The synod on synodality must avoid “the temptation to build some other church,” a Polish delegate told Europe’s synodal continental assembly on Tuesday.
Speaking on Feb. 7, the third day of the week-long gathering in Prague, Aleksander Bańka said that the aim of October’s meeting of the world’s bishops in Rome should be to deepen the “spirituality of synodality” within the Church as established by Christ.
“The goal of the discussion at the first synodal assembly in October 2023 should not be to succumb to the temptation to build some other church, but to seek answers to the question of how to realize the spirituality of synodality within the one Church of Christ, with its hierarchical structure,” said the lay philosophy professor, who is one of four Polish Church representatives at the Feb. 5-9 meeting.
He spoke the day after German leaders urged participants to consider adopting the goals of the country’s controversial “synodal way.”
Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, and Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), told delegates on Feb. 6 that the Church needed sweeping structural changes in response to systemic abuse.
Church leaders in Poland and Germany have disagreed openly over the synodal way, which has faced a series of Vatican interventions since it was launched in 2019.
Polish bishops’ conference president Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki wrote a letter to Bishop Bätzing last February expressing concern over the initiative’s direction. The German bishop replied, assuring him that the German Church was not seeking “renewal carelessly and certainly not outside the universal Church.”
In March 2022, the bishops of the Nordic countries — Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland — also wrote to Bishop Bätzing expressing alarm at the synodal way’s trajectory.
The Nordic delegation addressed the Prague assembly on Feb. 7.
Nik Bredholt said that Catholics in Denmark and Sweden sought “a Church which boldly proclaims its true doctrine and, at the same time, accepts and embraces people and accompanies them pastorally, ie, authentically lives the tension between truth and mercy.”
He continued: “One insight that is particularly important for Catholics in Finland and northern Norway is the ever-increasing tendency to see the Church mainly as a power structure. That needs to be challenged and changed.”
“However, it would be better not to forget that any real renewal and strengthening of synodality in the Church must start from the basic principles of the Church itself, from the grounds in which the Church was founded, from the side of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Fr. Marco Pasinato, also representing the Nordic countries, said that local Catholics were concerned about polarization within the Church in Europe.
He said: “The gap between conservative and progressive, between tradition and modernity, is becoming increasingly wide and more and more aggressive. This was felt to be particularly painful in the area of liturgy. The introduction of the Tridentine Rite under Pope Benedict XVI and its limitation by Pope Francis has led in the Nordic countries to tensions in some quarters.”
He added that there were also disagreements over Catholic teaching on sexual morality.
“In various discussions within and outside the Church, the question is asked whether the Church still has the ‘right’ to express itself in a demanding manner in questions of morality and sexual morality,” he said, “But is the term ‘right’ the right one in this context? To what extent is a distinction still made between members of the institution and the institution itself?”
Fr. Pasinato suggested that the synodal process should always keep in mind the Church’s nature.
“What is the Church and what is it not?” he asked. “Is the Church just a social institution, or the body of the Lord? How can the Church be truly renewed without betraying its divine origin?”
“It is very difficult to rekindle love for the Church after the transgressions of abuse. But in the end, we only care about things we love, and without this new love, awakened, felt, and shown for the Church, the temptation can be great to see the Church only as a structural phenomenon that can be changed at will.”
Also addressing the assembly on Feb. 7 were Irish Church representatives. They underlined that “abuse is an open wound and will remain a barrier to communion, participation, and mission until it is comprehensively addressed.”
They also expressed the belief “that much abuse could have been prevented had we been truly synodal, open, and listening to the voices and gifts of all our family.”
Around 200 delegates from more than 40 countries — including Ukraine and Russia — are taking part in person in the Prague meeting, alongside 390 online participants.
The gathering, held in a pyramid-shaped four-star hotel, is divided into two parts: an ecclesial assembly, involving “the entire People of God,” followed by an episcopal assembly consisting of the presidents of Europe’s bishops’ conference.
The week-long discussions will be summed up in a final document, created with the help of a six-person redaction committee. Bishops’ conference presidents will publish a separate commentary on the final document. The texts will be submitted to the Vatican before the “universal phase” of the global synodal process begins in Rome this October.
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Tuesday’s session began with a Mass celebrated by Vatican Cardinal Marc Ouellet.
In his homily, the outgoing prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops suggested that the biblical vision of man and woman created in the image of God should serve as “a precious beacon for our debates and discernments.”
He said: “In today’s Gospel, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their hypocrisy regarding God's commandment: Honor your father and your mother. The Pharisees practice an interpretation that allows them to disregard the word of God for their own selfish interests. The Lord takes exception to this mentality that claims to obey God while acting contrary to His Word.”
“This warning also concerns us and challenges us in our work to achieve a more synodal Church. Are we not sometimes tempted to interpret the Word of God in a way that is contrary to what it really says?”
Cardinal Ouellet was one of three Vatican cardinals who signed a recent letter informing German synodal way organizers that they had no authority to establish a permanent council of lay people and bishops to oversee the local Church. He also appealed unsuccessfully for a moratorium on the initiative during the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome last November.
The Mass was followed by presentations by 13 national delegations, with a three-minute pause for prayer after every fourth address.
The assembly then split along linguistic lines into 14 groups of 13 delegates, before returning to the main hall to share summaries of their discussions.
In the evening, 13 more national delegations were due to share their reports in a session moderated by Beate Gilles, general secretary of the German bishops’ conference, followed by a free dialogue.
Among the first 13 delegations to address the assembly on Feb. 6 were representatives of the Church in England and Wales.
National ecumenical officer Fr. Jan Nowotnik noted that among the 10 English and Welsh delegates following the meeting online were “a representative of the Jewish community and also a representative from the Anglican Communion.”
“They have given us very generous insights and we’re glad for that,” he said.
Bishop Nicholas Hudson, an auxiliary bishop of Westminster diocese, said that the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS), the working text for the present stage of the synodal process, “correctly identified the tension between young people who seek to adhere to the 1962 Missal and those prefer more contemporary celebrations.”
But he added: “We felt DCS did not communicate sufficiently the ‘sadness and anger… sense of grievance and marginalization’ of many around the liturgy.”
He added: “As in most countries, many English and Welsh priests were unclear as to how they were supposed to engage with the synodal process. As in most countries, there was frequent expression of appreciation for our priests, along with concern that too much is asked of them. However, clergy and laity alike were surprised to find scant reference in DCS to clerical sexual abuse.”
Speaking during a lively free discussion period on Monday evening, Bishop Bätzing lamented what he said was a lack of attention to clerical abuse survivors at the continental stage of the synodal process. He said he found it incomprehensible that the “hundreds of thousands of victims” did not have a voice at the synod.