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Synod, October 18: Cardinal Hollerich calls for ‘small but sensitive changes’ in Church governance

October 19, 2023

On October 18, participants in the first session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops turned their attention to the Synod’s fourth topic: “Participation, governance and authority. What processes, structures and institutions are there in a missionary synodal Church?”

The Synod’s first session has reached its halfway point: the session began on October 4 and will conclude on October 29. The Synod’s second session will take place in October 2024.

Archbishop Grušas: The Gospel is ‘given on God’s terms, not man’s’

On days on which discussion of a new module begins, Synod participants gather for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius (Lithuania) preached the homily to Synod delegates at the morning Mass; the Synod’s paperwork mislabeled the day (the Feast of St. Luke) as October 13, rather than October 18.

Reflecting on the day’s readings, Archbishop Grušas, president of the Council of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE) and the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference, said that “in both his Gospel and in Acts, he [St. Luke] shows clearly show that the Holy Spirit is the protagonist in the life and growth of the Church, as He must be in leading our synodal process. If Luke were documenting the synod, thanks be to God, he would find many of the themes that he favored at the forefront of our own deliberations in these days.”

Archbishop Grušas noted that not all of the baptized have accepted the Lord’s call to evangelize:

In the announcement of the kingdom, the equality of all the baptized comes to the forefront—all are called to this, not just ordained ministers. However, it is important that all the baptized hear this call, this vocation and respond to it, committing their lives, words and actions to Jesus’ mission. For this we must continue to pray.

The prelate also preached that the Gospel “is given on God’s terms, not man’s,” that people have the freedom to reject the Gospel, and that synodality should not be an end in itself.

Not all to whom the message of the Kingdom is preached will be open to receive it—man has the freedom to accept God’s Good News or not. The Church is open to all, but as with God’s peace it is given on God’s terms, not man’s.

As we continue to talk about what processes, structures and institutions are needed in a missionary synodal Church, we need to make sure that these do in fact assist the mission of bringing the Good News to those who are in need of salvation. Synodality (including its structures and meetings) must be at the service of the Church’s mission of evangelization and not become an end in itself, just as the Word of God that St Luke assisted in passing on to us, has been provided as an instrument for our own salvation.

Vatican News, operated by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, did not devote any of the day’s English-language articles to Archbishop Grušas’s homily, though it had offered English-language coverage of the homilies at the Synod’s previous morning Masses. (Vatican News did offer same-day coverage of the prelate’s homily in Italian, Spanish, and French.)

Cardinal Hollerich: ‘small but sensitive changes’

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ, of Luxembourg, the Synod’s relator general, then introduced the fourth topic, “Participation, governance and authority. What processes, structures and institutions are there in a missionary synodal Church?” (module B3)

“We are well aware that this Synod will be evaluated on the basis of the perceivable changes that will result from it,” he told Synod participants in Paul VI Hall. “People who are involved in parishes are wondering what will change for them, how they will be able to concretely experience in their lives that missionary discipleship and co-responsibility on which we have reflected in our work. And they are wondering how this is possible in a Church that is still not very synodal, where they feel that their opinion does not count and a few or just one person decides everything. These people are especially interested in the small but sensitive changes to the issues we are preparing to tackle in this module.”

Each of the 35 working groups will discuss one of the five worksheets, whose topics, as introduced by Cardinal Hollerich, are

  • “the renewal of the service of authority”: “It is certainly not intended to question the authority of ordained ministers and pastors: as successors of the apostles, we pastors have a special mission in the Church. But we are pastors of men and women who have received baptism, who want to participate and be co-responsible in the mission of the Church. Where clericalism reigns, there is a Church that does not move, a Church without mission.”
  • “the practice of discernment in common”: “How can we introduce its dynamism into the decision-making processes of the Church, at different levels? How can we learn to build a consensus that does not polarize, and at the same time respects the distinctive role of authority, without it becoming isolated from the community? This is the challenge of common discernment.”
  • “structures and institution”: “Each institution may offer some opportunities, but not others? Which ones are more in line with a synodal Church? Thinking concretely, let us start with the institutions that already exist, such as pastoral councils, and check their degree of effective synodality.”
  • groupings of dioceses: Cardinal Hollerich mentioned continental assemblies and ecclesial assemblies (in which priests, deacons, religious, and laity take part along with bishops)
  • “the dynamic relationship that links synodality, episcopal collegiality and Petrine primacy”: an “an evaluation on the experiment of the participatory extension to a group of non-bishops, chosen as witnesses of the listening and consultation phase”

“These are delicate issues, which require careful discernment: in this session we begin to approach them, then we will have a year to continue to deepen them in view of the work we will do in the second session. They are delicate because they touch the concrete life of the Church and also the growth dynamism of the tradition: a wrong discernment could sever it, or freeze it. In both cases it would kill it.”

Cardinal Hollerich said that participants were tired because of their “demanding” work, exhorted them not to lose focus, and called on each table’s facilitator to keep discussions moving in the desired direction:

Sidebar considerations that set us off on a tangent do not help us. I would also like to remind you that the objective of each group, with respect to the question it deals with, is to arrive at expressing convergences, divergences, questions to be explored and concrete proposals for moving forward. I ask the facilitators, whom I thank again, not to be afraid to push us, even with a bit of decisiveness, when we need to be helped not to lose focus.

“Missionary discipleship and co-responsibility are not just catchphrases, but a call that we can only realize together, with the support of concrete processes, structures and institutions that truly work in the spirit of synodality,” he concluded.

Other speakers

Synod participants then heard “spiritual input“ by Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, former master general of the Dominican order; “theological input“ by Father Dario Vitali, the Synod’s coordinator of expert theologians; and testimonies by Bishop Shane Mackinlay (Australia), Bishop Alexandre Joly (France), and Dr. Estela Padilla (a Philippine theologian).

Reflecting on the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), Father Radcliffe called “new processes, institutions and structures” that will help lift “burdens”:

What institutions do we need to express who we are as men and women of peace in an age of violence, inhabitants of the Digital Continent? Every baptized person is a prophet. How do we recognize and embrace the role of prophecy in the Church today? What about the prophetic voice of women, still often seen as ‘guests in their own house’?

Finally, the Council of Jerusalem lifted unnecessary burdens from the Gentiles ... They are freed from an identity given by the old Law. How shall we lift burdens from the weary shoulders of our brothers and sisters today who often feel ill at ease in the Church? It will not be through anything as dramatic as abolishing the Law. Nor will it be through such a fundamental shift in our identity as the admission of the Gentiles. But we are called to embrace a deeper sense of who we are as the improbable friends of the Lord, whose scandalous friendship reaches across every boundary.

Many of us wept when we heard of that young woman who committed suicide because she was bisexual and did not feel welcomed. I hope it changed us. The Holy Father reminded us that all are welcomed: todos, todos, todos.

Father Vitali offered the Synod participants two “criteria for reform”:

The first is theological: to reimagine the Church in a synodal key, so that the entire Church and everything in the Church—life, processes, institutions—is reinterpreted in terms of synodality.

The second is institutional: guarantee the Church the ‘space’ to practice synodality. In the speaker’s opinion, this equates to safeguarding the Synod as an organ serving a constitutionally synodal Church. Without the Synod, the practice of synodality would end up dissolving into a thousand streams, creating a quagmire, slowing down, if not preventing, the ‘walking together’ of the People of God. One can reflect on its institutional form, but there should be no doubt that this institution ensures the Church a genuine exercise of synodality, as the current synodal process amply demonstrates.

Bishop Mackinlay, an advocate for women’s ordination to the diaconate, discussed the “crisis” that emerged in 2022 when the Australian plenary council, of which was vice chairman, unexpectedly failed to support a resolution in favor of a female diaconate.

Bishop Joly spoke about governance in his diocese.

“When I consulted the priests, deacons and various lay leaders in the diocese to find out which new vicar general to choose, some of the responses were that a deacon or a lay person should be the vicar general, which is not allowed under canon law,” he said. “This last sign convinced me to call another person alongside the vicar general, a delegate general,” who is a laywoman.

Dr. Padilla emphasized that “authority is rooted in respect; governance means being led by the Spirit; and participation is a prophetic task.” She also likened synodality to “our [Asian] practice of taking off our shoes in entering homes and temples shows a deep respect for the people whose lives we are entering into”:

To walk barefoot in front of the Spirit is to be radically open in sensing the will of God for our times. What does it mean to walk barefoot as a prophet? It means to be grounded in the realities of our situation in Asia. To be barefoot means to be one with the poorest and with the earth.

One priest asked me why is our report so full of negative things happening in the Church? Where is the good news there? I told him, the good news was the honesty in facing all the woundedness of our world and our failure of bearing witness to the Good News in the midst of poverty, violence brought by terrorism and political oppression, etc, and these, adding to the pain of clericalism and hierarchical leadership. I actually found these negative comments in the Church liberating because as Asians, we don’t like conflicts; we always seek harmony ... Harmony is of course positive except when it hinders us from naming what is wrong.

Press conference: Cardinal Hollerich discusses final Synod report; Latvian prelate speaks out against blessing of same-sex unions

On October 5—the second day of the Synod—Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, announced that the final report of the October 2023 session of the Synod would form the agenda of the October 2024 session.

The synthesis report “will therefore be something more like an Instrumentum laboris [working document] than the final document of past synods,” he said at the time.

During the press conference on October 18, Cardinal Hollerich modified Ruffini’s announcement. Vatican News reported:

The Commission in charge had decided that the text would be relatively short and at the service of a process that continues. It will be a transitional text, based on the experience of the Assembly, which will contain the points where there is consensus and those where there is a lack of agreement, as well as open questions that will need to be studied in depth from a canonical, theological and pastoral point of view, to be verified together with the people of God. It will have a simple style, it will not be a final document, nor will it be the Instrumentum laboris [working document] of the next assembly.

During the October 18 press conference, Ruffini announced that by a 335-11 vote (out of 364 voting members), Synod participants agreed to compose a separate message to the People of God at the conclusion of the first session. Pope Francis supported the proposal. Cardinal Leonardo Steiner (Brazil) spoke about the Amazonian experience of synodality, and Bishop Pablo Virgilio David (Philippines) discussed the pastoral care of Philippine migrants.

In response to a reporter’s question, Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs defended Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Vatican News reported:

On the subject of homosexual persons, Archbishop Stankevičs recalled Pope Francis’ invitation in Lisbon to welcome “todos, todos”, “everyone, everyone” and added that homosexual persons should also be welcomed “with love, without judging”, their human dignity should be respected, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, not discriminated against unjustly, pointing out that homosexual couples are called to live in chastity because any sexual relationship outside of marriage is a sin and that therefore blessing those couples who do not accept this principle is a problem because it would mean blessing living in sin.

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