‘Conversing in the Spirit’: Synod on Synodality Methodology Seeks to Sidestep Conflict

The methodology, which shaped the working document released earlier this week, aims at fostering the inclusion of dissenting opinions and the avoidance of polarization.

From left, Helena Jeppesen Spuhler, Sister Nadia Coppa, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops Cardinal Mario Grech, General Relator of the Synod on Synodality Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich and Father Giacomo Costa presented the the working document for the Synod on Synodality June 20 at the Vatican.
From left, Helena Jeppesen Spuhler, Sister Nadia Coppa, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops Cardinal Mario Grech, General Relator of the Synod on Synodality Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich and Father Giacomo Costa presented the the working document for the Synod on Synodality June 20 at the Vatican. (photo: Domenico Stinellis / AP Photo)

VATICAN CITY — The methodology to be used for the upcoming Synod on Synodality is aimed at reaching “an inclusive consensus” that welcomes dissenting views and helps to avoid polarization by embracing a concept termed “conversation in the Spirit.”

The XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” will take place Oct. 4-23 after a two-year period of local, national and continental consultation. After a further 12 months of consultation and discernment, it will culminate with a final assembly in October 2024. 

The methodology for the entire synod has been prepared by a multinational 10-member Commission for Methodology coordinated by French Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary at the Synod’s General Secretariat. 

In comments to reporters on Tuesday, Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, consultor to the Synod General Secretariat, explained that the methodology is “in continuity with most recent assemblies” but has “some variations” from other recent synods.

Some of these differences, he said, are due to “the increase in number of members” as the October synod will have 20 more bishops participating than at the Synod on Youth in 2018 because of the increase in the number of bishops in the world. 

He also noted an increase in the number of non-bishops, which number 70 and include laypeople, consecrated women, deacons and priests who, for the first time, will be able to vote in a synodal assembly

Overall this has boosted the number of members to 370, excluding experts, compared to 267 Synod Fathers and 50 auditors in the 2018 synod.

But Father Costa also drew attention to “no small changes” to the “synodal process” ahead of the October meeting, in particular that it will follow a “long phase of consultation and listening, which allowed the seven continental assemblies to express a number of priorities.” 

“Strikingly clear among them,” he contended, is the “desire to continue to use, for common listening and discernment, the method of conversation in the Spirit” — a concept that has become central to the entire synodal process.

“Conversation in the Spirit,” Father Costa explained, is a “shared prayer with a view to discernment in common, for which participants prepare themselves through personal reflection and meditation.” It works by each member offering each other “the gift of a thoughtful word, nourished by prayer, not an opinion improvised on the spot.” 

For the concept to be fruitful, Father Costa said participants must take part in it “with conviction, sharing experiences, charisms and ministries in the service of the Gospel.” It won’t work, he cautioned, if “different voices are not articulated and the fruits of the encounter are not grasped, in a missionary action that points to action.” 

But if carried out effectively, he said it would help identify “the concrete steps that the Holy Spirit is inviting the Church to take in order to grow in communion, mission and participation.”


‘Alternative to Polarization’

“Conversation in the Spirit” is aimed at deterring polemical debate on controversial subjects. As Father Costa put it, the method “opens up ‘spaces’ in which to address even controversial issues together.” These issues, which he said are debated in society and in the Church, can often lead to “clashes” in person or on social media rather than considered discussion. 

“In other words,” Father Costa said, “conversation in the Spirit offers us a viable alternative to polarization.”

He then expanded further how “conversation in the Spirit” has “three basic steps” for different situations. The first involves a person prayerfully speaking about their experience; the second aims at “building bonds” by expressing what touched them most deeply and when, having “cultivated familiarity with the Lord,” they felt the Holy Spirit made their voice resound; and the third step, “again under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” is about letting key points emerge from conversing with the Spirit that then lead to action. 

The ultimate aim, Father Costa said, is to “reach an inclusive consensus, in which each person can feel represented, without neglecting marginal points of view or overlooking points where dissent emerges, which should not be eliminated but subjected to discernment.”

This approach is not new in the sense that all synods during Francis’ pontificate have admitted dissenting views. But by allowing such a wide range of views including those that break with Church teachings and practices, they mark a distinct break from pre-2013 synodal assemblies, which were intended to provide counsel to the Holy Father in a manner that preserved the Church’s teaching and strengthened its internal discipline. These meetings, according to Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, are instead “a process in which each baptized can be heard.”

Father Costa said this methodology should make it clear that the synodal assembly in October will be “a spiritual process of seeking God’s will,” and is not like “the dynamism” of a parliament “where discussion ends with a vote that divides majority and minority.” Rather, he added, it offers an opportunity to “listen to brothers and sisters in Christ, and, through them, to the Spirit, who, as Pope Francis repeats, is the authentic protagonist.

“Those who have never experienced it struggle to understand this dynamism, which is a defining point of the methodology,” he said. 


The Worksheets Approach

The Italian Jesuit then explained five steps the assembly will take, as set out in the instrumentum laboris. The objective of these stages is to address “three priority issues” based on the synodal theme “communion, mission, participation” that emerged from the consultation phase, and which are presented in the working document.

The worksheets for the assembly, also delineated in the working document, are meant as a “practical aid to facilitate the work of the small groups (circuli minores).” Each one, Father Costa said, “is a kind of gateway to deal with the priority issue with which it is associated and can be addressed even without having to consider the others.”

The goal, he added, is to “identify concrete steps that the Holy Spirit is calling us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church, and to develop proposals at different levels, from the local to the universal.”

He said the fruits of the assembly will be gathered and formulated into a text, and voting will “make it possible to capture the consensus” among participants.

“But this is not a conclusion,” he cautioned, as there also will be the final synod assembly in October 2024. Collectively, the goal of both sessions is to “present to the Holy Father concrete proposal for growing as a synodal Church.” 

“For this purpose,” he added, “it is important to identify what obstacles hinder the path, and to deepen the issues on which sufficient consensus has not yet matured.” The intervening year, Father Costa said, “will be of crucial importance to experiment with how to address them and offer additional elements for discernment at the October 2024 assembly.”

Lastly, he said that due to more members taking part in October than previous synods, the Paul VI Hall will be used as the usual venue as the New Synod Hall will be too small. This will also “facilitate the dynamic of conversation in the Spirit,” he predicted. “Those who have in mind the images of previous synodal assemblies, prepare to be surprised when they see those of October 2023.” 

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