By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) — Though probably unbeknownst to most Catholics around the world, on Saturday Pope Francis officially opened a two-year global consultation process, all part of a Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which participants hope will help radically change the way the Catholic Church takes decisions.
“My expectation is that a new way of doing things, which will allow us to see synodality being lived at every level of the Church, is now underway,” Spaniard Carmen Peña Garcia, a synod participant, told Crux.
“The synod should not be reduced to this moment, these two years, because synodality is a call for co-responsibility and co-participation of the entire people of God in the life and mission of the Church, with baptism being the entry card,” she said.
During the next year, a consultation will be launched at a parish level, with the faithful being invited to join in dialogue sessions. In March, there will be time for a diocesan and national gathering, followed by a continental one, with the process, in principle, concluding in October 2023, with a general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, set to take place in Rome in October.
On Saturday, the people on hand were mostly laity, priests, and religious, with some countries not even having bishops in the Synod Hall. This was so because the Vatican’s Synod office had requested continents to send representatives, not each country individually, among other reasons due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel.
Some participants had to embark on a months-long process to get a green light from their governments to fly to Rome, as was the case of laywoman Susan Pascoe from Australia. All of the bishops from Down Under are currently taking part in a national-level Plenary Council, the first session of which is being held this week, so none came. Upon her return home, Pascoe will have to isolate in a hotel for two weeks.
A member of the synod’s Commission on Methodology who has worked both for the Australian Church and the Australian government, she told Crux she values “the authenticity of the process. I see hope in this process, and I trust in it. So, I hope other Catholics will answer the invitation issued by the pope for them to participate.”
An invitation for all the baptized to take part, Peña Garcia said, has been issued, but it not only applies to them, because “the Church wants to be in dialogue with the world too. I think we have to encourage people to take part so that you don’t only get the voices of the usual suspects, but well, there’s also the matter of free will!”
Addressing those who are doubtful of the process, because they fear it might end up with everything the Church teaches up for grabs, Peña Garcia urged people to “not be afraid.”
“We have to listen, but the principles and the deposit of faith are not changing,” she said.
Another member of the synod’s theological commission, layman Rafael Luciani, a Venezuelan who is a professor at Boston College, argued that in the current context, the synod has two key components: It’s been called during a situation of crisis and necessary reform, and it’s not a synod about any one topic but about the Church itself.
“Synodality is the essence and identity of the Church, it’s the constitutive dimension that defines the being and operating of the Church,” he told Crux. “A reconfiguration of the Church is at stake here, when it comes to how we relate to one another as ecclesial beings, the communicational dynamics such as dialogue, listening and discernment, and the way Church structures have to respond to accountability in a context that is ever more demanding.”
Agatha Lydia Natania, from Indonesia and a member of the synod’s youth council, said that oftentimes the voice of young people is not heard in the Church or undermined.
“I really hope that young people won’t only be heard, but actually be made part of the process,” she told journalists on Saturday, at the end of the opening session. “We have this energy, and also a creativity, when it comes to bringing people together. Too many young people are leaving the Church because they feel the institution is not listening to them.”
The synod, she said, is an important tool to channel young people’s will to voice their thoughts, particularly at the local level.
British author Austen Ivereigh, papal biographer and one of the laypeople who took part in the first session of the synod, said there’s a “huge gap” between the enormity of the task ahead and “our readiness for it as a Church.” He’s convinced that this could be the “biggest and most transformational event of my lifetime, at least since Vatican II. It may be the biggest consultation exercise in human history. Yet I think few Catholics are even aware of it yet, and bishops are mostly lying low.”
The fact that most still don’t know about it, Ivereigh told Crux, is to be expected, because the Church today is not synodal and there’s very little experience of what the process entails outside of religious orders.
“I think it will be a slow start, with a lot of uncertainty and mistaken expectations,” he said. “But I think the People of God will start to become aware of it, the Holy Spirit will get in there, and it will suddenly take off.”