September 17, 2022
There were 27 participants from five of the seven regions where continental assemblies will be held. We began with the synodal prayer.
Presentations by members representing each of the continental assemblies:
The intent of these presentations is to better understand to what extent the episcopal national reports from the bishops are in sync with the reports from the People of God.
European Continental Assembly
Mary Varley with Root and Branch from the UK: They conducted a content analysis of each of the 22 diocesan syntheses, the findings of which differed markedly from those of the national synthesis submitted by the bishops.
95% of the dioceses called for inclusivity and equality; 91% called for women to be ordained; all identified both women and LGBTQ+ as excluded groups; almost all called for co-responsibility and the sharing of authority in the Church at the top level; 100% identified the clergy sex abuse as nullifying authority of the hierarchy. The bishops’ national synthesis, drafted behind closed doors by a hand-picked committee of nine, every one of them employed by Catholic dioceses or institutions, swept lay concerns under the virtual episcopal carpet. Their report said that “despite many calls for women’s ordination, most of the discernment
was on the power and gifts of women in the church”. Regarding co-responsibility, their report relegated it to the parish level and made no mention of the value of decision-making from the laity. The national report accurately identifies that the demand for reform outweighs restorationism as traditionists are few in number.
Valerie Stroud from England suggested that reformers are a small number compared to the silent majority of Catholics sitting in the pews.
Colm Holmes with We Are Church Int’l from Ireland: The bishops’ report indicates that Ireland has strongly rejected the model of Church of the past. In its place they have welcomed the concept of a synodal Church. A strong desire was expressed for women’s involvement in leadership in ministry including both ordained and non-ordained. Concern was shown for the LGBTQI+ community and the harsh treatment they have received. There is a call for greater involvement of the laity in full participation. The call for reform across all 26 dioceses was unmistakable in this report. Nothing significant was left out from what the People are seeking. Ireland has gone from being a Catholic country with 90% Mass attendance to being a Christian country with 10% Mass attendance over a period of 40 years. The diocese of Elphin set up a focus group of ten people all of whom identified as LGBTQ I+ members. The report from this group was included as an appendix to the Elphin diocesan report. The report included ten recommendations, the first of which was that they sought an apology from the hierarchy top down for the harm they have done to them and to their families. Bishop Kevin Doyle, an archconservative, was stunned by the report but still agreed to publish it on the diocesan website. The reform community in Ireland feels that their views will be fairly represented at the European continental assembly.
Rosa Murray from the Scottish Laity Network (SLN) in Scotland: Many in Scotland have chosen to move forward on a journey of discipleship. In the SLN Journey of Discernment gatherings of sometimes 60 to 100 people, it was evident that devoted Catholics were feeling disillusionment, disenchantment, and isolationism. Responding to Pope Francis’s call for us to enter into the synodal process, the Scottish Laity Network shared in their synodal submission concern about clericalism, abuse, isolationism, the positioning of women, the LGBT community, divorced/separated couples, and lay people having an equal role in leadership in our Church.
The Bishops of Scotland submitted their synthesis gathered from the Scottish Diocesan submissions and some of what they shared aligned with the SLN submission. One diocese submitted a report quite different that was much more about the past than the future. It exemplified the kind of dichotomy and pressure facing the Church exemplifying the very battle for the soul of the Church. Many want to keep the synodal process as a way of being Church. Others went along with the process hoping that they could then return to their old ways and forget all about synodal process. It is important to keep a vigilance about maintaining this spirit and disposition of preparing the future: A hopeful sign in the Scottish Bishop’s synthesis was their acknowledgement of a key SLN recommendation which is that the Church enter into “a year of forgiveness” for all those who feel hurt, abused, marginalized and rejected by the Church.
Miriam Pawlik with the German synodal Path in Germany: She was not on the call but submitted her written report: 2022 Report of the German Bishops Conference to the World Synod of Bishops 2023
. This report clarifies how the Germans got a head start on Synodality as early as the 19th century and why they are far ahead in moving forward today in a genuine synodal style with bishops and the people making decisions together.
Mary Varley mentioned that Portugal’s national synthesis from the bishops was very reform-minded as well and challenging of the Church. We’re beginning to get a picture of what the Church faces from the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, and Portugal.
Oceana Continental Assembly
Kevin Liston with South Australian Catholics for an Evolving Church (SACEC)
Core issues in the national synthesis submitted by the Australian bishops include:
Strong support for Synodality but it is more aspirational than achievement. People are concerned and feel a need for a deeper sense of community. They share a desire to grow in the faith, in spiritual formation, catechesis for young people. Expressions of ‘welcoming back to the Eucharistic table’ are positive but hypocritical for those who are excluded: LGBTIQA+ people, divorced and remarried and cohabiting couples. Barriers are described as ‘subjective feelings’ related to “seemingly restrictive practices.” The hierarchical model of decision-making has negative implications which can be the antithesis of Synodality. More action sought on social justice and care of the Earth. Many Catholic agencies and schools in Australia are acknowledged as concrete expressions of synodal living but the efficiency of religious education in schools and parishes is questioned. A “reaching-out” culture, including to other Christian churches, is desired.
What is left out of the bishops’ report that were called for by the people:
Recognition of the disastrous decline in church engagement was not followed up with any possible strategy for reversing the trend. The need to ground community formation in personal and community experience. The need for people to speak up and for clergy to listen, are noted but no action is suggested. Any reference to the extent to which parishes are controlled by the clergy. Recognition that clericalism is a major barrier to synodality. There is no acknowledgement that the treatment of women in the church, (role, status and function) is out of step with the higher standards of contemporary civil society. The need to ground community formation in personal and community experience. The efficiency of religious education in schools and parishes is not questioned. Any reference to an overarching vision as a context for ecumenical collaboration. Any recognition that most Catholics are estranged from the church because of church deficiencies and practices.
This synthesis amounts to a collection of alternative views on almost every topic. It offers little in the way of leadership, a coherent vision, or a bold mission. It reflects a focus on the internal concerns of the Catholic church in Australia with minimal reference to the wider society in which we all live.
Peter Johnstone with ACCCR added that there was no doubt that the group of men and women, including two bishops, who stood in protest at the Plenary Council when the bishops voted not to support the equality of women, was a turning point in the Council and possibly in the thinking of many bishops. An adequate understanding of synodality requires active listening and respect for the sense of the Faithful.
John Buggy, representing Australian Reforming Catholics, referred to the dismissal of Bishop Morris of Toowoomba from his diocese as a likely reason for Australian bishops generally behaving very carefully.
US and Canadian Continental Assembly
Ann McIntyre from Canada: The Synod was greatly appreciated. Some expressed doubts about the outcome of the synodal process due to the Church seen as a rigid institution unwilling to change and modernize itself and fear the synodal outcome had been predetermined. Yet hope was always present. One sign of hope are small groups whose members engage in sharing their faith. The promotion of such Small Christian Communities is strongly encouraged.
The issue of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples has taken on particular importance. Some felt “pastoral abandonment” due to the problematic history of Residential Schools and the intergenerational trauma. Many Canadian Catholics are painfully aware of these realities. This has resulted in a loss of credibility of the hierarchy by the faithful as well as by people outside the Church. Homilies are often inadequate, uninspiring, and disconnected from real life concerns and the challenges of today. Overly theological language unfamiliar to people is a problem. Letting lay people give homilies would help with this issue. Some expressed concern about how certain groups are excluded from the Eucharist (divorced and remarried, people who identify as LGBTQI+, etc.). They are not welcomed to participate in the sacramental life of the Church.
All regional reports acknowledged receiving requests that women be granted access to ordained ecclesial ministries. This would greatly help with the problem of clericalism which is still present in the church.
John Williams said the bishops’ report was produced by a team of six people: two bishops, one priest, a nun, a lay woman, and a theologian. It appears that this was not fully approved by the bishops because it doesn’t reflect the attitude and behavior of the bishops. This indicates that the members writing the report had listened to the ordinary Catholics and reflects accurately their views.
To read the full national synthesis from Canada:
U.S. National Synthesis: Following our synodal gathering, the USCCB published their national synthesis. It is surprisingly an honest summary of the points made by the people in the parish and diocesan reports. To read the full national synthesis from the U.S., click: National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod. To read quotes from this report, click: Quotes from the National Synthesis of the USCCB.
Asian Continental Assembly
Alan Doulton with E-VAAC in India: In India 129 of the 132 dioceses participated in the Synod Consultations. By and large the people were happy about the process of consultation. The experience of sharing feelings brought a sense of inclusivity. People also went away with an expanded view of the Church.
The national FABC synthesis has not yet been made public, but the impression is that it will be a watered-down version of the consultation findings. The selection of the writing team for the synthesis was closely controlled by the hierarchy. This brief is prepared based on information from informal sources.
Clericalism appeared to be the major concern and the root cause of many other issues in the Church. The second point of concern was formation. The ‘field readiness’ of seminarians being ordained was stated to be far below par. Much of this was attributed towards formation gaps. Formation at all levels and across different entities was felt to be insufficient. Discrimination was the third area of concern among the laity, religious as well as clergy. Visible behaviors clearly highlight inequality along socio-economic, gender, intellectual as well as caste lines. Dalits, the low caste community, who were discriminated in the society pre-conversion continue to be given the same treatment within the Catholic Community. The elite and more literate are treated with far greater respect. Indian culture professes subsidiary roles for women and the Church continues this practice. The lack of “Witness Value” came up quite often in the discussions. The faithful felt that those professing the faith were not “walking the talk.”
While an estimated 100, 000 people participated in the synodal process in India, many issues that were raised across the world were not addressed by the bishops. Women’s ordination was a highly underplayed issue though women’s participation came across with this point strongly.
Alan de Noronha (chhotebhai) with Indian Catholic Forum: He shared some salient points from the survey that the Indian Catholic Forum had conducted earlier: Vatican II teachings had not been implemented; parish and finance committees should be made mandatory; the community should be involved in the selection of bishops and they should have a 10-year tenure; the Right to Information Act (RTI) should be implemented in the Church; women who procure an abortion should not be ex-communicated automatically; divorced and remarried Catholics should be admitted to communion after due catechesis; and the Synod findings should be translated into law.
Ed Gerlock (former Maryknoll priest) from the Philippines: He said even though the Philippines prides itself in being the only actual Christian country in Asia, the experience of the synodal process in the Philippines was much the same as what Alan Doulton had described for India. The high point for the Philippines is that the Jesuits are known for their formation programs – the East Asian Pastoral Institute – and people come from all over Asia to participate in these.
Ashik naz Khokhar with Active Youth Group in Pakistan: The laity were not involved in Pakistan to participate in a synod nor permitted to prepare the report for the Synod. It is most unfortunate as parishioners and young people requested to their parish many times that the Synod is happening, and they would like to send some recommendations. They also wanted to be allowed to conduct an event with the laity, but their pastor would not allow them to conduct any session regarding the synodal path.
Pakistan bishops behave as dictators and treat the laity – both men and women – as subservient. If lay people raise their voice for positive reform in Pakistan, then the bishop or priest rejects them and bans them from coming to church. It is not known whether any diocese or National Bishops’ conference sent in a synthesis to the Synod office.
Africa Continental Assembly
Fr. Joe Healey with Maryknoll society in Kenya: The African Continental Ecclesial Assembly (Synodal Gathering) will be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from Wednesday, 1 March to Tuesday, 7 March 2023. This assembly will involve 100 delegates — bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay Catholics. The delegates will be chosen by the SECAM Office in Accra, Ghana in consultation with others. What they don’t know is who will be chosen, and which youth will be represented. They know one young man and one young woman will be selected. The Working Document is the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) that will be published by the Synod Office in Rome in late October 2022. This assembly is a chance to deepen the listening and discernment of the synod process and demonstrate that the synod is designed as an ongoing process rather than a one-off occurrence.
The Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) is a compilation of the National Syntheses worldwide including over 30 countries in Africa. The most hopeful report came from The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference who released its synthesis document for the synod on synodality at the end of August 2022. The conference represents the Catholic bishops of three countries — South Africa, Botswana and Eswatini. Being the most liberal region of Africa, their report recommended: “Widen the preaching circle to women and other laypeople, change the leadership style from autocratic and bureaucratic, move away from clericalism, and build more inclusive and welcoming communities. This synodal process has been invaluable in helping reflection on the implementation of our Pastoral Plans. It encourages the Local Church to enter a phase of studying the diocesan reports so that, where possible, they can implement practical ideas and suggestions. This will give people the confidence that there is action.” This report is quite different from the reports of the Bishops’ Conferences of Eastern Africa. They are more open to reading the signs of times and responding to them with a practical approach. The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) in their National Synthesis emphasized that the process can only be successful through the quality of listening, dialogue, and a desire to relate in new ways. The bishops said there was a need for a change in the style of formation at all levels for new ways to emerge, postulating the formation and training of adults, catechists, liturgy groups, parish pastoral and finance committees as well as Small Christian Communities (SCCs).
Alloys Nyakundi with Young Adults Seekers from Kenya: Most parishes in Eastern Africa are large and have both priests and assistants working cooperatively. Catechists often give the homilies, but they are not permitted to give the Eucharist. As a result, most Catholics do not receive the Eucharist on Sundays. Many parishioners prefer the homilies given by the catechists over those given by the priests. The catechists who are lay people can relate to the lives of the people. Young people are not given the opportunity to speak out and bishops do not address the real issues facing young people. Unlike South Africa, LGBT people are not accepted in Eastern Africa. Women are treated as second class citizens. They are the ones cleaning the churches, but they are kept out of leadership positions. Only rarely are women accepted as catechists. Mostly this position is held by men. The finances are most often handled by priests as they don’t entrust this duty to the laity. While lay people contribute money to the church, they have little awareness of how that money is being spent. Small Christian Communities are prevalent in Africa but are often abused by priests who take advantage of them. If women get pregnant outside of marriage, they are condemned by the priests. While the men involved suffer no blame, the women are denied the Eucharist and, for students, even an opportunity to continue in school.
Sr. Caroline Nzuya with the synod office in Nairobi Catholic archdiocese: The people in Kenya needed this opportunity provided by Pope Francis, especially after the pandemic. She reinforced that clericalism is a serious problem in Kenya and agreed with the issues involving the LGBT community, the subservience of women, and single women. The church in Nairobi anxiously awaits the outcome of this synodal process hoping that some of these issues will be addressed.
Central and South America Continental Assembly
Mary Guerra serves on the board of CELAM. She was unable to make this meeting, but we hope she will be able to join us for our next gathering and share a report of their national synthesis. Our understanding is that the bishops and people are coming together through the CELAM gathering and are having productive meetings in full collaboration.
It is inspiring to hear these reports and to see the diversity throughout the world. It should become apparent to Pope Francis that one set of policies will not work for the universal Church. The principle of subsidiarity will inevitably emerge from this process with the most immediate level of the church community incorporating liturgies and policies consistent with their culture.
Where do we go from here?
In our next gathering, we want to explore what we can do. If there is a gap between what the People of God recommended and what the bishops reported, we need to reach the decision-makers and do all in our power to have an impact on their selections. How can we ensure that there is a balanced representation of the People of God included in the seven Continental assemblies?
Clyde Christofferson with the NOVA community in Virginia suggested that one thing CCRI can do is make known the variety, the complexity, and the richness of church communities around the world. Lay participation is a critical aspect of the synodal process. Not only is this needed in the second phase, the Continental assemblies, but also in the October 2023 universal synod in Rome.
John Williams suggested that CCRI make a summary of all the national syntheses available as it appears this is not being done by anyone else.
Alan de Noronha said knowledge is power. Most lay people throughout the world are uninformed and unaware of all that is happening in the Church at this time. CCRI can help the laity have more knowledge by disseminating information. Then we need not wait for things to happen. We should go make them happen.
Next gathering scheduled
After some discussion, the decision was made that we will gather again on Saturday, October 29, 2022, allowing for time for all national syntheses to be made public. Knowing what is in each of these reports will be critical to how we proceed.