On October 27, the Synod Office released a working document, entitled, “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” a distillation of reports from 112 of the 114 episcopal conferences, 15 Eastern Catholic Churches, 17 Roman dicasteries, religious communities and lay movements on the synodal process to date. The working document is intended to form the basis of further reflections in seven continental ecclesial assemblies that will gather between now and March of 2023.
I will be the first to admit that when Pope Francis invited the whole of the Catholic Church to enter a process of sustained spiritual conversation and reflect together on how we experience and might become a more synodal church, I held my breath. Should one even dare to hope?
Little in the recent history of Catholic ecclesial life has really prepared us for such an exchange. The report of the Canadian Conference of Bishops notes on several occasions how participants shared their experiences of “difficulty speaking out freely and authentically in the Church, whether because of fear of being ‘shut down’ or fear that their contributions would have no effect.” Despite a deep faith and love for the church, they embarked upon the process with misgivings, feeling “that the Church’s capacity to listen was poor and that concrete responses were rare.”
Generations of committed Christians might be forgiven for harboring such hesitations. They have witnessed a host of concerned and well-educated laity, survivors of sexual abuse, the LGBTQ community, divorced and remarried persons, former priests, religious women and others being shunned, banned from church properties, uninvited from church-sponsored events, unfairly accused of disloyalty and otherwise alienated. A church often given to the politics of condemnation and exclusion now invites them to speak—boldly, with parrhesia—and offers to listen “in an open and non-judgmental way.” That we are having a conversation at all is remarkable, and long overdue.
Pope Francis’ huge wager is that we will learn along the way. By leaning into the process of dialogue and walking together on the path of shared discernment, our eyes are opened to recognize the Spirit at work in the collective wisdom and rich diversity of gifts just waiting to be received. His call reflects a profound faith in the Spirit who has anointed all the baptized faithful and who never fails to guide them.
The Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) is not the product of a single theology or ideological agenda but is the fruit of a lived experience of synodality, one which is reawakening the awareness of our common dignity as baptized Christians. Reports from various episcopal conferences do not hesitate to describe the synodal experience as one of “liberation,” “the end of a collective alienation from one’s identity as a synodal Church,” and even “the first steps of the return from an experience of collective exile, the consequences of which affect the entire People of God.” These observations are at once a stinging indictment and a profound insight into the grace and healing afforded by the revival of synodal culture, one rooted in the equality of baptismal dignity.
It might be tempting to focus on the sadness expressed at the failure to really reach, welcome and fully hear the voices of those too often marginalized: women, the elderly and the young, the LGBTQ community, those belonging to marginalized racial, ethnic, indigenous communities, the differently abled, the poor, other Christians, those belonging to non-Christian religions and those of no religious affiliation. Beneath the weight of disappointment is an aspiration to listen and learn, to be more hospitable, to overcome the gap between the message proclaimed and the reality of our communities, to be a more credible church.
What shines forth on every page is a deep desire to continue on the synodal way, to nourish a more synodal culture, one that is supported by structures, practices and especially “renewed forms of leadership” that will foster greater communion and participation in view of Christ’s mission in the world. The scale of conversion required will not happen overnight and cannot be left to chance. One of the most frequently used words in the DCS is “formation” and its corollaries, which appear more than two dozen times: “to function in a truly synodal way, structures will need to be inhabited by people who are well-formed, in terms of vision and skills.” It is high time to rethink the curricula of Christian initiation, seminary, theological, pastoral and adult faith formation programs. More adequate training in the habits of authentic listening and dialogue, and the development of a capacity for discerning the movements of God’s Spirit will be essential to fostering genuine synodality and a deeper consciousness of the coresponsibility of all the baptized for the life and mission of the church.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.