Global church is seeing how pope’s vision of synodality involves everyone

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Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of bishops’ conferences from around the world at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2021. The meeting came as the Vatican launched the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Canadian and U.S. Catholics are convening in a series of online meetings through the end of January as part of Pope Francis’ ongoing call to synodality in the Church.

The gatherings are part of the continental phase of the synodal process in advance of the first session of the Synod of Bishops on synodality scheduled next year for Oct. 4-29 at the Vatican.

Pope Francis in October of this year announced a second session for October 2024, saying he did not want to rush the process of discerning how the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to grow in synodality.

Overall, 12 North American meetings are planned – up from the original 10 because of the high level of interest in both countries, according to the synodal process coordinators.

The meetings – seven in English, three in Spanish and two in French – will give participants the time to hear from one another in hour-long “listening circles.” They then will have the opportunity to discuss their hopes, desires, and concerns for another 90 minutes.

Similar gatherings – some in person, some online, and some hybrid – are planned in six other regions of the world in the run-up to the synod.

They are being guided by the “Document for the Continental Phase,” a document released in late October echoing the themes that emerged from all the national syntheses of synod listening sessions and the contributions of religious orders, Catholic movements, Vatican dicasteries, and nuncios from around the world.

Each continental group has until March 31 to submit a summary report to the Synod of Bishops, which will prepare the documents.

The regional representatives responsible for the continental phase met in Rome Nov. 28-29. The gathering included a two-hour meeting with Pope Francis the first day.

The pope encouraged the representatives to allow the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into the future, said Richard Coll, who attended the meeting and is coordinating the synodal process for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“(He) spoke with great conviction of the importance of synodality, of how walking together and listening to one another are of great importance … that they should really permeate the entire spirituality of the Church going forward,” said Coll, executive director of the bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development.

In North America, the USCCB is collaborating with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to convene the dozen online gatherings.

Julia McStravog, a consultant to the U.S. bishops on the process, said sessions were scheduled to begin Dec. 14 and will run through late January. Finally, a team from both countries will convene Feb. 13-17 in Orlando, Florida, for a “writing retreat” to draft the document based on what was discussed in the gatherings. That document will be sent to the Vatican.

Overall, 990 people, chosen by Canadian and American bishops, will participate in the North American continental phase, she said.

“This event of having so many people engaged in deep discernment is surfacing the Holy Spirit,” McStravog told Catholic News Service. “What they’ve always asked, these questions, hopes, desires, and wounds, are surfacing people’s sacred stories.”

In advance of the continental phase, dioceses around the world spent nearly a year convening formal and informal listening sessions after Pope Francis announced the Synod on Synodality in October 2021. Thousands of local listening sessions gave Catholics and non-Catholics the opportunity to discern the Church’s role in the world.

In the U.S. alone during the 10-month diocesan phase, more than 30,000 listening sessions and informal gatherings involved an estimated 700,000 participants, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, told the USCCB fall general assembly in November. He is overseeing the U.S. involvement in the synodal process. 

The listening sessions revealed that U.S. Catholics continue to feel wounded by the clergy abuse crisis, seek a more welcoming Church in which their “lived reality” is prioritized over rules and regulations, and desire lifelong spiritual, pastoral, and catechetical formation as disciples, according to the synthesis report submitted by the USCCB to the Vatican in August.

Participants in the process also expressed concern that the U.S. Catholic Church is deeply divided and that a lack of unity exists among the bishops, spoke of a desire to “accompany with authenticity” LGBTQ+ persons and their families, and voiced hope that laypeople’s gifts would be more widely utilized in a spirit of collaboration throughout the Church, the report said.

Syntheses reports from around the world paralleled the U.S. expressions.

“The listening is an opening movement toward a wise discernment locally, regionally and nationally about what our deepest concerns, our deepest hopes are right now at this moment in time,” Bishop Flores told Catholic News Service when the report was released.

He said the process that unfolded and led to the 16-page report enabled people to respectfully listen to each other and develop a new understanding of what life in the Church can be like.

“It’s an important step that gives us an experience as a local church,” Bishop Flores said.

“That’s why I think it’s always important to see that this is a seed that is planted and has a chance to grow. I think that’s what the Holy Father is asking for us,” added the bishop, who chairs the USCCB Committee on Doctrine.

Even though the diocesan phase ended with the synthesis report, Bishop Flores explained that the experience of synodality is just beginning within the Church.

“The local work doesn’t become obsolete because we published a national synthesis,” he said.

“There are many things that can be addressed immediately. … There are some issues raised that can be resolved at the local level. We don’t have to wait for the outcome of the Synod of Bishops,” the bishop said.

“The great gift of the synodal style, which the Holy Father keeps insisting, is a manner of expressing the style of Jesus, which is always listening and always attentive and always responsive.”

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