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Synod, October 9: participants turn to new topic; Orthodox prelate draws sharp contrast between Eastern synodality, current Synod

October 10, 2023

On October 9, participants in the first session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops turned their attention to a new discussion topic: “How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?” An Eastern Orthodox prelate also told participants that the Synod he was witnessing in Rome “differs greatly” from the Eastern practice of synodality.

The first phase of the Synod (October 4-7) was devoted to a discussion of the Synod’s first module (For a synodal Church: An integral experience). The Synod’s second module (“Communion, participation, mission: Three priority issues for the synodal Church”) is divided into three topics:

  • B1. A communion that radiates: How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?
  • B2. Co-responsibility in Mission: How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel?
  • B3. Participation, governance and authority: What processes, structures and institutions in a missionary synodal Church

The first session of the Synod concludes on October 29; the results of the Synod’s first session will form the agenda of the Synod’s second session in October 2024.

Maronite Patriarch preaches on Synod’s ‘harvest’ and ‘laborers’

In the morning, participants gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy according to the Byzantine rite (CWN coverage). Patriarch Youssef Absi, the head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, presided at the liturgy, and Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, the Patriarch of the Maronite Church, preached the homily.

Reflecting on the Lord’s words that “the harvest is great, but the laborers are few,” the Maronite Patriarch preached:

The harvest that challenges us as a synod assembly is identified as follows. By way of example, building a just peace where wars bloody our planet; caring for our common home in the face of climate change; combatting an economic system that produces exploitation, inequality and waste; assisting those who suffer persecution even to the point of martyrdom; healing the wounds caused by abuse: sexual, economic, institutional, of power, of conscience; promoting common human dignity, derived from the baptism that makes us sons and daughters of God; deepening fraternal relationships with the Churches and other ecclesial communities; putting into practice a culture of encounter and dialogue with believers of other religions; preferential charity for the poor, the marginalized, people with disabilities; promoting adequate pastoral care for remarried divorcees; people in polygamous marriages; putting young people at the center of pastoral strategies; valuing the contribution of older people in the life of the Christian community and society: it is true that the harvest is great!

“We read in the Instrumentum laboris [working document] that in a synodal assembly Christ makes himself present and acts, transforms history and daily events, grants the Spirit that guides the Church to find a consensus on how to walk together toward the Kingdom and how to help humanity move forward in the direction of unity,” Cardinal Patriarch al-Rahi continued. “The workers of the harvest are the bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated women and men, the baptized laity: everyone needs to be trained in the synodal way of proceeding.”

Cardinal Hollerich introduces Synod’s second topic

After participants gathered in Paul VI Audience Hall, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ, the Synod’s relator general, introduced module B1 (“A communion that radiates: How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?”).

Cardinal Hollerich explained that the composition of the Synod’s 35 working groups had changed for the discussion of the second module. “You realized this the moment you sat down at your table,” he observed. “This time, the groups are formed based on both language and thematic preferences.”

He also explained that different working groups would examine different questions.

“Unlike the first Module, the groups do not all follow the same track, but each one tackles just one of the five Worksheets that the Instrumentum laboris sets out in Section B1,” he said. The five worksheets are devoted to the following topics:

  • B 1.1 How does the service of charity and commitment to justice and care for our common home nourish communion in a synodal Church?
  • B 1.2 How can a synodal Church make credible the promise that “love and truth will meet” (Ps 85:11)?
  • B 1.3 How can a dynamic relationship of gift exchange between the Churches grow?
  • B 1.4 How can a synodal Church fulfil its mission through a renewed ecumenical commitment?
  • B 1.5 How can we recognize and gather the richness of cultures and develop dialogue amongst religions in the light of the Gospel?

“We are first in communion with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” Cardinal Hollerich said. “The Holy Trinity is the basis of all communions. The Triune God has created humanity, each human being; and this God, who is love, loves the whole of creation, every single creature and every human being in a special way.”

“God’s love is so great that His saving power is the way His love manifests itself,” he continued. “As Church, as People of God, we are in this dynamic of salvation. And within this dynamic lie the foundations of the unity of humanity. Each one’s own personal history, and the multiplicity of our human experiences, gathered in a synodal way, helps us to better understand the questions that Section B1 of the Instrumentum laboris raises, and to try to find answers.”

After sharing an anecdote about an African immigrant family that did not feel welcome in a European parish community, Cardinal Hollerich emphasized that “all are invited to be part of the Church.”

At World Youth Day in Lisbon Pope Francis reiterated the words “todos…todos” [all, all]. And in his homily at the opening Mass of our Assembly: “tutti… tutti” [all, all]. In deep communion with His Father through the Holy Spirit, Jesus extended this communion to all the sinners. Are we ready to do the same? Are we ready to do this with groups which might irritate us because their way of being might seem to threaten our identity? Todos... tutti... If we act like Jesus, we will testify to God’s love for the world. Failing to do so will make us look like an identitarian club.

What does this mean for ecumenism? How can we live our Catholic faith in such a way that the deep communion we felt at the prayer vigil before our retreat is not a beautiful exception, but becomes ordinary reality? How can we live our faith deeply in our own culture without shutting out people of other cultures? How can we be committed with women and men of other faith traditions to justice, peace and integral ecology?

As each working group examines one of the five worksheet questions, Cardinal Hollerich advised participants to place priority on experiences.

“We need to think, we need to reflect, but our reflection should not take the form of a theological or sociological treatise,” he said. “We need to start from concrete experiences, our own personal one and above all the collective experience of the People of God that has spoken through the listening phase.”

Reflections: Father Timothy Radcliffe and Anna Rowlands

Synod participants then heard “spiritual input” from Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, “theological input” from Anna Rowlands, and four testimonials.

In his spiritual reflection, Father Radcliffe, the former master of the Dominican order (1992-2001), spoke about Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman.

“How do we become passionate people—passionate for the gospel, filled with love for each other—without disaster?” Father Radcliffe asked. “This is fundamental question for our formation, especially for our seminarians. Jesus’ love for this nameless woman sets her free. She becomes the first preacher but we never hear of her again.”

“A synodal Church will one in which we are formed for unpossessive love: a love that neither flees the other person nor takes possession of them; a love that is neither abusive nor cold,” he continued, adding:

So many people feel excluded or marginalized in our Church because we have slapped abstract labels on them: divorced and remarried, gay people, polygamous people, refugees, Africans, Jesuits! A friend said to me the other day: ‘I hate labels. I hate people being put in boxes. I cannot abide these conservatives.’ But if you really meet someone, you may become angry, but hatred cannot be sustained in a truly personal encounter. If you glimpse their humanity, you will see the one who creates them and sustain them in being whose name is I AM.

The foundation of our loving but unpossessive encounter with each other is surely our encounter with the Lord, each at our own well, with our failures and weakness and desires. He knows us as we are and sets us free to encounter each other with a love that liberates and does not control. In the silence of prayer, we are liberated.

In her theological reflection, Professor Anna Rowlands of Durham University (UK) spoke about communion, “the reality of God’s own life, the being of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this sense, it is the most real thing there is: the ground of reality and source of the being of the Church.”

“To participate in the life of communion is the honor and dignity of our lives,” she continued. “Communion is how we understand God’s ultimate purpose for all humanity: to draw the creation he loved into being ever more completely into His own life, in embrace, and through so doing, to send us out to renew the face of the earth.”

Communion, she added, “is the beauty of diversity in unity,” “exists in concrete, tangible realities,” and “is a participation that ties us to others across time and space.”

Testimonies

Sônia Gomes de Oliveira (president of the National Council of Laity of Brazil), Orthodox Metropolitan Job of Pisidia (Permanent Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches), Father Clarence Davedassan (Malaysia), and Siu Wai Vanessa Cheng (a lay Catholic from Hong Kong) then offered testimonies.

Metropolitan Job drew a sharp contrast between the Eastern practice of synodality and the Synod he was witnessing in Rome.

“A synod is a deliberative meeting of bishops, not a consultative clergy-laity assembly,” he said, as he began his explanation of the Eastern practice of synodality. “It is through this practice of synodality, as described by the Apostolic Canons and the canons of the First Ecumenical Council, that the Orthodox Church has been administered over the centuries until the present day, although the frequency and constitution of the synods may vary from one local autocephalous Church to another.”

“In light of this, we could say that the understanding of synodality in the Orthodox Church differs greatly from the definition of synodality given by your present assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” Metropolitan Job continued—though “in certain historical circumstances the Orthodox Church has involved the clergy and laity in synodal decision-making.”

Father Davedassan spoke about the experience of the Church in Asia amid religious diversity and increasing intolerance.

“While bridge-building and reconciliation efforts are ongoing, we also experience increasing religious and social intolerance, leading to persecution, worsening conditions of people’s lives, and even threats to human life,” he said. “Amid opportunities and challenges, these persecuted churches remain faithful to God in new and creative ways. Despite living in a minority and sometimes harsh conditions, the churches of Asia see hope for the future and strive to be authentic expressions of communion, participation, and mission—for a synodal church.”

In her brief testimony, Ms. Cheng reflected on synodality and Asian culture. She explained:

For Asians, the most important underlying principle that favors “listening” is RESPECT so a respectful attitude is necessary as we listen and dialogue, discern and decide. Having said that, we must also be aware that many Asian cultures do not favor outspokenness for a variety of reasons, such as the fear of making mistakes and losing “face”, of not being accepted by one’s social circle, of being identified as problematic, disrespectful and challenging in front of all kinds of authority, and so on. As a result, many faithful may tend to remain silent instead of voicing their own views and concerns. Therefore, we need to pay even more attention to those who are silent for some reason.

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