The most important global project since Vatican II

In the ninth year of his pontificate, Pope Francis launched an ambitious threeyear worldwide “synodal process” (2021-2023). It will culminate in October 2023 in Rome with the XVI ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

May 28, 2021

Pope Francis poses for a selfie during a gathering of youth delegates at the Pontifical International Maria Mater Ecclesiae College in Rome, ahead of the Synod of Bishops on young people in 2018. (CNS file photo/Vatican Media)

By  Massimo Faggioli

It will culminate in October 2023 in Rome with the XVI ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

At that point, Francis will be almost 87 years old. By that age, all of his predecessors on the Chair of Peter had either died (with the exception of Leo XIII) or had resigned (such as Benedict XVI and Celestine V).

And if, God forbid, the Jesuit pope should not make it to 2023, this "synodal process" will have already begun. It's his insurance policy against the possibility that his pontificate will be promptly archived as a quick break before another pope returns to the status quo.

Even if there should be a conclave between now and the 2023 Synod assembly, the synodal process will be an integral part of the next conclave's agenda in a way not totally different from the papal election of June 1963.

The deceased pope, John XXIII, had already launched the first session of the Second Vatican Council in the autumn of 1962. His newly elected successor, Paul VI, continued the Council and brought the ship into port in December 1965.

It was no coincidence that Francis  and his highly regarded Synod secretary  general, Cardinal Mario Grech of Malta,  announced the synodal process just before Pentecost, the event when the Holy  Spirit manifests itself through multiple  languages and reveals unity in diversity. 

An ambitious project with various  risks
  But this global synodal process is not  only ambitious, it is also risky because  of its different phases – local, national/ continental, and central – that will highlight the radical differences in the ecclesial and existential conditions of local  Churches.

For instance, it will be interesting to  see what the diocesan phase of this synodal process will look like in places such  as Hong Kong, China or Belarus.

Synodality requires a minimum level  of religious freedom (freedom to gather  or to publish documents), which is currently barely adequate or nonexistent for  Catholics in many countries. 

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic  has now become a problem mostly for  poor and middle-income countries. It,  too, will have an impact on how some  local churches are able to celebrate synods at the diocesan and national levels.

This new global synodal process also  has to merge with ongoing national synodal paths that are already unfolding  (Germany and Australia) or are in the  planning stages (Ireland and Italy).

Currently in the Catholic Church,  there are vastly different ideas about  synodality, even among its advocates. 

Is the aim to create a more pastoral and  less clerical Church or is it to push for  doctrinal developments on certain critical issues (such as the role of women in  the Church, teaching on sexuality, etc.)?

What will the bishops do?
Cardinal Grech, in an important interview with official Vatican media,  stressed that the bishops and the national  episcopal conferences will play a crucial  role in this process. 

By October 2021, the bishops will have  to appoint persons or teams to oversee  the process (particularly of consulting the  People of God) at the diocesan and national levels. 

We already have a good idea who the  bishops are and how their national conferences operate. But we do not know who  they will choose as lay collaborators and  advisors, or how they plan to select them.

These appointments will give important  clues about the type of synodal process  the bishops have in mind.

Cardinal Grech intimated that this new  effort to implement synodality actually  denotes a shift from the age of John Paul  II and Benedict XVI, though he did not  mention the two by name. “Perhaps in  the past there has been so much insistence  on the communio hierarchica that there  arose the idea that unity in the Church  could only be achieved by strengthening  the authority of pastors,” the 64-year-old  cardinal said. “In some respects, that path  was in some ways necessary when, after  the Council, various forms of dissent had  appeared,” he added. 

Dissent does not manifest itself in organisations and movements today, but  mostly in individuals who leave the  Church — quietly, though often bitterly.

Being part of the ecclesial conversation
This synodal process is an invitation.  Discernment by the bishops will  be the focal point, but this process will  be also a discursive process – a languageprocess to paraphrase what Jesuit historian John O’Malley wrote about Vatican  II as a “language-event”. 

The Church is not a parliament, and  Francis has often warned against interpreting synodality as parliamentarism. 

But within this ecclesial conversation,  persuasion will play a role. And this opens  a huge problem in some Churches, such as  in the United States where “money talks”,  as the saying goes. 

The bishops will have to defend the  synodal process from the never-neutral  role of “independent” and militant neoCatholic media, cyber-militias and – in a  disguised, but no less dangerous way –  donors and pressure groups that now control much of the conversation in ecclesial  spaces.

Catholicism simply has no experience  of running synodal events at the national  and global levels in an information ecosystem that is largely shaped by digital  and social media. These media are beyond  the control of the institutional channels  run by the hierarchical Church. 

This synodal process is also the restitution of the ecclesial conversation to the  entire People of God. Up till now, particular agendas and idiosyncratic movements  have monopolised the conversation. This  new process is, in a sense, an act of rebalancing the politics that will have to have  preferential options in the Church. 

Women and young people
Without a non-perfunctory “prise de  la parole” by women (to quote French  Jesuit Michel de Certeau), this effort  towards synodality will be meaningless. 

This synodal process will live or die  by the kind of acknowledgment it gives  to the word of women who, for far too  long, have been treated as guests in  their own house. This is especially true  for the Catholic Church in the Western  hemisphere, but not only. 

This synodal process will also have  to make relevant space, in both its liturgical and conversational moments,  for young people– and not just for the  hand-picked “churchy” types. 

As Pope Francis noted in his letter to  the youth four years ago: “St Benedict  urged the abbots to consult even the  young before any important decision,  because ‘the Lord often reveals to the  younger what is best’.” (Rule of St Benedict, III, 3)

The Vatican and the world’s bishops  will have to manage a variety of expectations. Some expect this synodal  process to be like a nice gathering for  small Church talk, while others see it as  the opportunity to raise epochal issues –  something like a Vatican III.

This synodal process will likely be  neither. 

An unprecedented invitation, an important ecclesial event 
But at the same time, the Church’s leaders must not immediately dash expectations, either. This synodal process will  have to defeat the cynicism and bitterness that sadly defaces some of our ecclesial conversations today.

The concept of synodality as “the  people walking together” is essentially  the opposite of the “ecclesioclastic”  rage where the Catholic Church seems  to be blamed for everything and anything. 

But this synodal process could go  sideways very quickly and, in some  local Churches, become a means for a  faction to wield reactionary power.  Recent Church history is full of failed  “ecclesial events” that reinforced mechanisms of exclusion. 

One would search in vain for the word  “synodality” (let alone the concept) in  the teachings of Francis’ predecessors. 

What is about to start has its roots in  the Second Vatican Council and could  become the most important ecclesial  event in global Catholicism since Vatican II.

The biggest risk of this synodal process is that it could reinforce the resentment of many Catholics against an  institutional Church that continually invites people but never really lets them  in. 

However, this is an unprecedented  invitation coming from the Pope, and  it should be received with hope.

Whose synodality? Social alliances and institutional models in global Catholicism

The future of synodality. Who and what are the driving forces of synodality today?
The Pope’s stern warning to avoid  turning synods into parliaments  should not be interpreted as a defensive attitude by the ecclesiastical institution. Rather, it should  be seen as a realistic response to  the current situation of the global  Church where the parallel synodality-parliamentarism is rife with  problems. 

And it’s not just a problem in  the Churches of the global south,  if one considers the crisis of democracy and of democratic culture  also among Catholics in the United  States. Synodal Church means ecclesial processes that are less centred on the clergy and more open  to the leadership role of the laity, especially women. But the big  question is — who and what are  the driving forces of synodality? 

And the answer is complex.

What are the social alliances at  the centre of ecclesial synodality in  the 21st century? What classes or  class fragments are allied with the  Church turning to synodality? 

What sections of the Church, or  specific actors are at the centre of  the synodal movement? What organisations and networks?

Something like the Central  Committee of German Catholics,  which — together with the bishops’ conference — is at the centre  of the “Synodal Path”, exists only  in Germany. What are the ruling models in  people’s heads and where do they  come from? How are they shaped  by class alliances? The owning  class, the professional managerial  class, the technical-bureaucratic  class, the working class, the poor?

For example, Francis is a Jesuit,  and his idea of synodality, with  discernment at the centre, reflects  his Jesuit formation and identity. 

At the same time, if one looks  at the history of the Pope’s 16th  century religious order, it is evident that its class alliances have  evolved from the European elites  in the early modern period to the  turn to social change in the postVatican II period. 

It is not just an issue for the global Church far from Europe. On the  Old Continent, the synodal experiences in Germany, Italy and Ireland are in the context of an established Church. The Church is still  a pillar of those countries, even in  the context of secularisation. But is  synodality the beginning of a transformation from pillar to a different  form of presence? This is one of  the reasons the purely sociological measures used to understand  the Church remain fundamentally  Protestant and Anglo-American  and, therefore inadequate to comprehend global Catholicism. Synods are not parliaments, and yet,  synodality is a way of engaging  institutional and ecclesial connections by another means. And this  is crucially important in a time of  anger and detachment vis-à-vis  institutions; at a time when institutions are automatically cast as  evil. But the future of synodality  depends also on the ability to understand that the preparation, celebration and reception of a synod  for the Catholic Church takes different shapes. It was different in an  imperial Church (like in the early  centuries until the Middle Ages)  than it was in a European or colonial Church (as in the early modern  and modern period).

And it will be different in today’s global Church where the  relationship between the ecclesial order and the social, political  and economic orders is made of  many different models. Francis  has warned repeatedly since October 2015 against the temptation  to see synods as parliaments of  the Church. Yet, the Church currently looks like a parliament with  many voices. It’s not simply the  projection of political ideas on the  Church. Contemporary men and  women are, themselves, each one  of them, a parliament with many  voices, as German Benedictine  theologian Elmar Salmann said recently at an important conference  on the future of theology organised by the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute in Rome.  It would be naïve to separate the  current Catholic conversation on  ecclesial synodality from the sensibility of the homo democraticus  – men and women steeped in the  culture of human rights, communicative dissent and, most of all,  egalitarianism. But this is happening in a global context where the  connection between the Church  and the culture of participation  and inclusion takes a significantly  different shape.–– LCI (

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