Healthy Decentralization: Synod Report for October 18, 2023

The 12th General Congregation of the Synod gathered for the presentation of the fourth and final discussion module this morning. The module is based in section B.3 of the Instrumentum Laboris, “Participation, Governance, and Authority.”

The guiding question for this phase of the Synod is: “What processes, structures and institutions are there in a missionary synodal Church?” Topics to be explored include renewing the service of authority in a synodal church, developing “shared decision-making processes capable of integrating the contribution of the whole People of God” (B.3.2.a), and strengthening the institution of the Synod between and among local churches and throughout the universal church.

In his opening remarks, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the Synod’s realtor general, underscored the importance of the “small but sensitive changes to the issues we are preparing to tackle in this module.”

Addressing the issue of authority, Cardinal Hollerich said that ordained ministers and pastors “have a special mission in the church,” yet counseled against the pitfalls of clericalism.

“Where clericalism reigns, there is a church that does not move, a church without mission,” he said. “Clericals only want to maintain the ‘status quo,’ because only the ‘status quo’ cements their power.”

On the subject of governance structures, the cardinal asked delegates to consider how to build “networks between local churches,” and to contemplate some of the ways in which the church can move toward a “healthy decentralization.”

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe and Fr. Dario Vitali followed with spiritual and theological reflections on the module.

Fr. Radcliffe, who led the three-day retreat for delegates prior to the opening of the Synod, centered his reflection on the Council of Jerusalem related in Acts 15. He referred to the council as “the first great crisis of the church after Pentecost,” where various factions of the church were competing to define its identity.

“We read that ‘the apostles and the elders gathered together to consider this matter,’ Fr. Radcliffe said, citing Acts 15:6. “The church is always being gathered, as we are today in Synod.”

“We are gathered in to discover peace with each other and sent out to proclaim it to our poor world, crucified by ever more violence, in Ukraine, the Holy Land, Myanmar, Sudan, and so many other places,” he continued. “How can we be a sign of peace if we are divided among ourselves?”

Fr. Dario Vitali used selections from Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church promulgated by Vatican II, as a framework for his theological reflection. Fr. Vitali is the coordinator of the group of expert theologians who are on hand to assist with the synodal proceedings.

Quoting the opening paragraph of Lumen Gentium, he said, “The Church is a sacrament in Christ, that is, a sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the human race.”    

He continued, “Never more than today—and by ‘today’ I mean these dramatic days when peace seems to hang by a thread—does humanity need the strong and convinced testimony of a church that is a sign and instrument of peace among nations.”

Fr. Vitali explained that the chapter on the “People of God” included in Lumen Gentium established “the equality of the children of God” as a basic principle of Catholic ecclesiology.

“The greatest title of belonging to the church is not to be pope, nor bishop, nor priest, nor consecrated, but a child of God,” he said.

“In reality, synodality is none other than the very communion of the church as the Holy People of God. Synodality and communion can be identified with one another, as long as we understand the church as the People of God journeying together,” he continued.

The reflections were followed by three testimonies on the practice of synodality in various local contexts.

Mons. Alexandre Joly, Bishop of Troyes in France, shared how people from across his diocese embarked on a synodal process to discern the future of a diocesan-owned historical property.

“One of the pieces of advice I was given was not to put economic issues on the table, but to work on expectations and hopes, to give people the opportunity to express their fears and anxieties, and above all to build a real pastoral project,” Msgr. Joly explained.

The second testimony was given by Mons. Shane Mackinlay, Bishop of Sandhurst, Australia. Bishop Mackinlay related the story of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, held from 2018 through 2022. The council experienced a crisis when a decree on the equality of men and women failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority vote from the bishops.

“We faced the prospect of the council saying nothing about the place of women in the church,” Bishop Mackinlay said.

After deciding to suspend the planned agenda, the council gave “space for concerns from all perspectives and all members to be articulated” and established a special drafting group. When they returned to the topic two days later, “a revised text was passed overwhelmingly.”

Bishop Mackinlay credited a shift to a more spiritual form of conversation. “After the crisis, people spoke much more from the heart, with a vulnerability that exposed them personally, putting themselves on the line to describe their lived experience of how they were personally affected,” he said.

The final testimony came from Estela Padilla, a Manila-based lay theologian and executive secretary of the Office of Theological Concerns at the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).

In her testimony, “Take Off Your Shoes: The Asian Journey into Synodal Leadership,” Padilla reflected on her experience as a member of the Core Team which planned the synodal assembly in Asia and the Discernment Team which wrote the synodal report.

Her experience with the Asian Synod led her to three main realizations, she said: authority is rooted in respect, governance means being led by the Spirit, and participation is a prophetic task.

“My biggest learning in this Synod is communal discernment,” she said. “I realized that decision making, an important governance function, can only give glory to God when we go through and grow into a communal spiritual discernment process.” ♦

Michael Centore
Editor, Today’s American Catholic

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