Pope Francis taking place in a roundtable discussion at the current Synod
Catholic Church

An historic Synod is taking place in the Vatican, but what is a 'Synod' and why is it important?

It’s been several years in the making, and some within the Catholic Church hope that it will usher in a new and more inclusive way of thinking.

ON 4 OCTOBER, Pope Francis opened the Synod in the Vatican.

The first phase of the mysteriously titled ‘Synod on Synodality’ is taking place until 29 October.

The second phase will be held a year later, in October 2024.

It has been several years in the making, and some within the Catholic Church hope that it will usher in a new and more inclusive way of thinking.

Others fear it could signal a break away from more than 2,000 years of Church teaching and tradition.

Both sides were bolstered in their positions when on the eve of the Synod, the Vatican released a letter in which Pope Francis appeared to signal an openness to blessing same-sex unions.

What exactly is the Synod?

The word “synod” means “assembly” but Pope Francis describes it as “journeying together” and listening to one another to discern the best path forward for the Church.

Pope Francis said he wanted to hear from the entire Church about what is happening in local parishes and to ask what the Church can do to make parishes better.

The current Synod is the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

The Canon Law of the Catholic Church, which sets out how the Church is governed and organised, describes the Synod of Bishops as a body that assists the Pope with their counsel and “consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world”.

However, for the first time, women and laypeople will have a vote in the assembly.

Up to now, voting members of synods have been all men, and this consisted of bishops and 10 elected priests.

However, in changes published by the Vatican in April and approved by Pope Francis, only five priests will be elected to the synod, and they will be joined by five nuns or sisters.

At previous synods, women held marginal roles as observers, however this time round they will be allowed to cast a vote.

There are 464 participants in the synod, 365 of whom are voting members.

While the majority of the voting members are bishops, 70 are non-bishop members and 54 of these are women.

The 70 non-bishop members were chosen from the seven international Bishops’ Conferences.

Pope Francis has been at pains to note that the synod “is not a parliament” and that there will be a priority on listening.

A notable sign of this priority on listening is seen in the physical layout of the venue.

In previous synods, the Pope was aloof on the stage, with the rest of the members seated in an arena setting – cardinals, bishops and priests at the front, and the few laypeople who are invited at the back.

This time round, laypeople and bishops sit at roundtables of 10 to 12 people (who all share a language) and discuss rather than read from scripts as often happened in the past.

Pope Francis has also been taking part in some of these roundtable discussions, which are overseen by a “facilitator” in order to “create a fruitful dynamic”.

One female voting member of the synod explained: “The intention is to make this a spiritual conversation.

“There’s not a lot of speech-making here and the focus is on speaking my truth, and to hear the truth that others have to share, and to see what type of consensus might emerge from that process.”

On 28 October, the day before the conclusion of the first phase of the Synod, members with voting rights will express their approval or disapproval of a document which summarises the conversations which are on-going.

Irish input

The current synod has been years in the making and was formally announced in March, 2020.

Since 2021, the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics have been invited to express their views on the Catholic Church and its challenges to help guide the institution through the 21st Century.

In Ireland, this insight from local parishes was distilled into a national synthesis document, which in turn fed into a continental document which has been presented at the Synod.

The Irish Bishops’ Conference said “special care was taken to involve those persons who may risk being excluded, such as women, members of the LGBTQI+ community, members of the Travelling community, and refugees”.

A “listening process” was also held with abuse survivors.

The report from the Irish Bishops’ Conference found an “overwhelming call for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, expressed by all ages”.

And while Pope Francis’ “compassionate approach” was described as “transformative and appreciated”, there were calls for an apology from the Church for its treatment of the LGBTQ+ community.

A submission from an LGBTQI+ focus group noted: “Even though the Church rarely condemns gay people these days, it indirectly creates an atmosphere where physical, psychological and emotional abuse of gay people is tolerated and even encouraged.”

And while some called for a change in Church teaching, others expressed “concern” that this would lead to the Church “conforming to secular standards”.

Meanwhile, the report noted that “the role of women in the Church was mentioned in almost every submission received”.

Some submissions also called for women to be able to enter the priesthood, a ban upheld by Pope Francis.

A call was also issued for the Church to “reflect on the injustice brought upon women by Church and State, and cultural norms in society”.

The report also described as an “open wound” the “physical, sexual and emotional abuse and its concealment by the Church in Ireland”.

The Irish Bishops’ Conference commended the report to the synod and said it hopes the report will result in “more inclusive outreach, reaching out to those who have left the Church behind and in some cases feel excluded, forgotten or ignored”.

Why is this Synod important?

The current Synod is the first time the Vatican has waded into so many of today’s contentious social issues so openly.

The topics to be addressed include the place of LGBTQ+ people within the Church, whether women should be ordained, and whether married men can serve as priests in regions with insufficient clergy, among others.

While the discussions within the synod are private to allow for frank discussions, they are not secret, and the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community often comes up in media briefings.

On the eve of the synod, five conservative cardinals questioned Pope Francis on the blessing of same-sex couples.

Conferring blessings on same-sex couples is something that Catholic churches in Belgium and Germany have been doing without sanction from the Vatican for several years.

The five cardinals said their aim was to inform the faithful “so they are not subject to confusion, error and discouragement”.

In a response made public two days before the synod, Pope Francis appeared to suggest a way for the blessing of same-sex couples by priests.

While insisting that the Church only recognises marriage between a man and a woman, the Pope said that “we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude”.

“Pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage,” he wrote.

This response from Pope Francis on the eve of the Synod was seen by many as setting the tone for the discussions ahead.

The conservative wing of the Catholic Church has long been at odds with Pope Francis, claiming that he risks creating confusion and division in the Church and expressing worries over doctrinal changes on issues such as gay rights or celibacy.

Pope Francis first incurred their wrath when, early into his papacy, he said: “If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?”

This was in response to an Italian journalist asked Pope Francis what he would say to a gay person who was seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Later, Pope Francis called for the Church apologise for the harm it has caused to the LGBTQ+ community, saying: “We Christians have to apologise for so many things, not just for this [treatment of gay people], but we must ask for forgiveness, not just apologise.”

And during his visit to Ireland in August 2018, the Pope was asked what advice he would give to the parent of a gay child.

“Don’t condemn; dialogue, understand, make space for them, let them express themselves,” he said.

“Silence is never a remedy. To ignore a son or daughter who is homosexual is a lack of paternity and maternity.

“You are my son or daughter as you are; I’m your father, mother… let’s talk.”

Of the 365 voting members of the Synod, Pope Francis picked 120.

Those handpicked by Pope Francis include Father James Martin, who ministers to LGBTQ+ Catholics.

Last year, Fr Martin told The Journal: “I say to LGBT people, it’s your Church too. If you’re baptised, then you’re as much a part of the church as your local priest or bishop, or even the Pope. It’s your church too.”

Also chosen personally by Pope Francis was Cardinal Gerhard Müller.

He’s a frequent critic of Pope Francis, has labelled the current Synod a “hostile takeover” of the Church, and has accused Fr Martin of spreading heresy.

Meanwhile, women within the Church hope this can be the moment to seize on real change for their role.

Women are barred from the priesthood and highest ranks of power, yet arguably responsible for the lion’s share of Church work – teaching in Catholic schools, running Catholic hospitals and passing the faith down to next generations.

They have long demanded a greater say in church governance, up to the right to be ordained as priests.

Before the opening Mass for the synod, advocates for women priests unfurled a giant purple banner reading: “Ordain Women.”

What could be the outcome of the current synod?

There was a time when most Catholic masses were said in Latin by a priest who had his back to the congregation.

Then came along the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s which tried to bring the Church into the modern world, and allowed masses to be said by a priest speaking the local language while facing the congregation.

Some say a Third Vatican Council could be in the making following the current synod, with seismic change regarding priestly celibacy or the ordination of women to the priesthood.

For this part, Pope Francis has poured cold water on the prospect of a Third Vatican Council any time soon.

Others hold that little will change following the Synod, which will conclude fully in early 2025 when a final document on the Synod will be given to the Pope. 

This document will be formulated after the second phase of the Synod, which will take place this time next year.

Pope Francis will then decide whether or not to incorporate its findings into a papal document known as an apostolic exhortation.

If approved by the Pope, it will become part of the Church’s official teaching.

While the possibility of real change on previously taboo topics has given hope to many women and progressive Catholics, it has sparked alarm among conservatives who warn it could lead to a split in the Church. 

- Diarmuid Pepper will be reporting on the Synod from Rome next week and you can follow on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @Diarmuid_9

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