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Synod report proposes ways to foster synodal Church

Participants in the synod on synodality endorsed a report Saturday proposing potentially far-reaching changes to foster a synodal Church.

The 42-page “synthesis report” —  “A synodal Church in mission” — summarized discussions at the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, as the synod on synodality is formally known. The second and conclusive session will be held at the Vatican in October 2024.

According to a voting schema issued Oct. 28, all sections of the report gained the two-thirds majority of votes necessary for inclusion in the document. A draft text, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, reportedly prompted more than 1,000 requests for amendments.

The more than 400 participants — who sat at round tables in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, rather than in the customary new synodal hall, during the largely closed-door event —  included over 300 voting members, a significant proportion of whom were “non-bishops.”

The nearly 21,000-word report, released initially only in Italian, made detailed proposals to promote what it called “the style of synodality” throughout the Church.


Not a final document

The October 2023 and October 2024 sessions of the synod on synodality form the “universal phase” of an unprecedented global “synodal process,” launched by Pope Francis in October 2021. 

The universal phase follows an initial “diocesan phase,” which involved local listening sessions, and a “continental phase,” marked by seven continental assemblies.

The synod on synodality, whose theme is “For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission,” has been billed as the most important Catholic gathering since the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65 and the centerpiece of Pope Francis’ pontificate. The Synod of Bishops is an advisory body that can make proposals for the pope’s consideration.

The synthesis report presented the synod on synodality in the context of Vatican II, describing it as “a true act of reception of the Council, prolonging its inspiration and relaunching its prophetic force for today’s world.”

The text emphasized that it was not a “final document” — the name given to texts issued at the end of a synodal assembly containing recommendations for the pope — but rather “a tool at the service of ongoing discernment.”

The synthesis report consisted of an introduction, a conclusion, and three sections, entitled respectively “The face of the synodal Church,” “All disciples, all missionaries,” and “Weaving bonds, generating communities.”

Each section contained subtopics split into three headings: “Convergences,” which highlighted areas of agreement, “Matters for consideration,” pointing to subjects for further discussion, and “Proposals,” suggesting specific actions.  

Defining synodality

The report acknowledged that the term “synodality” was “unfamiliar to many members of the People of God” and caused “confusion and concern” in some quarters.

“Synodality can be understood as the walk of Christians with Christ toward the Kingdom, together with all humanity,” it said. “Its orientation is towards mission, and its practice involves gathering in assembly at each level of ecclesial life.”

But the text noted a need to “clarify the meaning of synodality at different levels.” 

It called for an “in-depth terminological and conceptual study of the notion and practice of synodality” before the synod on synodality’s second session, drawing on the International Theological Commission’s 2018 document “Synodality in the life and mission of the Church” and its 2014 textSensus fidei in the life of the Church.”

It also said that a “special intercontinental commission of theologians and canonists” should examine synodality’s canonical implications.

The ‘sensus fidei’

The report made several references to the sensus fidei, or “sense of the faith,” a theological term whose meaning and application are sometimes contested within the Church.

The text said: “Before any distinction of charisms and ministries, ‘we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13). Therefore, among all the baptized, there is a genuine equality of dignity and a common responsibility for mission.” 

“By the anointing of the Spirit, who ‘teaches all things’ (1 Jn 2:27), all believers possess an instinct for the truth of the gospel, the sensus fidei. It consists in a certain connaturality with divine realities and the aptitude to grasp what conforms to the truth of faith intuitively.”

“Synodal processes enhance this gift and allow for verifying the existence of that consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium), which is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the Apostolic faith.”

Liturgical language

The text said there was a “widely reported need to make liturgical language more accessible to the faithful and more embodied in the diversity of cultures.” 

“Without questioning continuity with ritual tradition and the need for liturgical formation, reflection on this issue and the attribution of greater responsibility to the episcopal conferences in this area is urged, along the lines of the motu proprio Magnum Principium,” it said.

But the text offered a word of caution regarding experiments “with forms of decentralization,” stressing the need for “a shared framework for their management and evaluation” and for discernment “in a synodal style.”

It also called for the involvement of Indigenous Catholics “in decision-making processes at all levels,” saying that this “can contribute to a more vibrant and missionary Church.”

Eastern Catholic Churches

Turning to the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome, the report mentioned a proposal for the creation of a council connecting the heads of the Eastern Catholic Churches with the pope, as well as a “joint commission of Eastern and Latin theologians, historians and canonists” to address complex issues. 

It also called for “adequate representation of members of the Eastern Catholic Churches in the dicasteries of the Roman Curia.” 

Eucharistic hospitality

In a section on ecumenism, the report called for the further examination of “Eucharistic hospitality,” known in Latin communicatio in sacris, in which Christians receive the Eucharist at churches outside their own communions. It said this reflection was particularly important to inter-church couples.

Role of the laity

The text noted that many assembly members had highlighted the danger of “‘clericalizing’ the laity, creating a kind of lay elite that perpetuates inequalities and divisions among the People of God.”

But it said that participants also called for “more creativity in establishing [lay] ministries according to the needs of local Churches, with a particular involvement of young people.”

“One can think of further expanding responsibilities assigned to the existing ministry of lector, responsibilities which are already considered wider than those performed in the liturgy,” it said. “This could become a fuller ministry of the Word of God, which, in appropriate contexts, could also include preaching.” 

The text also floated the idea of a new ministry “assigned to married couples committed to supporting family life and accompanying people preparing for the sacrament of marriage.”

Women in the Church

In a significant passage, the report said: “There is an urgent need to ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes and take on roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry.” 

“The Holy Father has significantly increased the number of women in positions of responsibility in the Roman Curia,” it added. “The same should happen at other levels of the life of the Church. Canon law must be adapted accordingly.”

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Women deacons debate

While acknowledging differences of opinion on the topic at the assembly, the text noted that “theological and pastoral research on women’s access to the diaconate” would continue, drawing on the work of commissions established by Pope Francis, as well as previous academic studies.

It said that “if possible, the results should be presented at the next session of the assembly” in October 2024.

Summarizing the range of views on the subject, it said: “For some, this step would be unacceptable because they consider it a discontinuity with Tradition. For others, however, granting women access to the diaconate would restore the practice of the Early Church.” 

“Others still discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church.” 

“Some express concern that the request speaks of a worrying anthropological confusion, which, if granted, would marry the Church to the spirit of the age.”

The paragraphs addressing women deacons received the most “no” votes among participants. They were passed 277-69 and 279-67 respectively.

The report also called for women to “be integrated into seminary teaching and training programs,” as is already the case in many Western countries.

It said that liturgical texts and Church documents should “be more attentive not only to the use of language that takes men and women into equal account, but also to the inclusion of a range of words, images, and narratives that draw with greater vitality on women’s experience.”

Religious orders

Addressing the role of religious orders in the Church’s life, the document appealed for the revision of Mutuae relationes, a 1978 document on the connection between bishops and religious, in the light of synodality, involving everyone who is affected by the topic.

Priests and deacons

The text called for “special attention” to the formation of priests and deacons, “to avoid the risks of formalism and ideology that lead to authoritarian attitudes.”

It proposed a “thorough review of formation for ordained ministry” in view of synodality, including of the Ratio fundamentalis, a document setting out the principles for priestly formation.

It also asked for “further consideration” of priestly celibacy, while noting contrasting opinions among delegates. This paragraph received a notable number of “no” votes but was adopted by 291-55.

Also garnering a significant number of “no” votes (61) was a paragraph that said: “The uncertainties surrounding the theology of the diaconate are related to the fact that it has only been restored to a distinct and permanent hierarchical ministry in the Latin Church since the Second Vatican Council. Deeper study will shed light on the access of women to the diaconate.”

Bishops in a synodal Church

Addressing the sensitive topic of the role of bishops in a synodal Church, the text proposed a process “for regular review of the bishop’s work, with reference to the style of his authority, the economic administration of the diocese’s assets, and the functioning of participatory bodies, and protection against any type of abuse.”

It also noted calls for episcopal councils and diocesan pastoral councils to be made mandatory. Elsewhere, it urged that the “obligatory nature” of pastoral councils be “codified.”

The assembly asked for a review of the criteria for selecting bishops, “balancing the authority of the apostolic nuncio with the participation of the episcopal conference.”

In a possible echo of a proposal endorsed by Germany’s synodal way, it called for broader “consultation of the People of God, listening to a greater number of lay men and women, consecrated men and women, and taking care to avoid inappropriate pressure.”

The report also sought a way of evaluating the work of papal nuncios by the local Churches in the countries where they are sent, “to facilitate and perfect their service.”

It called for steps to “enhance and strengthen the experience of the Council of Cardinals (C-9) as a synodal council at the service of the Petrine ministry.”

It also said: “In light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary to carefully examine whether it is appropriate to ordain the prelates of the Roman Curia as bishops.”

Open questions

In a section entitled “Ecclesial discernment and open questions,” the document suggested that, “to avoid taking refuge in the comfort of conventional formulas,” it was necessary to consider “perspectives from the human and social sciences, philosophical reflection and theological elaboration.”

“Certain issues, such as those relating to gender identity and sexual orientation, the end of life, difficult marital situations, and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence, are controversial not only in society, but also in the Church, because they raise new questions,” said the document, which, unlike the assembly’s working document, did not use the term “LGBTQ+.”

In a subsection entitled “For a Church that listens and accompanies,” the report encouraged the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) “to promote theological and pastoral discernment on the topic of polygamy and on the accompaniment of people in polygamous unions who are coming to faith.”

Listening ministry

The report suggested for the establishment of “a baptismal ministry of listening and accompanying.” 

“The manner in which it is conferred will make it clear that it is not exercised in a personal capacity, but on behalf of the community,” it said.

Bishops’ conferences

The text noted that bishops’ conferences had played a “decisive role” in the first, local phase of the synodal process. 

It said: “We consider it necessary to further study the doctrinal and juridical nature of the episcopal conferences, recognizing the possibility of collegial action also with respect to doctrinal issues that emerge in the local context, thus reopening the reflection on the motu proprio Apostolos suos.”

The report proposed the creation of international ecclesiastical provinces, for the benefit of bishops who do not belong to any episcopal conference and to promote communion between Churches beyond national borders.

It also recommended that in Latin Rite countries where there is also a hierarchy of Eastern Catholic Churches, the Eastern bishops should be included in the national episcopal conferences, without losing their governmental autonomy.

In addition, it called for “a canonical configuration of the continental assemblies,” referring to the meetings held during the second stage of the synodal process.

Synod delegates issued their first document Oct. 25. The 1,200-word “Letter to the people of God” described the assembly’s process, which featured a method known as “conversation in the Spirit,” and expressed hopes that “the months leading to the second session in October 2024 will allow everyone to concretely participate in the dynamism of missionary communion indicated by the word ‘synod.’” 

In the final, live-streamed portion of Saturday’s session, Pope Francis thanked the organizers of the event and led prayers of thanksgiving.

Speaking at an evening Vatican press conference, the synod on synodality’s general rapporteur Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J, said that some bishops were initially skeptical about the event, but bought into the process during the pre-synod retreat.

“Everybody was happy. Everybody felt that he or she was part of something big,” said the Archbishop of Luxembourg, who steered the four-week gathering to its conclusion. “And I think people will leave the day after tomorrow with a heart full of hope, with a lot of ideas, and I am looking forward to seeing them back next year.”

The synod on synodality’s first session will close formally Oct. 29 with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at 10 a.m. local time. Pope Francis will preside and is expected to deliver a homily that may include reflections on the assembly. 

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