Group photos from each Continental Assembly Group photos from each Continental Assembly 

Synod Continental Stage: ‘Most innovative aspect of synodal process'

The Continental Stage of the 2021-2024 synodal process brought to light “seeds of synodality” present on every continent, while the spiritual conversation method promoted “profound unity”.

By Sr Bernadette M. Reis, fsp

On the occasion of the conclusion of the Second Stage of the 2021-2024 synodal process, a press conference took place in the Holy See Press Office on the morning of 20 April. The Second Stage formally concluded on 31 March, the deadline for the Final Documents responding to the Working Document for the Continental Stage. This press conference took place after a week of meetings from 12 to 19 April held behind closed doors in the General Secretariat of the Synod. Twenty-two people, representing various aspects of the synod process, participated in this meeting to analyze the seven Final Documents in view of formulating the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to take place in the Vatican in October 2023.

Sister Nathalie Becquart, X.M.C.J., Under-secretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod opened the Conference. She underlined that “continental stage that we are concluding is one of the most innovative aspects of the synodal process.” She reminded those gathered that “the perspective of the Continental stage was a deepening of that discernment process” that many people had participated in at the level of the local Church. The Continental Assemblies were meant to be flexible in how they were organized, she explained. The “use of the methodology of spiritual conversation” and the request that a diverse sector of the People of God be present to embrace local “practices, cultural and language elements, geography, and logistics of each continent,” were the general guidelines offered.

Personal experiences

Archbishop Timothy John Costelloe, S.D.B., of Perth, and President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, spoke about his experience at the Suva Assembly for the continent of Oceania. He first acknowledged that each continental assembly “was quite different in style and content.” This demonstrates that since the Church is global and universal, “there is more than one way of being the Church,” he noted.

He characterized the synodal experience as one in which “we recognize and celebrate the great diversity which is already a reality in the Church.” This allows an experience of “profound unity… not grounded on uniformity,” but actually an invitation “to abandon any search for a rigid uniformity.” The Archbishop said the practice of spiritual conversation “in the Oceania assembly was crucial in creating a climate of respect” among the assembly delegates.

Sr Nathalie, who participated in four of the seven continental assemblies, noticed that spiritual conversation aided delegates from a broad spectrum of Church life, and from various countries in their dialogue. When facing issues, such as Care for the Oceans in Oceania or the crises evident in the Middle East, Sr Nathalie said using this method fostered “synodality and solidarity,” creating the “hope to continue” the process. She also observed that this methodology invited greater “freedom of speech” that contributed toward “the experience of the beauty of the diversity of the Church.” One thing that the continental stage brought to light is “that diversity can also be a path to unity,” she said. There are “seeds of synodality,” she said, present on each continent on which the synodal journey drew. At the same time, the process allowed each continent to acknowledge “obstacles to synodality,” and areas for improvement.

Meeting reflecting on Continental Stage

Archbishop Costelloe then spoke about the meeting that has taken place this past week. Participants were able to dialogue together about the synodal process since the writing of the Working Document, as well as the content of the seven responses to that document. He recounted that the spiritual conversation model also accompanied this meeting.

He sees this meeting as one part of a journey that began in 2021 and will continue to unfold. During the meeting, prefects and some general secretaries of the Roman Curia engaged the continental stage, meeting participants in “open and honest and attentive and respectful speaking and listening,” he said. A common hope he heard is that the synodal process continue. “We are all hoping that all the material that’s been produced and all the work of reflection and discernment that’s been produced, doesn’t just stop there…. We’re all hoping that they will continue to be documents for reflection at the local level…in religious communities and in other Church agencies.” He said that these documents need to be read “many times to enter into their depths.” In this way, he said, all the documentation produced thus far will continue to inspire and form those who contributed to their publication, and those who will prepare themselves to attend the Synod session in October.

Digital Synod

Msgr Lucio Adrián Ruiz, Secretary for the Dicastery for Communication, then presented the Digital Synod initiative, which was born out of the desire to invite into synodal conversation people not connected to the institutional Church. Beginning with “250 digital missionaries, there are more than 1000 now,” Msgr Ruiz said. This initiative was able to reach people primarily between the ages of 18-40, 30% of whom are non-believers or are distant from the Church. From this initiative, 150,000 surveys were received in seven languages from people living in 115 countries. “The potential of these digital missionaries has gained 20,000,000 followers,” Msgr Ruiz concluded.

Ecumenical aspect

Father Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P., Official from the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, stated that “one of the gifts Catholics can perhaps receive from other Christians is precisely their synodal experience.” Therefore, his Dicastery, with the help of the Angelicum Institute of Ecumenical Studies and the Pro Oriente Foundation of Vienna, organized four international conferences in 2022 and 2023 to understand the synodal experience from other Christian realities. Catholic theologians and members of the General Secretariat for the Synod were also present to listen and understand what the Church might learn from them. Regarding these conferences, Fr Destivelle reported the Pope as saying, “The path of synodality, which the Catholic Church is traveling, is and must be ecumenical, just as the ecumenical journey is synodal”. This highlights, Fr Destivelle noted, that “the ecumenical movement thus contributes to the ongoing synodal process…but the Catholic Church’s synodal process is contributing to the ecumenical movement.”

Next synodal steps

The next step in the Synodal process is the writing and publication of the Instrumentum laboris. Sr Nathalie said she expects the document to be available and presented by the end of May. The content of the document has yet to be drafted, she said. One of the key points she says has already emerged is that “through this synodal process, we are discerning and learning more how to be one Church in this diversity of cultures, contexts.” This raises questions about “what should be decided at what level, how to articulate this important principle of unity with adaptation and flexibility. And this synod is an exercise of that.”

Based on his experience with the Plenary Council of the Church in Australia, Archbishop Costelloe emphasized that the synodal journey is an ongoing process. The temptation is to want to “know at various stages along the journey what the outcome, what the conclusion would be. But to determine the conclusion now is to dismiss the importance of the journey towards the conclusion,” he explained. This means allowing the synod to unfold, using the “skills and insights” that have come to the surface, “putting our trust that the Holy Spirit is leading us in the direction the Lord wants us to go.”

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20 April 2023, 16:12