishops say they want the synod to identify “signs of renewal for the post-pandemic period,” look to the peripheries, and be “rooted in biblical faith.” They express the need to sow the Word of God through “renewed channels of listening” as well as proposing “lectio and personal mediation as nourishment for the spiritual life” and “the formation of conscience.”
They call for the “recovery of the eschatological aspect of the Christian faith regarding the afterlife and in the hope beyond death” but also “catechesis proposed in ways and places that go beyond the scholastic model.”
They speak of accompanying children, adolescents, and young people through the passages of life, “the urgency of a new season of solidarity and charity, to meet the predictable and dramatic increase in material poverty and spiritual loneliness,” as well as stressing the importance of the faithful exerting their civil and political responsibilities during this time of crisis.
Following the Pope’s Guidance
The bishops add that Pope Francis communicated to them the “fervent desire to rethink the present and future of the faith and the Church in Italy,” and to draw on both his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and the main points of his 2015 discourse in Florence on Church reform.
In that speech, the Pope said he liked “a restless Italian Church” that was “ever closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect.” He also said it is “useless to look for solutions in conservatism and fundamentalism, in the restoration of practices and outdated forms that even culturally aren’t able to be meaningful.”
Taking these as inspirations, the bishops write, “We are asked to move from a deductive and applicative way of proceeding to a method of research and experimentation that builds pastoral action starting from the bottom and listening to the regions.” They want the synod to “reawaken” the Church’s “missionary consciousness,” recalling the words of Pope St. Paul VI and the 20th-century theologian Father Romano Guardini.
They go on to speak of having the “courage to dare with freedom,” to have the “ability to cut away the deadwood, affecting what is really needed or needs to be integrated or unified,” and, again, to embark on a process of “listening,” “seeking,” and “proposing.”
In a June 17 editorial reflecting on Italy’s proposed path, papal adviser Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro quoted Pope Francis who had told the bishops that the synodal process is a “privileged place of discernment where, if the Holy Spirit is in action, he kicks the table, throws it away and begins anew.”
“So here’s the question,” Father Spadaro wrote. “Don’t we feel the need for a kick from the Spirit today, if only to wake us up from the torpor?”
Both Pope Francis and Father Spadaro have drawn attention to Jesuit Father Bartolomeo Sorge who took part in a major national conference of the Italian Church in 1976 on the theme “Evangelization and Human Promotion.” That conference was seen by Father Sorge and others as a forerunner to a national synod, which would give greater voice to the laity and their concerns, and in their view hasten Church renewal and foster a new evangelization.
Writing in 2019 in the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, Father Sorge, who died last year, said he believed such a synod had never materialized because, quoting Pope Francis, the Italian bishops had succumbed to two temptations: the first being a Pelagian trust in the security of structures, and the second taking refuge in a “disembodied spiritualism” that leads to withdrawal and self-referentiality — what Francis called Gnosticism.
Father Sorge believed a national synod of encounter and dialogue would overcome the “impossible division between the ‘institutional Church’ and the ‘real Church’” — a situation that Father Spadaro said continues today.
“Then the proposal was unsuccessful,” wrote Father Spadaro, who in 2017 criticized American Catholics and Protestants for promoting what he called an "ecumenism of conflict" that had led to an intolerant "ecumenism of hate."
“Today the conditions are there to resume that vote,” he said. “And we know that the fruits of the synodal journey will come by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Synod, finally!”