Reimagining the synod’s preparation and dynamics

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By Felix Wilfred

The extensive preparation leading up to the synod has proven to be of great value and impact. It has awakened the Church to become more participatory and attuned to the fundamental truth that the Church is a communion.

Simultaneously, it has raised the expectations of the people of God. This aspect of the synod’s preparation is undeniably positive.

Furthermore, the mere convening of the Church synod has marked a significant breakthrough by challenging a powerful conservative faction within the Church. This faction has long held, and still contends, that the Church should remain hierarchical and deems it doctrinally incorrect and unorthodox to embrace the concept of a synodal Church.

Now, with the closing of the first assembly of the synod on synodality just concluded, a pivotal question emerges: What comes next?

There is a story of a missionary who was so busy all the time repairing his jeep and getting it moving that he found no time to go to the people waiting for him.

Many within the Church, especially the laity, have hoped that after extensive self-examination during various stages of the synodal assembly, the Church will move decisively to address the expectations of the people of God.

But for the synod to be more than a process of conscientization and an exercise in dialogue, it needs to earnestly address issues affecting the life of the everyday Church clamoring for changes and reforms.

People do not want a synod that simply procrastinates but is decisive and focuses on producing tangible outcomes that could renew the Church and bring about change. Much of this hinges on the quality of the delegates and how well they represent their local churches.

No doubt, the synodal gathering, with delegates from many different parts of the globe and backgrounds, was a moving experience and a powerful testament to the catholicity of the Church.

I read impressive testimonies of many synodal participants who were euphoric about the experience of praying together, listening, sharing candidly one’s views without being weary and without anyone trying to throw around their authority.

This harmonious interaction, such as bishops and cardinals sitting with representatives of the people of God, women, and the youth around a table, as it happened in the just concluded synodal session, is indeed remarkable. 

But the entire Church waits to see whether this spirit will continue when these prelates return to their local churches. If so, we could be very happy that the synod has been a truly transformative conversion experience and there is hope for a real change in the Church.

If, however, the same old habit of governing by diktat continues, and the will of the sovereign Church leader becomes law, it will be sad, indeed.

I think the role of the delegates does not come to an end with the closing of the synod. Rather, the effectiveness of the synodal process will be seen if these delegates become, in their turn, apostles and a driving force in their local churches for transforming the Church into a truly listening and participatory one.

This brings us to the way delegates and representatives are chosen.

I think this is a general issue in the Church and at all levels. Very often representatives are chosen in the Church based on a person’s closeness to the power center or whether someone is a persona grata to the leader.

This is true also in the case of women, laity, and youth recommended by the leadership of the local churches.

The selection process for delegates at the national and continental levels in Asia is a key factor reflected in the poor and substandard quality of many reports and documents produced.

Breaking free from this pattern requires a discernment process to identify individuals with the expertise to make significant contributions to the local and global Church in specific synodal themes.

What is intended to be a sign of hope — the synod — becomes once again a reflection of the clerical Church. We are caught in a vicious circle. More often than not, the delegates are chosen on rather flimsy grounds.

A bishop friend shared with me humorously the way bishop delegates are often chosen for the synod at the bishops’ conference meetings. Someone proposes, “Bishop X has never been to Rome. Let us give him a chance.”

The way to get out of this tangle is really a process of discernment. It takes earnest effort to identify the persons who are resourceful and experienced in a particular theme of the synod and who could make a significant contribution to the global Church.

Another required reform is to considerably reduce ex officio delegates. That applies, for example, to the three ritual churches in India.

Unfortunately, we observe a recurring pattern where individuals become default experts for all synods due to their prolonged tenure in leadership positions.

Much like the phenomenon of perpetual seminar attendees within Church circles, there exists a parallel in the ranks of bishops. Rain or shine, and regardless of competence, some individuals continue to be designated as synod delegates by virtue of their office. It is unrealistic to expect someone to excel in a wide array of synodal themes unless they are versatile and possess exceptional genius.

Pope Francis has gone on very earnestly with the reform of the Roman Curia, evidenced by his decisions and by his document Praedicate Evangelium. However, looking at the number of representatives from the Roman Curia for the synod, one may wonder whether this was not disproportionate.

To what extent could curial members steeped in administration and bureaucracy and with a penchant for the status quo really contribute to dynamic and transformative thinking at the synod? Sure, we believe in the guidance of the Spirit and a God who writes straight with crooked lines.

Humanly speaking, however, the end result of the synod will depend on the quality of its delegates and representatives. The local Church and the universal Church can surely act differently in choosing delegates for future synods.

Finally, there is a need to reform the way small discussion groups are formed during the synod.

Currently, these groups are organized along linguistic lines, such as English, Spanish, and Italian. This practice, an unconscious vestige of colonial history within the Church, is no longer appropriate in today’s highly technical world.

Simultaneous translation should easily overcome language barriers. Instead, discussion groups should be formed based on more relevant criteria, such as shared experiences in specific areas. This would facilitate more focused and productive discussions on synodal issues.

Hopefully, by the second assembly of the Synod on Synodality in 2024, more dynamic criteria for forming discussion groups will be adopted, transcending mere linguistic considerations.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Courtesy : UCA News

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