It’s tempting to think of Europe’s synodal continental assembly, which begins this Sunday in Prague, as a kind of ecclesiastical peace conference.
Assembled on one side of the room will be the German Church’s top brass, flanked by the Belgians, Swiss, and Austrians. On the other, the Polish bishops, backed up by the Hungarians, Bosnians, and Scandinavians.
In the middle will be the event’s anxious organizers, spouting platitudes about the need to overcome polarization as tempers rise and divisions deepen, before one side finally gives way, leaving the other to declare victory.
But is that really how the meeting will unfold?
It’s not hard to show that there are profound differences within the European Church. Just compare the German and Polish delegations to the Feb. 5-9 meeting.
The German Church is sending bishops’ conference president Bishop Georg Bätzing, and general secretary Beate Gilles, along with Irme Stetter-Karp and Thomas Söding, respectively the president and vice-president of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).
Bätzing, Stetter-Karp, and Söding are three of the four members of the committee overseeing Germany’s “synodal way,” a controversial multi-year initiative bringing together bishops and select lay people to discuss far-reaching changes to Church structures and teaching.
They will be arriving fresh from their latest run-in with the Vatican, which recently told them to abandon plans to create a permanent “synodal council” of lay people and bishops to oversee the local Church.
The Polish Church, meanwhile, is sending a delegation that will be led by Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki. Last February, the Polish bishops’ conference president issued a letter expressing grave misgivings about the synodal way.
“Faithful to the Church’s teaching, we should not yield to the pressures of the world or to the patterns of the dominant culture since this can lead to moral and spiritual corruption,” he told his German counterpart. “Let us avoid the repetition of worn-out slogans, and standard demands such as the abolition of celibacy, the priesthood of women, communion for the divorced, and the blessing of same-sex unions.”
Bätzing responded with a letter of his own, which could be summarized as saying: “You just don’t get it, do you?”
The sense of imminent confrontation between Church factions has been heightened by a recent Vatican letter to the world’s bishops, which tried to reassure Church leaders that they are more than bit-part players in the synodal process and that the “sole theme” up for discussion is synodality (and therefore, implicitly, not priestly celibacy, women priests, and same-sex blessings.)
But while you might think the Prague meeting will be a simple clash between two groups, that notion seems to crumble when you try to sort the delegations according to whether they are for the synodal way, against, or neutral.
In the “for” camp, you can certainly place Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
In the “against” group, you can drop Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, the Nordic countries, and Poland.
But beyond that, the delegations’ stances are hard to decipher. Where do the French, Irish, Portuguese, and Spanish stand?
It’s difficult to fit national groups of bishops into neatly opposing camps. And the difficulty of that exercise suggests that the Prague meeting will be more than a clash between two tribes with mutually exclusive ecclesiastical worldviews — though it will be that.
But even amid tension, organizers of the Prague meeting are aiming to offer a format for fruitful conversation, and for prayer.
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How it will work
The program for the five-day meeting seems to have been designed to undermine a sense of “us” and “them” among participants.
The gathering, at a four-star hotel near the Charles Bridge, will be split into two parts: an ecclesial assembly involving “the entire People of God,” followed by an episcopal assembly just for bishops.
(Whether the “entire People of God” can be represented by 200 delegates and 390 online participants is debatable. A small proportion of Catholics took part in the initial diocesan phase of the synodal process and an even tinier fraction will participate in the continental stage.)
Each day of the ecclesial assembly will include a Mass, working sessions involving all participants, and smaller group sessions.
According to Fr. Antonio Ammirati, the spokesman for the Prague meeting, organizers will try not to “put people from the same nation in the same group,” in an effort to “bring in a wide variety of national experiences.”
Organizers will also seek an even distribution of women and bishops across the small groups.
Each national bishops’ conference has nominated four people to attend the assembly and 10 to follow online. The Swiss delegation, for example, will consist of Bishop Felix Gmür of Basel and three women. The Swiss online representatives will include a consecrated virgin, Claire Jonard, and LGBT activist, Mentari Baumann.
Throughout the week, participants will discuss, pray about, and meditate on the “Document for the Continental Stage,” the working text issued by the Vatican. They will bring their reflections before the whole assembly. After every fourth speech, there will be a three-minute “meditative pause/prayer” — added, it seems, as a kind of safety valve.
An editorial committee of 10 people from across Europe will work on a final document, which is expected to be approved on Feb. 9, the assembly’s last day.
On Feb. 10, a meeting involving only the presidents of bishops’ conferences will begin. The Church leaders will “collectively review the synodal experience starting from the assembly’s final document,” then compose their own commentary on the final text.
Unlike the ecclesial assembly, whose working sessions will be live streamed, the episcopal assembly will take place behind closed doors — a measure seemingly aimed at ensuring that the bishops maintain a united front, or at least the appearance of one.
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Polarization in Prague
The assembly is not simply a “political” event; it is also a spiritual one. Communities of nuns have been asked to offer silent adoration while it takes place.
Archbishop Gintaras Grušas, president of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), has sought to lower expectations that Prague will be the venue for a decisive ideological clash between Church blocs.
Addressing the CCEE’s plenary assembly last October, he noted that at a Mass marking the 60th anniversary of the start of Vatican II, Pope Francis had asked God to “free us from the presumption of self-sufficiency,” to “lead us out of the fences of self-referentiality,” and to “free us from the diabolical artifice of polarizations, of ’isms.’”
“I believe these are valuable indications for the synod we are currently experiencing and for the continental stage,” the U.S.-born archbishop of Vilnius, Lithuania, said.
Ideological tensions may also be reduced by the continental stage’s position in the synodal process. It’s sandwiched between a diocesan phase described as the largest listening exercise ever undertaken by the Catholic Church and the eagerly awaited “universal phase,” when the world’s bishops gather in Rome to finalize recommendations for Pope Francis.
Synod organizers insist that the intermediate stage “is not yet the time to suggest answers, nor to decide on courses of action.” So, the final document in Prague is unlikely to be filled with sharply defined proposals. It may follow the “some Catholics want this, others want that” style of the “national synthesis” documents, or adopt the upbeat, ecclesial jargon-filled register of the Document for the Continental Stage.
The continental stage document is called “Enlarge the space of your tent.” Organizers seem to be preparing to take a big tent approach to the Prague assembly, trying to accommodate as many of the Church’s competing parties as they can while that’s still possible.
In recent weeks, supporters of the synodal process have touted its ability to overcome polarization. It often sounds like wishful thinking. Yet Pope Francis himself has a strong conviction that, when people with conflicting ideas open themselves to the Holy Spirit in an act of collective discernment, it can result in an “overflow,” in which an unexpected new path is opened by God’s grace.
That dynamic works, no doubt, for Jesuits on a 30-day retreat. But what about at a gathering of 200-plus people from more than 40 countries who are not necessarily formed in the Ignatian tradition? Is this model — to use a horrible business term — scalable?
Will the Prague meeting be more of a political event or a spiritual one? An ecclesiastical dustup or an exercise in discernment? That's not clear. But whatever happens in Prague, the meeting will likely forecast a great deal about what to expect this October, when the synod on synodality's final phase begins in Rome.