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.