In the early decades of the twenty-first century, historians will say, the Catholic Church sought a new way of operating that would allow it to travel into a new era. The clerical, centralist, hierarchical, authoritarian model, barely distinguishable these days from a corporation, was built to survive and even thrive in modernity. But it is no longer feasible in an era when modernity itself has collapsed. How, then, to reconfigure the Church’s inner culture to enable all to participate in its mission and to let the Spirit lead, as Jesus promised?
There is little desire to adopt an ecclesial parliamentary democracy, as liberal Protestant churches have done. Parties and debates settled by votes harden division rather than transcending it. The challenge is instead to recover a Catholic way of proceeding for our times, drawn from the Church’s own tradition of synods, councils, and chapter meetings that allow for the growth of consensus over time. What used to be the Church’s normal modus procedendi can become so again, not by recreating a carbon copy of what once was (if that were even possible), but by reconfiguring the synodal tradition for our own age.
This means that Catholics must relearn how to convoke and gather, to consult and discuss, and, above all, to discern—that is, to discover, collectively, what the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to do. This requires practicing a kind of kenosis. We, the baptized, share what we see the Spirit doing, and we pay close attention to what others see. In this way, we come to the kind of consensus described in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, one that allows us to declare, “It has seemed to the Spirit and to us.” That is the goal. And we will only get to it by a conversion that is simultaneously cultural, spiritual, and structural. The means of that conversion is a three-year journey known as the Synod on Synodality, the most significant attempt at renewal since the Second Vatican Council, and arguably the Council’s greatest fruit.
The sixteenth assembly of the Synod of Bishops that just concluded in Rome opened the last part of that journey, which will end with the final assembly in October 2024. The two preceding parts were both innovations. The first was the diocesan or national phase from the end of 2021 through the first half of 2022, in which ordinary Catholics around the world gathered to share their hopes and anxieties about the Church and to consider what becoming synodal might mean. The second part—from October 2022 to July 2023—was the continental phase, in which seven areas of the world (Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Middle East) organized “assemblies of the people of God” to consider the fruits of that first phase. The assemblies varied, but most were four-day events attended by a mix of bishops, priests, religious, and laypeople sent by each bishops’ conference in that continent. The reports summarizing the fruits of each assembly were then studied and synthesized in the Instrumentum laboris, or “working document,” for the October 4–19 Rome assembly. But unlike the working documents for every previous synod of bishops, this was not a draft text to be worked on, but rather a series of questions to be answered through the discernment of thirty-five circoli minori (groups) of around ten people each. The groups communicated in one of the synod’s five languages: fourteen in English, eight in Italian, seven in Spanish, five in French, and one in Portuguese.
The decision to hold the whole synod assembly in small groups was transformative. Rather than use the theater-style hall in the Vatican’s Paul VI building, round tables with screens, microphones, and swivel cameras were spread across the building’s audience hall—a place familiar to pilgrims attending a General Audience with the Pope in winter. It was a striking sight, all the more so because of the diversity of each circulo minore. Of the 364 members (those with voice and vote), 75 percent were bishops, most of them delegates of their conferences from around the world. This was, after all, a synod of bishops. But the other 25 percent were what the Vatican described as “members not vested with the episcopal munus who witnessed the synodal process.” These non-bishops were clergy (including one permanent deacon), religious, and laypeople sent by the continental bodies: ten from each, making a total of seventy. They were, like the bishops, from every corner of the globe.
It was widely reported that, for the first time, fifty-four women—15 percent of the total body—could speak and vote as full members. This was true, but it is only part of the bigger story: so could laypeople and religious of both sexes, as well as priests and deacons. Some of these non-bishop members were present ex officio, by virtue of representing, say, the unions of religious orders. But a significant number were there ex nomine pontificia, appointed by the Pope because they led organizations that serve and represent the disabled or migrants or LGBT people. The pope wanted voices from the margins to be heard in the hall.
All the members, however they got there, were present as equals, with the same opportunity to speak within the groups and to address the assembly. The groups used a method called “Conversation in the Spirit,” now seen as the synodal method par excellence. First, after some prayerful silence, all listened patiently and carefully as each member delivered prepared reflections. After another period of silence, they were invited to share the “resonances” that struck them in what they had heard. With the aid of one of the sixty-one non-member facilitators, the group then had a freer discussion, identifying areas where they converged or diverged and suggesting ways forward—whether concrete proposals, questions to be answered, or issues that needed further reflection.
During the “general congregations”—usually attended by the pope, who listened carefully and occasionally intervened—a rapporteur elected by each group read a three-minute summary of its reflections to the whole assembly. This was followed by a half-day of “free interventions,” when individuals could ask to speak about what they had heard. Finally, the thirty-five groups hunkered down to revise their reports before sending them to the secretariat.
In this way, the assembly worked through the four “modules” of the sixty-page Instrumentum laboris, forming new groups at the start of each module. Module A was an invitation to review all that had happened since the Synod’s kickoff in October 2021, and to identify priorities for developing synodality in the Church. Module B dug into the three main dimensions of synodality—communion; co-responsibility in mission; and participation, governance, and authority. These dimensions were explored by means of a series of questions, such as how the Church could better recognize the baptismal dignity of women (B2.3) or how the Synod could be strengthened as “an expression of episcopal collegiality within an all-synodal Church” (B3.5). Finally, in Module C, the groups considered a draft of the synthesis document, amending it before voting on a final version.
I was invited to the assembly not as a facilitator but as part of a smaller group of “theologians,” a term that covered a variety of knowledge and skills deemed useful to the assembly. We were not members and so had neither voice nor vote. We were seated at tables at the edge of the hall, and our task was to listen to and read the reflections of the circoli minori, along with the various speeches and reflections at the start of each module. These were given by the assembly’s relatore generale, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, and the two spiritual guides who accompanied the whole process: the English Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe and the Benedictine abbess Mother Maria Angelini, who, in another innovation, had given the members a three-day pre-assembly retreat. After listening to and reading all this material, we worked against the clock to write up summary reports that the final synthesis document would distill.
Did it work? Speaking to members during the coffee breaks over the three weeks, I heard of many different experiences. Most were overwhelmingly positive. The Conversation in the Spirit method allowed for amazing juxtapositions of cultures and outlooks, and helped the members work through tensions and disagreements peacefully and creatively. Everyone could speak with total freedom, yet also had a duty to listen carefully to others. One might disagree strongly with what one heard, but also better grasp why someone else held those views. A bishop from Africa, for example, might find talk of ordaining women to the diaconate or blessing same-sex couples bizarre or offensive, but the same bishop might be deeply concerned—in a way hard for an American or European to grasp—with the pastoral injustice of a polygamous man having to sever bonds with his wives as a condition of receiving the sacraments. A woman from North America might regard admission to the diaconate as a simple matter of justice, while an Asian woman might see it as an attempt to clericalize the distinctive contribution women make to ministry.
All might agree that Jesus held together love and truth in perfect harmony, and that the Church must do likewise. Yet the conversations revealed deep differences over whether truth or mercy now seemed more threatened, and which needed greater emphasis. What is the greater obstacle to the Church’s witness in our time: A moralism that obscures God’s mercy or an inclusiveness that avoids the challenge of God’s truth? How one answers that question will depend on one’s experience, and how one reads that experience.
Learning to journey together in the crazy diversity of our global Church is not easy. It demands a lot of patience, trust, and, ultimately, a confidence in the action of the Spirit to get past our stumbling blocks and dead ends. I don’t want to gloss over the difficulties. Rebuilding a group dynamic every few days at the start of a new module was tiring. Many said the assembly was just too long, the themes too broad, the method too restrictive, the speeches too repetitive. There were attempts to deny important tensions and conflicts in order to present a mask of unity, and sometimes attempts to promote a point of view in ways that produced pushback. In order to preserve the freedom of discernment, participants were bound to confidentiality, so I cannot indulge my writer’s instinct to offer the details that tell the bigger story. There were clashes, tears, and even an indignant departure. But these were rare, and hardly surprising: it was grueling to listen to dozens of three-minute interventions for a whole day, especially when many of them drifted far from the main matter. By the end of Module B, the strain showed.
Yet the bigger story is that, despite these difficulties and longueurs, the Synod did work. The Conversation in the Spirit method was, at least for most of the members most of the time, brilliantly successful; most left the assembly eager to apply it at every level of the Church. The sheer joy of forging bonds across boundaries was the consolation of the assembly—a sure sign of the Spirit. If there was a gift God was offering us there, it was the lens through which to see the Church as a global whole, in all its variety, in its fragility as well as its resilience.
Now begins a period of evaluation and a year’s discernment before the final assembly in October 2024, which will need to decide on some of the major questions identified in the synthesis report. There will be commissions to propose revisions to canon law, and theological papers to deepen and clarify the questions this year’s assembly raised. Much has already been learned, and much will no doubt be different next year. But at least we now have a map to get there and good news to tell: the triumph of a new way of discerning and deliberating that, despite all odds, shows that the Church’s diversity is compatible with unity. By putting synodality into action, this assembly showed that there is a way to go ahead together into a new era, with the confidence that Christ has gone there before us.