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Why is the Vatican reassuring bishops over the synodality synod?

Why is the Vatican reassuring bishops over the synodality synod?

Two central figures in the global synodal process released a lengthy letter to the world’s bishops Monday.

In the letter, issued in six languages, Cardinal Mario Grech and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich stress that bishops have a decisive role to play in the initiative, described by some commentators as the most important Church event since the Second Vatican Council.

The secretary general of the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops office, and the general rapporteur of the synod on synodality, say they are sharing their reflections with a sense of “urgency” ahead of an important new stage in the global process.

Their intervention follows criticism that bishops are only supporting actors in the synodal process, rather than the leading figures envisaged at the founding of the Church’s Synod of Bishops. The letter also appears shortly after a volley of complaints by prominent churchmen, who have lamented that the initiative is creating false expectations of changes to contested Church teachings and practices.

What exactly does the letter say? And why did Grech and Hollerich feel the need to say it now? The Pillar takes a look.

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What does the letter say?

The roughly 1,700-word letter underlines in its opening paragraph that “there is no exercise of ecclesial synodality without exercise of episcopal collegiality.”

It supports this with reference to Episcopalis communio, Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic constitution on the Synod of Bishops, a permanent advisory body to the pope established by Paul VI in 1965. The letter says that the novelty of Episcopalis communio was that it “transformed the Synod from an event into a process, articulated in stages.”

The letter argues that, as Paul VI said in the founding document Apostolica sollicitudo, the Synod “can be improved upon with the passing of time,” and this is what is happening now.  

Episcopalis communio, far from weakening an episcopal institution, in highlighting the process-oriented nature of the Synod, makes the role of Pastors and their participation in the various stages even more crucial,” it says.

The letter then insists that the “sole theme” for discussion in the culminating phase of the synodal process, when the bishops meet in Rome in October 2023 and October 2024, is the topic “For a Synodal Church: communion, participation, mission.”

This is the official theme chosen by Pope Francis for the two gatherings known in shorthand as the “synod on synodality” and in longhand as the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

The letter rejects the idea that it’s possible “to already know what the conclusions of the Synodal Assembly will be” or “to impose an agenda on the Synod, with the intention of steering the discussion and determining its outcome.”

“Those who claim to impose any one theme on the Synod forget the logic that governs the synod process: we are called to chart a ‘common course’ beginning with the contribution of all,” Grech and Hollerich say.

The letter then describes the initiative’s progress since its inception in October 2021, arguing that because its phases are closely linked, “other themes cannot be surreptitiously introduced, thereby exploiting the Assembly and disregarding the consultation of the People of God.”

The letter’s authors concede that “the scope or margins of the [Synod’s] theme were not clearly defined” in the initial listening phase. But they argue that “this lack of clarity has diminished in the subsequent steps.” They say this can be seen in bishops’ conference submissions to the Vatican in the diocesan phase, which were “the result of the discernment of the Pastors regarding the contributions made during the consultation of the People of God.”

Grech and Hollerich then explain how the bishops should treat the “Document for the Continental Stage” (DCS), a text intended to guide deliberations during the continental phase.

“The themes that the DCS proposes do not constitute the agenda of the next Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” they say, “but faithfully return what emerges from the syntheses sent by the Synods/Councils of the Churches sui iuris and by the Bishops’ Conferences, providing a glimpse of the face of a Church that is learning to listen to the Spirit through listening to one another.”

The cardinals add that continental assemblies, due to be held around the world next month, are supposed to identify “the priorities, recurring themes, and calls to action” in their regions through reflection on the DCS. The assemblies are the central events in the continental stage of synodal process, which comes between the diocesan phase and universal phase.

The letter proposes that it is impossible to address “often divisive” questions without first answering what it calls “the great question” after Vatican II: “Church, what do you say of yourself?” It says that “the answer is in the Church that is ‘constitutively synodal,’ where all are called to exercise their ecclesial charism in view of carrying out the common mission of evangelization.”

The letter ends with three dense paragraphs about the bishops’ role in the synodal process.

The first says that the worldwide college of bishops takes part in the initiative at “two moments”: “when each bishop initiates, guides and concludes the consultation of the People of God entrusted to him,” and “in the successive stages, when the Bishops together exercise their charism of discernment in the Synods/Councils of the Churches sui iuris, in the Episcopal Conferences, in the continental Assemblies and, in particular, in the Synod Assembly.”

The second paragraph urges bishops to continue along the path marked out in the first phase, embracing synodality not as “a mere method” but as “a form of the Church and a style for fulfilling the common mission of evangelization.”

The third and final paragraph, laden with references to Vatican II documents, argues that participation in the synodal process will reinforce the “collegial union” of the world’s bishops.

The multiple citations of Vatican II documents may be an indirect response to the debate about whether the synodal process is an organic development of the Council’s vision or at odds with its strong affirmation of the bishops’ powers and responsibilities. Here’s the evidence, the letter’s authors seem to be suggesting, that the initiative is in harmony with the Second Vatican Council.


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Why now?

Grech and Hollerich explain that they are writing the letter with a feeling of “urgency” because continental assemblies will be held in a matter of days.

What the cardinals urgently want to communicate is “a few considerations” that they believe are necessary to form “a common understanding of the synodal process, its progress and the meaning of the current continental stage.”

Reading between the lines, they are concerned that there is currently a lack of “common understanding” among the bishops.

There are probably also unspoken reasons for releasing the letter now: the synodal process was fiercely criticized by Cardinal George Pell shortly before his death on Jan. 10.

In an article for the U.K.’s Spectator magazine, the Australian heavy hitter described the initiative as a “toxic nightmare” and the DCS as “one of the most incoherent documents ever sent out from Rome.”

Former Vatican doctrinal chief Cardinal Gerhard Müller, meanwhile, described the initiative as a “democratization, a de facto Protestantization.”

Around the same time, U.S. Cardinal Robert McElroy — an enthusiastic supporter of the synodal process — suggested that the international synods in 2023 and 2024 would be the forum for climactic debates on topics such as women deacons and priests.

Cardinals’ sharply contrasting interpretations of the initiative may have convinced Grech and Hollerich that they needed to step in and communicate directly with the global episcopate about the synodal process’ design and content.

Beyond the headline-grabbing interventions, there seems to be broader disquiet in the College of Cardinals about the bishops’ role in the synodal process. Several accounts said that the concern was raised at the cardinals’ closed-door gathering in Rome in August.

The reservations were expressed again last October when synod organizers unveiled the DCS, the working document for the continental stage.

A Pillar analysis at the time said that synod organizers’ guidance suggested that, until the final phase, the diocesan bishops’ “principal tasks are information-gathering, impression-collection, the collation and organization of responses to reports collecting responses to questions.”

“There does not seem to be a place for the part of discernment called judgment,” it said.

The Vatican letter aimed to reassure bishops that they were not expected simply to sit on their hands during the initial phases of the synodal process, serving as mere channels of the vox populi, despite initial guidance from synodal officials which seemed to suggest a limited role for diocesan bishops.

Although the new letter is long, its contents are not especially groundbreaking. As Grech put in a Vatican News interview on Monday, he and Hollerich were essentially reminding the bishops “about fundamental truths that we have been addressing from the very beginning of this process.”

“As they say, repetita iuvant [repetition helps],” Grech said wryly.

Synod organizers may be hoping that if they tackle the reservations now, then a more cooperative and united episcopate will assemble at the Vatican this October. But if the attempt at reassurance fails, October’s Roman phase of the “synodal journey” could be an uncomfortable one.

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