Pope Francis’ Global, ‘Decentralized’ Synodal Process, Stirs Hope, Anxiety

The next Synod of Bishops will begin with consultations in local dioceses that could reenergize parish life post-COVID, but Germany’s own tumultuous ‘Synodal Path’ casts a long shadow.

The Synod of Bishops process will culminate with an October 2023 assembly in Rome.
The Synod of Bishops process will culminate with an October 2023 assembly in Rome. (photo: Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — Pope Francis’ next Synod of Bishops will focus on the meaning and purpose of synodality itself, drawing local Catholics and national bishops’ conferences, religious orders and Curial officials into an extended period of consultation and discernment that will culminate with an October 2023 assembly in Rome. 

“The fullness of the synodal process can only truly exist if the local churches are involved [in] that process,” stated a communiqué, approved by Pope Francis and issued by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, that outlined the new synodal itinerary underpinning the topic: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”

“It is not just an event, but also a process that involves in synergy the People of God, the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome, each according to their proper function,” the communiqué stated.

In the United States, plans for wide-scale consultations with lay Catholics have stirred excitement and hope among some Church leaders that the process will foster healing and revitalize local Churches as they regain their footing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown and look for ways to reengage the young. 

Bishop Robert McClory of Gary, Indiana, who played an extensive role in the organization and implementation of the Detroit Archdiocese’s 2017 synod before his 2020 appointment to Gary, told the Register he was enthusiastic about the new synod and pleased that documents provided by the Secretariat of the Synod focused on evangelization and called for the deliberations to be grounded in liturgical prayer and the Eucharist. 

“That is the lens through which the Holy See is pointing our efforts,” said Bishop McClory, underscoring the need for a process that relies on the Holy Spirit to call the Church to a deeper sense of mission. 

“An evangelization orientation,” he added, helps Church leaders and the faithful reflect on “how we are impacting the rest of the world and not just how we are internally organizing ourselves.”

But some experts are also worried about the outcome of these wide-scale consultations, given the weak catechetical formation of the majority of lay Catholics and the politicized divisions roiling the Church. They point to Germany’s tumultuous “Synodal Path,” a process many fear will end with schism, as reason enough for caution. 

“My principle concern is really about what the word, ‘synodality,’ means,” Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. “Does it mean ‘liberal democratic procedures for arriving at progressive social norms,’ or does it mean ‘bishops deliberating and making decisions out of their shared apostolic authority in the light of Christ’s teaching’?”

“What makes the Synodal Path in Germany so horrendous,” he said, is that “we know that their desired outcome is contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ, but they appeal to a decision-making process that the Church has sanctioned. It’s for this reason that so many are skeptical about appeals to synodality.” 

Looking ahead to high-level discussions on the topic by national episcopal conferences, Curial officials and Pope Francis himself, Pecknold insisted that the “abuse and corruption of synodality” must be squarely addressed. 

No doubt, the promise and the peril of this global synodal journey will be on display as U.S. dioceses begin holding public listening sessions later this year. 


Two-Year Process

The first stage of the two-year process will begin with ceremonies in Rome on Oct. 9-10, and then shift to local Churches based in the globe’s five continents. 

On Oct. 17, U.S. dioceses will begin their own synodal journey under the direction of the local bishop. Preparatory documents provided by the Secretariat of the Synod, including a questionnaire and practical guidance, are being reviewed now in U.S. chanceries. 

The fruit of these public listening sessions will be provided to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which will then “gather in assembly for a period of discernment,” before preparing a “synthesis” that will be sent to Rome by April 2022. 

The synthesis will contribute to the development of documents framing the second phase of “dialogue and discernment” at the continental level, which, in turn, will provide the groundwork for the final phase, the October 2023 synod in Rome. 

“The history of the synod illustrates how much good these assemblies have brought to the Church, but also how the time was ripe for a wider participation of the People of God in a decision-making process that affects the whole Church and everyone in the Church,” said Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, in a May 21 Vatican News interview that pointed to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on synodality as “one of the strongest themes of the current pontificate.”

According to Pope St. Paul VI, “synod” comes from the Greek words syn and hodosj (“together” and “path”), meaning to walk together the path of Our Lord. The phrase evokes the Risen Lord’s accompaniment of his two disciples on the road to Emmaus. 

Synodality includes the charism of apostolic succession and the need for bishops to lead by virtue of their episcopal ordination, experts told the Register. Only a pope or bishop convenes a synod.


‘Communicating and Relating’

“The Second Vatican Council proposed that the Church learn to speak to herself, her members and the world in a new way,” said Father Dennis McManus, a professor of systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and a professor at the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.

For Pope Francis, “synodality is a way of communicating and relating. It is the way he sees the three parts of the Church — the People of God, the College of Bishops, and the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ — in constant exchange together, all three parts listening,” said Father McManus, also a priest of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama.

It is not yet clear how Francis’ new three-phase synodal process will work in practice at the diocesan and continental level, particularly in regions that are still battling the pandemic. Church leaders in the U.S. have only begun to review the synodal documents from Rome. 

“One of the more intriguing aspects of the new synodal process,” said Bishop McClory, is the continental phase, which will provide an opportunity for bishops across North America to “reflect on common areas of concern, build up understanding, and highlight our appreciation for barriers others face.” 

Based on his experience with Detroit’s synod, and then with the “fruits of a 2017 synod in Gary,” completed before his arrival, Bishop McClory believes that “prayer and liturgical rootedness, rather than a legislative approach, will keep [the new synodal process] on track.” 

Msgr. Ronald Browne, the judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Detroit, offered further guidance, noting both the importance of following the Code of Canon Law governing synodal procedures at the diocesan level, as well as the value of solid catechetical preparation in advance of public listening sessions. 

“There is a lot of good that can come from this process,” Msgr. Browne told the Register, pointing to the strong push for parish-based religious formation in Detroit as a key outcome of its diocesan synod. “But if it involves people bringing their own agendas, I would be concerned.” 

Marilyn Blanchette, a Florida-based Catholic consultant who has helped a number of dioceses plan their own synods, told the Register that the process can be labor-intensive, but holds the promise of recharging the local Church, in part, by helping bishops and pastors identify new “volunteer talent” among the laity.

Reflecting on the lessons learned from a 2005-2006 Diocese of Orlando synod led by then-Bishop Thomas Wenski, Blanchette suggested that his inclusive message was a critical component, drawing thousands of Catholics to public listening and planning sessions. And while some of the faithful used the opportunity to air their grievances with the Church, Bishop Wenski’s willingness to hear them out encouraged a process of healing, even as the proceedings shifted to discussion on future goals.

The 2007-2008 financial crisis followed on the heels of the Orlando synod, she said, but Bishop Wenski was still able to raise an unprecedented $175 million — funds that helped bring new parishes to life, expand Catholic education, and boost lay leader formation. 

Looking back, Blanchette described the effort as “a strategic planning process that operated within a framework of synod traditions and ceremony.” 

It was an acknowledgment that a local ordinary puts his own stamp on a diocesan synod. And thus it is likely that Pope Francis’ new synodal process will inspire a variety of approaches at the diocesan level, providing examples of pastoral innovation, but also exposing theological divisions that have grown more pronounced in this country and Europe, in particular. 

“Ideally, a synodal environment should give us a living snapshot of where the Holy Spirit is active in the Church or an ecclesial cardiogram, if you will,” said Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, in a May 4 lecture, “Synodality and the Long Game of Pope Francis,” at Loyola University in Chicago that signaled his approach to the new synod.

The more the Church adopts synodality as a path of accompaniment to those on the “peripheries,” said the New Jersey cardinal, the more deeply its members will undergo a conversion of heart and become less preoccupied with perceived threats to “norms and canons.”


Checking Germany’s Course

But if some Church leaders and theologians in the U.S. see a fresh opening to advance a more progressive vision of pastoral outreach and Church discipline, experts look to Europe and suggest that Pope Francis’ synodal “long game” may be more tactical than understood at first glance. It could, for example, be an attempt to check Germany’s more radical “Synodal Path” before it is too late.

“From the German perspective, the announcement of a synodal process involving the global Church must be welcomed as liberating the German deliberations in the Synodal Path from a rather domestic focus,” Father Emery de Gaál, chairman and professor of dogmatic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, told the Register.

Father de Gaál, a Hungarian priest incardinated in the Diocese of Eichstätt, Germany, said he had no privileged knowledge of the Vatican’s motives, but he laid out one potential scenario. 

With Francis’ new synodal process, “the thoughts put forth at the German Synodal Path must be contextualized now in a global, universal, ecclesial vision. While we belong to different continents, cultures and races, we are Church from the one Eucharistic Lord and one Scripture,” he said.

More broadly, he added, local Catholics will be well-served if the synod provides a valuable opportunity to “focus on the essentials of our existence: discipleship of Jesus Christ and evangelization. To what degree do Christians live this and to what degree can the bishops’ synod on synodality be a catalyst towards such a reality?” 

For now, however, CUA’s Pecknold is reserving judgment.

“A lot depends on the fruit of these new approaches to synodality,” he said. “If it leads to greater unity, a greater sense of mission, and a more vivid and believable proclamation of the Gospel, then, yes, synodality is here to stay. If it leads to greater confusion or obfuscation of Church teaching or division, then it is on its way out as a failed program.”