Friday, 30 July 2021

XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops - coming to a diocese near you!

 L’apertura del Sinodo avrà luogo tanto in Vaticano quanto in ciascuna diocesi. Il cammino sarà inaugurato dal Santo Padre in Vaticano: il 9-10 ottobre.

Con le medesime modalità, domenica 17 ottobre, si aprirà nelle diocesi, sotto la presidenza del rispettivo vescovo.

I translate from the Italian version of the Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office, as it seems to make clearer sense than the English:

The opening of the Synod will take place both in the Vatican in in each diocese. The journey will be opened by the Holy Father in the Vatican: 9th-10th October.

It will be opened in the dioceses with the same formalities on Sunday 17th October, under the presidency of the respective bishop. 

 The note from the Synod of Bishops reported in the Bulletin indicates a path of consultation, starting with a phase at diocesan level, and continuing through phases at Episcopal Conference and continental levels, to a phase at the level of the Universal Church with the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. The subject of this synodal process is "For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission".

Here in England, the Archdiocese of Liverpool has reached the pastoral planning stage after the completion of a synodal process which, affected by the coronavirus pandemic, has stretched over several years. A website for that synodal process can be found here, with a resources page here.

At this point I have noticed a couple of subtle points about the Liverpool experience. The first is a recognition that a number of the ideas that were put forward at a listening stage were "matters outside the remit of the synod". This included ideas favouring the ordination of women, ending the discipline of celibacy for priests, wider use of general absolution for the Sacrament of Penance, and requests around the present liturgical texts. A note about these can be downloaded from the resources page mentioned above.

Might it not be useful, in the light of the forthcoming diocesan phase, for there to be a clear recognition in advance of what lies within the remit of the synodal process and what lies outside that remit? Will the Preparatory Document promised from the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, with its proposals for carrying out the consultation in each local Church, effectively provide this?

The second point was the description of the participants in Liverpool's synod as being "members" rather than "representatives". This is explained at this link. The underlying principle is that members are not representatives of a constituency or of a point of view, be that a majority or a minority point of view; rather they have an office of discernment in the light of their knowledge of the life of the ecclesial community from which they come.

But the language of the Note from the Synod of Bishops is one of "consultation", particularly a "consultation of the People of God" during the diocesan phase that will enable all to take part. It is interesting, however, that, when the Note refers to the consultation of the People of God, it references n.5 and n.6 of Pope Francis' Apostolic Constitution on the Synod of Bishops. I reproduce n.5 below, noting its carefully constructed account of how a Bishop is also a disciple who is able to listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking through his people. I also note the reference in the last sentence to "diocesan institutions whose task it is to advise the Bishop, promoting a loyal and constructive dialogue". Could not the diocesan phase be carried out by means of the already existing mechanisms of consultation in a diocese rather than by the establishing of a separate bureaucracy? And, indeed, is the term "consultation" really the appropriate term to describe that office of the Bishop as both teacher and disciple described in n.5?

It is certainly true, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, that “when Bishops engage in teaching, in communion with the Roman Pontiff, they deserve respect from all, as the witnesses of divine and catholic truth; the faithful must agree with the judgment of their Bishop on faith and morals, which he delivers in the name of Christ; they must give it their adherence with religious assent of the mind”. But it is also true that “for every Bishop the life of the Church and life in the Church is the condition for exercising his mission to teach”.

Hence the Bishop is both teacher and disciple. He is a teacher when, endowed with the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, he proclaims to the faithful the word of truth in the name of Christ, head and shepherd. But he is a disciple when, knowing that the Spirit has been bestowed upon every baptized person, he listens to the voice of Christ speaking through the entire People of God, making it “infallible in credendo. Indeed, “the universal body made up of the faithful, whom the Holy One has anointed (cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27), is incapable of erring in belief. This is a property which belongs to the people as a whole; a supernatural sense of faith is the means by which they make this property manifest, when ‘from Bishops to the last of the lay faithful’, they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals”. So the Bishop is called to lead his flock by “walking in front of them, showing them the way, showing them the path; walking in their midst, to strengthen them in unity; walking behind them, to make sure no one gets left behind but especially, never to lose the scent of the People of God in order to find new roads. A Bishop who lives among his faithful has his ears open to listen to ‘what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev 2:7), and to the ‘voice of the sheep’, also through those diocesan institutions whose task it is to advise the Bishop, promoting a loyal and constructive dialogue”.

For completeness, here is the text of n.6, which describes how the Synod of Bishops can be seen as an expression of the voice of the entire people of God, though in a nuanced way that reflects the distinctive office of the Bishop:

Similarly, the Synod of Bishops must increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God: “For the Synod Fathers we ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, that with him we may hear the cry of the people; to listen to the people until breathing in the desire to which God calls us”.

Although structurally it is essentially configured as an episcopal body, this does not mean that the Synod exists separately from the rest of the faithful. On the contrary, it is a suitable instrument to give voice to the entire People of God, specifically via the Bishops, established by God as “authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church”, demonstrating, from one Assembly to another, that it is an eloquent expression of synodality as a “constitutive element of the Church”.

Therefore, as John Paul II declared, “Every General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is a powerful ecclesial experience, even if some of its practical procedures can always be perfected. The Bishops assembled in Synod represent in the first place their own Churches, but they are also attentive to the contributions of the Episcopal Conferences which selected them and whose views about questions under discussion they then communicate. They thus express the recommendation of the entire hierarchical body of the Church and finally, in a certain sense, the whole Christian people, whose pastors they are”.

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