Michael W. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College and a senior fellow of Massey College.
During the month of October, hundreds of Catholics gathered in Rome for the Synod on Synodality, an ecclesial event of great consequence for the Roman Catholic Church and, arguably, for humanity itself.
Unlike previous synods, this one had many controversial innovations. It was a process rather than a content-driven event, and the composition of the synod membership no longer consisted exclusively of bishops, as laity and clergy were also included – most importantly, the non-bishops had equal voting rights. Rather than the typically tiered hierarchical arrangement, there were round tables where all were seen and heard as equals. These changes were not earth-shattering in and of themselves, but cumulatively, it was an ecclesiastical earthquake.
For more than two years, the Catholic world prepared for this synod with vast consultations – local, diocesan, national and continental – surveying Catholic opinion on a wide range of pastoral, moral and doctrinal issues. Catholics were asked what they want of their church. They were asked how the church can be faithful to its Gospel roots. In short, how it can renew and reform.
This was more than a polling exercise; it was a genuine exercise in collective discernment.
As one would expect, many of the issues that surfaced dealt with thorny issues that have never been comprehensively addressed: women in sacramental ministry; LGBTQ struggles for acceptance and benediction; the scourge of clericalism. At the same time, as Pope Francis made clear on several occasions, the synod is not a closed shop, a self-referential conflab for the tribe. To that end, the synod responded to global issues such as the invasion of Ukraine, the horrors of the Israel-Gaza conflict, the unstemmed migration of multitudes fleeing disaster at home, the ravages of climate change, the festering wounds of racism.
Because of the massive scope of the gathering’s agenda, Pope Francis conceived of the synod in two phases that would take place a year apart. The first phase was more a four-week sustained spiritual retreat concentrating on the process of becoming a synodal church, a process dependent on building an environment of trust, generous sharing and profound deep respect. In other words, an environment of deep listening.
During a recent dinner in Rome with Michael Czerny, the Czech-Canadian Jesuit Cardinal and Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, he reminded me there was a Canadian connection to this approach. John English and John Veltri, two Jesuit spiritual directors at the Loyola Retreat House in Guelph, Ont., were known for their emphasis on listening and spiritual encounter. At Loyola, this type of spiritual listening goes beyond hearing and polite attention – it is a conversation based on profound respect for the participants.
A leitmotif of fretful traditionalist Catholics, however, has been “the Rhine flows into the Tiber.” This expression signals their fear of a ruinous infiltration of the church by modern-day German Catholic revolutionaries hell-bent on its makeover á la the Reformation of the 16th century.
During one of the press briefings, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck spoke frankly about the much bolder and confrontational German synod held prior to the universal synod in Rome. He spoke of the “unending disaster” he and other German bishops faced with the catastrophic consequences of clerical sex abuse and the hemorrhaging of church membership.
The conservative Catholics had some ground to worry about Germany’s Rhine but none from Guelph’s Speed River. This synod was not about resolving contentious issues. It was about constructing a spiritual atmosphere in which listening sets the groundwork for healing. It is Stage 1. Stage 2 is next year and beyond. The end of Stage 1 presages the real beginning of a synodal church.
But that doesn’t mean that the hot-button issues were sidelined. They were raised in the circuli minores or small discussion groups, because in canvassing Catholic opinion worldwide, such issues surfaced repeatedly.
In addition, various groups such as Canada’s Concerned Lay Catholics participated in complementary mini-synods throughout Rome with the express intention of highlighting specific issues around human rights, biblical anthropology and sexual diversity.
Still, the synod’s focus on process, discernment and listening was much more than a spiritual getaway for the delegates. It was a modelling for the larger church and the world.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna observed that a distinguished political scientist had told him that if the synodal method was adopted by the UN Security Council, it would shatter ideological stalemates through deep listening, a shattering that would benefit all of humanity.
In this, maybe a bit of the Royal City (Guelph) did make it to the Eternal City (Rome).