Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops of England and Wales
From ‘I’ to ‘We’ – A Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission

At the beginning of September, Bishop Terry sent us a pastoral letter, to be read out in parishes throughout the diocese. In his letter, Bishop Terry spoke of an invitation from Pope Francis to every Catholic in our diocese and indeed in dioceses around the world to have a say and play their part in helping to shape the life and mission of the Catholic Church.

For us to do this, the Holy Father has called a Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2023 to which every Catholic is called to contribute through using the “synodal” process in their parish. This article attempts to explain the process and suggests some methods for enabling people to get involved.

The theme is: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission

What is meant by Communion Participation and Mission?

Communion: Bringing people together as communities in the local Church begins this prayerful insight into the ways of the Holy Spirit. When the Church gathers for the Eucharist, and what flows from it, is when the necessary self-understanding of the mission of the Church is best understood. Thus the dialogue at this level is rooted in the life of the ecclesial communities and parishes.

Participation: The reflections that the local Churches are undertaking regarding the past 15 months of pandemic from the context of how the Church in England and Wales looks forward, not backwards, to revitalising its mission of bringing the Good News to all. The gentle invitation to the full practice of Catholic life, with the Eucharist at the centre of all the Church does, is an integral part of the “walking together”.

Mission: Understanding the local situation will feed necessarily into an overview of the mission in the whole diocese. Like the tesserae of mosaic, the picture is built up of the needs for renewal so that mission to all is firmly rooted in the life of the local community who gather, by the gentle invitation of the Lord, to worship him, to be sanctified by him and to exercise both an individual and collective prophetic voice.

What is a Synod and what does Synodality mean?

“Synod” is an ancient and venerable word in the tradition of the Church. It indicates the path along which the People of God walk together. Equally, it refers to the Lord Jesus, who presents himself as, “The way, the truth and the life” Jn 14,6. Pope St Paul Vl established the Synod of Bishops in 1965 following Vatican ll. Almost every two years since 1967, the Church has celebrated a Synod of Bishops. This is a special and unique moment in the life of the Church. Bishops from all over the world gather to assist the Bishop of Rome with “providing for the good of the universal Church”. In each Synod, the Church “journeys together” along a specific path, focusing on a theme chosen by the Pope. In the end, the Pope “confirms his brethren in the faith” regarding “matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that [she] should be carrying on in today’s world” (Pope St Paul VI).

What is ‘Synodality?’

All of us are called in virtue of our baptism to be active participants in the life of the Church. In parishes, small Christian communities, lay movements, religious communities and other forms of communion, women and men, young people and the elderly, we are all invited to listen to one another to hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit who comes to guide our human efforts. The Synodal process is first and foremost a spiritual process. We listen to each other, to our faith tradition and to the signs of the times to discern what God is saying to all of us. If listening is the method, discerning the aim then participation is the path. Participation leads us out of ourselves to involve others who hold different views than we do.

What Pope Francis is asking us to do

On October 9 and 10, Pope Francis will inaugurate the Synodal Path in Rome. The following Sunday, October 17, each bishop will open the synodal path in his diocese with a time of reflection on the process and a celebration of the Eucharist, which begins the diocesan phase of the synodal path.

The diocesan phase runs from October 2021 to April 2022. It is in this phase that parishes, groups, lay movements, schools and universities, religious congregations, neighbourhood Christian communities, social action, ecumenical and inter-religious and other groups are invited to participate.

Each bishop has been asked to appoint a named person to steer the synodal process within his diocese. Bishop Terry has asked Canon Derek Turnham to take on this role and he will have a support group around him to assist him in this.

During October and early January 2022, people from these groups will be asked to meet and listen to one another. The heart of the synodal experience is listening to God through listening to one another, inspired by the Word of God. How these meetings take place very much depends upon local circumstances. For example, it may be easier for a group of neighbouring parishes to meet and share the journey together. It may be helpful to have one or two lay people work closely alongside the parish priest in facilitating the dialogue. In January 2022 Bishop Terry will convene a diocese-wide meeting of parish and apostolic group representatives to feed in to the synodal process the fruits of their discussions.

There is a general question that we are asked to consider, supplemented by ten themes that provide helpful guidelines to aid our conversation and dialogue. We don’t need to restrict our discussion to these ten themes. Remember, the themes are there to help us, not bind us!

A synodal Church, in announcing the Gospel, journeys together. How is this journeying together happening today in your local Church?

What steps does the Spirit invite us to take to grow in our journeying together?

In considering this question, we are asked to recall our experiences of our local Churches. What joys did they bring? What difficulties and obstacles have they encountered? What wounds did they reveal? What incites have they elicited?Where in these experiences does the voice of the Holy Spirit resound? What is the Spirit asking of us? What are the points to be confirmed, the prospects for change, the steps to be taken? Where do we register a consensus? What paths are opening up for our local Church?

1. COMPANIONS ON THE JOURNEY In the Church and in society we are side by side on the same road. In our local Church, who are those who “walk together”? Who are those who seem further apart? How are we called to grow as companions? What groups or individuals are left on the margins?

2. LISTENING is the first step, but it requires an open mind and heart, without prejudice. How is God speaking to us through voices we sometimes ignore? How are the laity listened to, especially women and young people? What facilitates or inhibits our listening? How well do we listen to those on the peripheries? How is the contribution of consecrated men and women integrated? What are some limitations in our ability to listen, especially to those who have different views than our own? What space is there for the voice of minorities, especially people who experience poverty, marginalisation, or social exclusion?

3. SPEAKING OUT All are invited to speak with courage and parrhesia, that is, in freedom, truth and charity. What enables or hinders speaking up courageously, candidly and responsibly in our local Church and in society? When and how do we manage to say what is important to us? How does the relationship with the local media work (not only Catholic media)? Who speaks on behalf of the Christian community, and how are they chosen?

4. CELEBRATION “Walking together” is only possible if it is based on communal listening to the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist. How do prayer and liturgical celebrations actually inspire and guide our common life and mission in our community? How do they inspire the most important decisions? How do we promote the active participation of all the faithful in the liturgy? What space is given to participating in the ministries of lector and acolyte?

5. SHARING RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR COMMON MISSION Synodality is at the service of the mission of the Church, in which all members are called to participate. Since we are all missionary disciples, how is every baptised person called to participate in the mission of the Church? What hinders the baptised from being active in mission? What areas of mission are we neglecting? How does the community support its members who serve society in various ways (social and political involvement, scientific research, education, promoting social justice, protecting human rights, caring for the environment, etc)? How does the Church help these members to live out their service to society in a missionary way? How is discernment about missionary choices made and by whom?

6. DIALOGUE IN CHURCH AND SOCIETY Dialogue requires perseverance and patience, but it also enables mutual understanding. To what extent do diverse peoples in our community come together for dialogue? What are the places and means of dialogue within our local Church? How do we promote collaboration with neighbouring dioceses, religious communities in the area, lay associations and movements, etc? How are divergences of vision, or conflicts and difficulties addressed? What particular issues in the Church and society do we need to pay more attention to? What experiences of dialogue and collaboration do we have with believers of other religions and with those who have no religious affiliation? How does the Church dialogue with and learn from other sectors of society: the spheres of politics, economics, culture, civil society and people who live in poverty?

7. ECUMENISM The dialogue between Christians of different confessions, united by one baptism, has a special place in the synodal journey. What relationships does our Church community have with members of other Christian traditions and denominations? What do we share and how do we journey together? What fruits have we drawn from walking together? What are the difficulties? How can we take the next step in walking forward with each other?

8. AUTHORITY AND PARTICIPATION A synodal church is a participatory and co-responsible Church. How does our Church community identify the goals to be pursued, the way to reach them, and the steps to be taken? How is authority or governance exercised within our local Church? How are teamwork and co-responsibility put into practice? How are evaluations conducted and by whom? How are lay ministries and the responsibility of lay people promoted? Have we had fruitful experiences of synodality on a local level? How do synodal bodies function at the level of the local Church (pastoral councils in parishes and dioceses, presbyteral council, etc)? How can we foster a more synodal approach in our participation and leadership?

9. DISCERNING AND DECIDING In a synodal style, we make decisions through discernment of what the Holy Spirit is saying through our whole community. What methods and processes do we use in decision-making? How can they be improved? How do we promote participation in decision-making within hierarchical structures? Do our decision-making methods help us to listen to the whole People of God? What is the relationship between consultation and decision-making, and how do we put these into practice? What tools and procedures do we use to promote transparency and accountability? How can we grow in communal spiritual discernment?

10. FORMING OURSELVES IN SYNODALITY Synodality entails receptivity to change, formation and ongoing learning. How does our church community form people to be more capable of “walking together”, listening to one another, participating in mission and engaging in dialogue? What formation is offered to foster discernment and the exercise of authority in a synodal way?

We’re operating on a tight timescale mid-October to late-November 2021

  • Launch of the synodal process in mid-October
  • Invite parishioners and all those mentioned above to a meeting to begin the dialogue which should happen between mid-October and mid-January 2022
  • There will be a diocesan meeting convened by Bishop Terry in late January either face to face or on Zoom or a combination of both, to which the groups and each parish, school etc will be invited to send up to two representatives to give feedback on the fruits of their discussions to Bishop Terry. One person from each group will be given two minutes each to give their feedback on behalf of their group/parish or school.
  • Feedback will be recorded and a synthesis will be discerned by Bishop Terry to be fed into the Bishops Conference of England and Wales and go through a similar process of discernment that will find its way to Rome for the Synod of Bishops in 2023. It would be helpful if a document of no more than ten pages, which highlights the outcomes of your dialogue and discernment was provided.

The above is a summary of the process which in its entirety can look complex and seem overwhelming. All we need to concern ourselves with is how we decide to make our contribution at parish, group and institutional level, for example, schools.

The key to this is for us to do our best to makes sure that everyone in our diocese is given the opportunity to have their voice heard and listened to – the emphasis being on everyone. The synodal process is not about competing with each other or winning arguments. It is, above all, about listening to the Word of God, to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and to each other to discern what God is calling us to. This is your chance to help shape the way the church moves forward in the 21st century.

A simple resource will be available soon from adultformation@rcdmidd.org.uk or from our website middlesbrough-diocese.org.uk to help us get the process going and support us through it. Canon Derek will be available to offer help and guidance along the way

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