(adapted from a reflection from Fr Tom Magill, Diocese of Motherwell, with permission)

The Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the two sessions of the XVI ORDINARY GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS this year and next, was published on June 20th. It is the fruit of the synodal process whichbegan at grass-roots level in local churches (dioceses) in 2021 and continued through national and continental stages. The entire People of God was invited through listening, prayer and discernment to hear what the Holy Spirit was saying to the Church concerning communion, participation, and mission. This working document puts together in a synthetic manner the questions, hopes, dreams, and challenges expressed by Catholics the world over. The whole process showcases how local Churches and the universal Church can work together in fruitful dialogue even when tensions are present. 

The 60-page text document is in two main parts, followed by work-sheets suggesting questions and topics to be reflected upon. The first part, “For a synodal church. An integral experience”, highlights the contributions made by local churches in the past two years, considers the characteristic signs of a synodal church, and proposes “conversation in the Spirit” as a way forward for this synodal Church. The second part focuses on the three themes of the synodal process — communion, participation, mission – and presents them in question form as priority issues for the synodal Church:  

  • A communion that radiates: How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?  
  • Co-responsibility in Mission: How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel?  
  • Participation, governance and authority: What should be the processes, structures and institutions in a missionary synodal Church

The main text of the working document is remarkably short at only 24 pages, while the work sheets, which will prompt most of the reflection and discernment, take up 36 pages. It is not a prepared theological text to be reviewed, emended and voted upon…it presents itself as a “practical aid” (p. 23) “to facilitate discernment on the three ‘priorities that most strongly emerge from the work of all the continents’ (IL 14), with a view to identifying the concrete steps to which we feel called by the Holy Spirit in order to grow as a synodal Church.” (p. 23) The document is thus open-ended and encourages different viewpoints to emerge without seeking either a pre-determined conclusion or being seen as a questionnaire requiring an answer to every question. In its very structure and way of proceeding, then, the Instrumentum Laboris reflects the synodal style now encouraged at all levels of the Church.

The second point to make is how deeply the document reflects the teaching of the 2nd Vatican Council. This is most evident in its emphasis on the centrality of baptism: “A synodal Church is founded on the recognition of a common dignity deriving from Baptism, which makes all who receive it sons and daughters of God, members of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters in Christ, inhabited by the one Spirit and sent to fulfil a common mission.” (IL 20)

 This reflects and builds on the teaching of Lumen Gentium, not only in its renewed teaching on baptism but also with itsconcomitant emphasis on the common priesthood of all the baptised and the sensus fidei totius fidelium(“the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.” CCC 92) The catholicity of the People of God drives this whole process and this rich understanding of baptism is at its heart.

Thirdly, the document proposes “conversation in the Spirit” as the optimal modus operandi of a synodal Church and as a model for co-responsible leadership at all levels of the Church. This conversation in the Spirit is described as “shared prayer leading to communal discernment” (IL 37) and has proved to be one of the surprising and most productive elements of the synodal process so far. This way of being synodal has three steps. Firstly, each person, reflecting on their experience during a time of prayer and preparation, voices their thoughts and feelings on a given topic. Each participant in the circle is encouraged to speak, however briefly, with everyone else listening respectfully and without comment. A time of silence and prayer prepares for the next step during which each person voices their reaction to what they have heard others say. It is not a time for them to expand upon their own reflections. “The interior traces that result from one’s listening to sisters and brothers are the language with which the Holy Spirit makes his own voice resound.” (IL 38) In the final step, the group together identify key points which have emerged with a view to building a consensus. A key point does not necessarily indicate a majority view but may come from one individual speaking in a prophetic way.  “Formation in this method, and in particular of facilitators capable of accompanying communities in practising it, is perceived as a priority at all levels of ecclesial life.” (IL 42) 

This emphasis placed upon conversation in the Spirit for a synodal Church is at the heart of the document.

The meeting in Rome in October will take place in the Paul VI Auditorium. At previous Synods, in front of the top table were the Cardinals, behind them the Bishops, and finally clergy and laity behind them. Now everyone will meet around tables of 12 people where most of the work will be done. This will enable everyone’s voice to be spoken and heard and so allow the participation of all.  Of the approximately 370 delegates, 79% will be bishops. There will be 70 lay people among the other participants, all of whom will have voting rights. The tables of 12, then, will be a mixture of bishops, priests, and laity, of men and women. This way of proceeding should become the usual way of working in a synodal church in all meetings of whatever sort and formation in this style and mentality will be necessary for seminaries, parishes, clergy and bishops.

Regarding the specific content of the document, it’s heartening to see that almost all the topics raised at parish, diocesan and national level… are included. There is a world-wide resonance even given different emphases and nuances: the role of women in the church, the ways of exercising authority in the church, the need for a new language in liturgy and church communication, renewal in seminary formation, the question of the ordination of mature married men in some regions, the approach to the divorced and remarried Catholics and to LGBTQ+. people, the preferential option for the poor, disabled, and young, the care of our common home and much more.

All in all, the document is shot through with beauty, hopefulness, and courage. It invites us to contemplate how radically renewed and rejuvenated a synodal church might be. This document is, of course, a work in progress, as will be the Synod meetings in Rome. What remains central, however, is clear: the aim is evangelisation, the way is synodality, and the result is the renewal of the Church imbued with both.