News Analysis

After three weeks, ‘synodality’ remains a mystery

The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon Region is in the books. But what actually happened? Readers may take the question prosaically, or as the utterance of one who is reticent to believe the evidence of his senses: the way someone might say “What just happened here?” when what just happened was plain to see.

The reason for these musings is simple and straightforward. Dr Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Dicastery for Communication and president of the synod of bishops’ committee for information – who had told journalists he would seek information regarding the controverted statuary, and then was testy when a journalist prompted him for the information in a later briefing – at one moment during the official press briefing on the final Friday of the assembly’s working sessions instructed journalists covering the three-week event to disbelieve the evidence of their senses.

“There were performed neither prostrations nor rites,” he said, referring to a tree-planting ceremony on October 4, the feast of St Francis of Assisi. There may be some room for construction and parsing of the term, “rites” – which need not be religious in nature – but participants in the ceremony knelt and bowed low to the ground, facing two statues in the centre of a mat serving as a symbolic representation of the Amazon region. They can be seen doing so on the video Vatican Media provided.

That was only the most egregious trial to which the synod’s appointed message-managers subjected the spirit of frankness during the course of the three weeks’ consultation. Regarding the October 4 ceremony and other events at which synod organisers and participants had a part, we heard that they were not part of the synod itself – technically true, perhaps, but not helpful – and that the synod’s communications officers could not address questions regarding them in any official capacity, sometimes not at all.

Christiane Murray, the deputy director of the Press Office of the Holy See, intervened to preclude an answer from a panelist, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, to a question on the grounds it regarded an event parallel to the synod itself, though the thrust of the question concerned the politicisation of the synod proper. Cardinal Stella did address the question, but that took place.

So, what just happened here?

One more prosaic line of answer might begin with “A synod assembly”. Though as it turns out, that is less helpful than we might hope.

Called on Saturday evening to be the public face of the synod fathers’ final document when it was presented at the Press Office, Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ – his red zucchetto still settling on his head – framed his prepared remarks around the four “conversions” for which the final document calls: pastoral, cultural, ecological, and synodal. Of that last conversion — the synodal – Czerny said, “‘Synodal’ is the most difficult word, it doesn’t mean very much to your readers (or to your listeners), but it is an important word that is helping us in the Church to – again – learn better how to be Church.”

“It is a better expression for how the Church can move forward,” Cardinal Czerny went on to say. “It’s a way of moving together, it’s a way of involving people in the movement,” he said, “and it’s a way of translating our listening – our reflecting, our praying, our worshipping, our spirituality – into the discovery of where we should go and how we should do.”

Cardinal Czerny also explained the way in which the concept informs efforts to order our lives together in the ecclesiastical polity. “We have, rightly so, great faith in democracy,” he said, “but at least the forms of democracy we are practising nowadays don’t seem to help us to find the way forward.

“We need to find ways of finding the way forward,” Cardinal Czerny said, “and the synodal approach, which is based on listening, on reflecting, on faith, on prayer, is a way of finding the way forward, and we hope to learn more and more how to share it also with people of other faiths or of no religious beliefs, because it is very important discovery, a very important treasure.”

The Catholic Herald was in attendance, and asked Cardinal Czerny to share with journalists the synod fathers’ working understanding of synodality. “The dynamic of the synod,” the cardinal offered, “is such that everybody had a sense of what it meant, because we were doing it. Whether everyone could explain it in words, I’m not so sure, but I’m not sure that mattered.

“I think the sense that we were first of all very well prepared,” he continued. “Before the synod began, there had been an extraordinary, unprecedented process of listening. So, we came already with a very good beginning, and this listening continued in different contexts,” among them the General Congregations, the small group sessions, and informally. “You could say: ‘How do you know?’ – you’re right – it’s not easy to put into words, but you could say, ‘How do you know that synodality is working?’ You know that synodality is working when you find yourself voting for something, which you knew – before the synod began – that you disagreed with, and now you’ve learned that this value, that this proposal, this step, is something that’s worthwhile, that’s well-grounded, and that’s worth giving a try – and that is an important experience of the process.”

Fair enough: only, what is it?