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Synod announces new study groups, ‘permanent forum’ on synodality

Pope Francis announced on Thursday the creation of 10 new study groups, which will meet in coming months to discuss topics raised in the first global session of the Synod on Synodality.

The work of the study groups will stretch beyond the October synod gathering in Rome, extending the already-lengthened synod process that began with local consultations and listening sessions in 2021.

While the study groups will give a brief report on their work at global synod gathering this October, they are not expected to conclude their work until at least June 2025.

Meanwhile, the second global gathering of the Synod on Synodality, to be held in Rome this October, will narrow its focus to the question of “How to be a synodal Church on mission?”

The General Secretariat of the Synod has also announced that it will create a “permanent Forum” on synodality in the Church, “to deepen the theological, juridical, pastoral, spiritual and communicative aspects of the Church’s synodality.”

The permanent forum will function “at the service of the synodal process in a broader sense” and will work to explore “the terminological and conceptual understanding of the notion and practice of synodality.”

In a March 14 letter to Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the General Secretariat of the Synod, Pope Francis explained that the 10 new study groups will conduct an in-depth examination of the 10 reflection points released by the pope last month.

The reflection points draw from the Synthesis Report that came out of the first global synod meeting last October.

The study groups will include bishops and experts in various disciplines from across the world. They will follow an “authentically synodal method” and will take “into consideration not only existing studies, but also the most relevant current experiences in the People of God gathered in the local Churches,” Francis said.

In conjunction with the pope’s letter, the General Secretariat of the Synod released on Thursday an outline for the questions which the new study groups will consider, in collaboration with the dicasteries of the Roman Curia.

Some of the synod’s most controversial topics – including the question of the female diaconate and discernment of ethical anthropological issues – are included in the questions for discussion by the study groups, meaning they will not be the focus of discussion at the Vatican gathering in October.

One study group will be asked to “reinterpret the traditional categories of anthropology, soteriology and theological ethics with a view to better clarifying the relationship between charity and truth in fidelity to Jesus’s life and teaching, and consequently also between pastoral care and (moral) doctrine.”

The outline cites the need to “better articulate the circular relationship between doctrine and pastoral care.”

It quotes the Synthesis Report, which states that “Sometimes the anthropological categories that we have elaborated are not sufficient to grasp the complexity of the elements that emerge from experience or from the knowledge of the sciences and require refinement and further study.”

Another study group will consider “a greater recognition and appreciation of the contribution of women and a growth in the pastoral responsibilities entrusted to them in all areas of the life and mission of the Church,” including the theological and pastoral question of female deacons, “benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father.”

One study group will consider ecumenical initiatives, including an “[i]n-depth study from a theological, canonical and pastoral point of view of the issue of Eucharistic hospitality (communicatio in sacris), in light of the connection between sacramental and ecclesial communion, with particular reference to the experience and ecumenical significance of interchurch couples and families.”

Another will be tasked with reviewing and considering revisions to Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, the Vatican’s 2016 guidelines on seminary formation, from the perspective of “a synodal missionary Church, at the service of the Episcopal Conferences.”

Other study groups will focus on ways to better listen to and accompany the poor and marginalized; the mission of the Church in the digital world; relations between Latin and Eastern Churches; the role of papal nuncios in a synodal Church; criteria for the selection of bishops; and the relationship between bishops, consecrated men and women, and ecclesial movements.

A second document released Thursday by the General Secretariat of the Synod outlines five perspectives being considered by a separate set of working groups ahead of the October meeting.

These groups are all guided by the central question of “How to be a synodal Church on mission?”

The focus on the “how” of synodality will replace the questions on controversial subjects that drew significant attention in the first global synod gathering last year.

“The objective is to identify the paths to take and the tools to adopt in the different contexts and circumstances, so as to enhance the originality of each baptised person and each Church in the unique mission of proclaiming the Risen Lord and His Gospel to the world today,” the document said.

“It is therefore not a question of limiting ourselves to the plan of technical or procedural improvements that make the Church’s structures more efficient, but of working on the concrete forms of the missionary commitment to which we are called, in the dynamism between unity and diversity proper to a synodal Church.”

With an emphasis on “[t]he dynamic connection between the participation of all and the authority of some,” five working groups composed of diverse experts are being convened to study “the life of the missionary synodal Church,” the document explained.

The working groups’ study will contribute to the working document to be used for the next global session of the synod, along with material from bishops’ conference consultations and an international meeting of priests to be held this spring.

Three groups will explore the search for the “synodal missionary face” of the Church at different levels: the local Church, Church groupings such as national episcopal conferences, and the universal Church.

At each level, the groups will consider themes such as participation, collegiality, ecumenism, and decision-making.

Another group will consider the synodal method itself, looking at the spiritual, institutional, procedural, and liturgical dimensions of the life of the Church.

A final group will examine the way in which the particularities of different places and cultures factor into a synodal Church.

In their work, the document released Thursday said, the groups should remember the balance between plurality and unity, and “the exquisitely spiritual character of the synodal process.”

The groups should also be guided by the principle that evangelization is the driving force behind the Church, it said.

“What is most effective in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel must be privileged, finding the courage to abandon what proves to be less useful or even an obstacle…Any changes in Church structures must be designed to be effective in responding to the challenges of mission in today’s world.”

Another principle guiding the groups’ theological study is “the promotion and participation in the mission,” through the exercise of the sensus fidei in synergy with the exercise of authority by the bishops.

“Synodal dimension and hierarchical dimension are…not in competition,” the document said. “The tension that unites them is an important source of dynamism. In particular, decision-making processes are the place to creatively handle this tension so that each one is allowed to exercise its specific responsibility without being dispossessed of it.”

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