Participants in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops gather for an afternoon session Oct. 25, 2023, in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Synod was a true dialogue of the Church in the Third Millenium

By  Catherine Pead
  • November 3, 2023

Three of us from Concerned Lay Catholics agreed to make the trip to Rome. We saw this as an opportunity to connect with and learn from similar organizations working in other parts of the world, and to learn as much as possible about the official Synodal process itself. We had connections to people both inside and outside the process, so we were confident that our experience would be balanced and well-informed.

Our Airbnb lay in the shadow of the dome of St. Peter’s. Less than a 10-minute walk along the via Aurelia was the aula—the Hall of Paul VI—where every day except Sunday the 364 delegates to the 16th General Assembly of Bishops met in Synod.  A tougher 10-minute walk in the opposite direction up a very steep hill lay the Casa Bonus Pastor. This is where several of the extra-synodal gatherings took place including the Spirit Unbounded conference which we attended.

Along the via Aurelia from Casa Bonus Pastor, tracing the outline of the walls of the Vatican, one arrives at Paul VI Hall on the way to St. Peter’s Square. The line between the two groups—those inside and those outside the proceedings—could not have been more starkly drawn. The route was heavily patrolled by carabinieri (police) on the look out for unregistered demonstrators, or worse. Some of the groups that had arrived in Rome earlier had learned the requirements to hold a demonstration and filed the necessary paperwork. Others chose instead to hold ‘prayer vigils’, forgoing the visual impact of signs and placards. At no time did I witness anyone engaging in disrespectful or aggressive behaviour.

In terms of the ‘inside’, we learned through the daily press briefings and posts from the Synod’s social media accounts what was happening in the aula. Pictures revealed a large gathering of many people, diverse in every way: language, colour, dress, gender, culture, state. Spacious vaulted ceiling, bathed in glorious light, and graced with dazzling works of art, including a beautiful sculpture of the Risen Christ. Also, not to be ignored, the latest technology available at very table to facilitate communication through translation and real-time recording. Surely this is what it means to be “one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic church” in the Third Millenium! 

Our physical location on the border between the two venues, mirrored CLC’s spiritual location in the Church. Concerned Lay Catholics in Canada is a lay-led organization whose vision, mission, and values flow from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the vision of Pope Francis, and the call of the Canadian Bishops for healing, reconciliation and transformation. 

According to Vatican II, the Church is the whole people of God. Lay people with their diverse knowledge and experience, have a right and a responsibility to contribute to our shared understanding of what the Spirit is saying to the Church. 

"[The laity] are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church."
Lumen Gentium: The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Second Vatican Council.

Situated, as we were, between the official Synodal process taking place in Paul VI Hall and the various groups holding extraneous meetings at Casa Bonus Pastor, another impression emerged for me: the border between the two groups, while obviously solid, is also quite porous. We saw synod delegates eating in the dining room of the Casa Bonus Pastor where some delegates were staying. People chatted with them. Three women delegates of the Synod attended a meeting organized by the Catholic Women’s Council (CWC), an umbrella organization of groups around the world working for the dignity and equality of women in the Church.

Our CLC delegation was fortunate to meet up for lunch with Dr. Catherine Clifford, a Canadian lay woman delegate of the Synod, and were welcomed to interview her afterwards. While at the English mass at Cara Vita community, we ran into Father James Martin SJ, advocate for greater inclusion of 2SLGBTQ+ Catholics in the Church. Synod delegates clearly had freedom in their downtime to meet with and talk to whomever they wished outside of the aula.

I observed a natural and organic cross-pollination going on between those ‘inside’ and those ‘outside,’ while maintaining the spirit of the Synod whose aim was to allow people inside to speak freely while in session and not worry that their comments would end up outside in the next day’s headlines.

There are two things I came away with and are still with me. First, is that I have to believe that everyone who came to Rome for the Synod, whether inside or outside, was there because they love the Church and want to contribute to its flourishing. If I do not start with that premise, then there is no hope for communion. Second, is that the process that was modelled inside the aula is a process that must be adopted across the global church.

Rather than wait to hear what the Synod delegates have to tell us next October when they meet again in the second session of the 16th General Assembly, every diocese and national conference should be emulating the process to discern what the Spirit is saying to the Church in their context. The call to be a synodal church, is a call to be open to hear what the ‘other’ is saying and to allow space for that experience to penetrate our own understanding. It cannot happen only in Rome.

We are at a critical point in the history of our church and of the world. I will ponder these wise thoughts in the coming days and weeks as we seek to move forward to become a synodal church in Canada. Fr. Nick Postlethwaite, CP, one of the speakers at the Spirit Unbounded conference reminded us that humans have two roles: "to be undertakers and to be midwives. We need to know when it is time to let things die ... With respect and lament, if needed. And we need to know when to allow new birth to emerge." Claudia Nothelle from Germany offered: "Tradition does not mean worshipping the ashes but passing on the fire."

Sr. Joan Chittister cautioned us to heed the wisdom of the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho: "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought."

(Catherine Pead is the Secretary of Concerned Lay Catholics)

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