The Synod on Synodality

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

The 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops met from October 4-28 and formally concluded on October 29 with the celebration of Mass by Pope Francis. 

Composed of 364 voting delegates – including bishops, religious, and lay people  — this assembly advanced the aim of inviting “the entire People of God to discern together how to move forward on the path towards being a more synodal Church.”

Pope Francis initiated this Synod, known as the Synod on Synodality, in 2021. The recent October session followed two years of engagement with the faithful and eliciting feedback from Catholics around the world.  

As Pope Francis said during the opening of the Synod on October 9, 2021, “I am certain the Spirit will guide us and give us the grace to move forward together, to listen to one another and to embark on a discernment of the times in which we are living, in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of all humanity. I want to say again that the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit.”

The multi-year “listening process” framed the key questions for discussion, outlined in Instrumentum Laboris, or, “working tool.” Together, the delegates “discern[ed], in prayer and dialogue, the paths that the Spirit is asking us to follow.” 

Issues under the headings of synodality, communion, mission, and participation were raised, with “convergences, matters for consideration and proposals that emerged from the dialogue” published in a more than 40-page synthesis after earning two-thirds support from the delegates.

The synthesis report, titled “A Synodal Church in Mission,” is divided into three parts –  “The Face of the Synodal Church,” “All Disciples, All Missionaries,” and “Weaving Bonds, Building Communities” – and touches on 20 different issues. 

For issues ranging from “Women in the Life and Mission of the Church” to “Mission in the Digital Environment,” the synthesis highlights points of convergence, matters for consideration, and proposals to adopt.

The beginning of the report includes a definition of synodality, which “can be understood as Christians walking in communion with Christ toward the Kingdom along with the whole of humanity,” with a particular orientation toward “mission.”

The report reaffirmed the importance of “listening and accompanying all, including those who have suffered abuse and hurt in the Church,” emphasized the “many faces” of the poor and stated that service to those living impoverished “is a requirement of faith, not an optional extra,” and stressed the path to Christian unity, noting that “collaboration among all Christians” is a resource “for healing the culture of hatred, division and war.”

The second part of the report pointed to the contributions of the laity and the lay faithful’s “increasingly present and active … service within Christian communities.” Further, the synthesis called for a “Church in which men and women dialogue together … without subordination, exclusion, and competition” and one where “women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry.” The report left open the question of women in the diaconate and requested that theological and pastoral research on this subject continue with the goal of presenting the results at the next session.

Section three of the report emphasized “careful consideration of matters that are controversial within the Church,” including, “those relating to matters of identity and sexuality, the end of life, complicated marital situations, and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence.” These issues are considered controversial “because they pose new questions,” therefore, making it “important to take the time required for this reflection and to invest our best energies in it, without giving in to simplistic judgments that hurt individuals and the Body of the Church.” 

Further, the synthesis said that Christians must hear and accompany “people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their marriage status, identity, or sexuality.”

Lastly, the report discussed the digital environment in the context of outreach and noted, “It is up to us to reach today’s culture in all spaces where people seek meaning and love, including the spaces they enter through their cell phones and tablets.” However, the report added, “there is an urgent need to consider how the Christian community can support families in ensuring that the online space is not only safe but also spiritually life-giving.”

Though extensive, this report is not final. After a period of reflection, the assembly will reconvene in October 2024, in the final stage of the Synod on Synodality, to issue a final report for the consideration of Pope Francis. 

As Pope Francis said on October 29 during the Mass at the conclusion of the assembly, “In this ‘conversation of the Spirit,’ we have experienced the loving presence of the Lord and discovered the beauty of fraternity. We have listened to one another and above all, in the rich variety of our backgrounds and concerns, we have listened to the Holy Spirit. Today we do not see the full fruit of this process, but with farsightedness we look to the horizon opening up before us.”

The progress of the Synod on Synodality is a remarkable accomplishment in Pope Francis’s pontificate that furthers the historic, multi-year initiative to discern the Church’s path forward.