Synod goes liminal: the unpredictability of the next 11 months


As this column is being written, the Synod of Bishops is bringing to a close the most opaque assembly ever to be held in its relatively brief, post-Vatican II history.

Actually, once the members of the October 4-29 gathering have voted on a final document (Saturday evening) and then celebrated the concluding Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica (Sunday morning), they will not have ended the Synod assembly on synodality.

They will only have ended the first session of that assembly. Pope Francis, the Synod’s president, has scheduled a second session for 11 months from now – in October 2024.

What happens in the liminal space between now and then is anybody’s guess.

That’s because there are numerous issues and events – both in the Church and in the world – that will pose serious challenges to advancing the momentum of the synodal “conversations in the Spirit” that many participants said they so positively experienced.

The Marko Rupnik saga

Let’s start with the issue that is no longer the elephant in the room, as it was just a few days ago.

Obviously we’re talking about the likely role the pope played in the way the Vatican and the Diocese of Rome dismissed the testimonies of more than 20 women who accused the famous ex-Jesuit mosaic artist, Marko Rupnik, of sexually abusing them.

The Jesuits believed the women, however. And they slapped tight restrictions on Rupnik’s work, ministry, and travel.

When the celebrity priest-artist brazenly flouted them, his religious superiors kicked him out of the order.

Demands for full transparency in how Rupnik abuse cases were handled at the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) were always ignored.

And not a single Vatican official, including anyone at the Holy See Press Office, has ever addressed the issue – until last week when it was revealed that Rupnik was recently incardinated in the Diocese of Koper (Slovenia) as a priest in good standing.

Under intense media pressure, and with emerging signs on social media that many Catholics – including some the pope’s most loyal supporters – were scandalised and angered by this new development in the ongoing Rupnik saga, the Vatican said Francis had instructed the DDF to re-open the Slovenian priest’s abuse case.

Naturally, it did not acknowledge that the pope decided to do so because of the above-mentioned pressure and outrage. It does not matter.

It’s regretful to have to say this, but we are long past expecting any real transparency in this pontificate – at least across the board and on a consistent basis.

You are probably asking what all this has to do with the Synod assembly and the next 11 months before its second session.

At least three issues seem to be at play here:

  • the lack of transparency in the Church, especially from its leaders;
  • the commitment of the Church, and especially the pope, to continue making the clergy sex abuse crisis a top priority;
  • and how women are treated by an all-male clergy and hierarchy.

Priests sexually assaulting minors and vulnerable adults

The members of the Synod assembly could not even acknowledge in their “Letter to the People of God” that hundreds, certainly tens of thousands and perhaps even millions of people – minors and vulnerable adults – have been sexually abused by Catholic priests over the past 70 or so years alone.

The best they could muster in their anodyne text was to mention “victims of abuse committed by members of the ecclesial body”.

Seriously? This was not a tough one. And it is extremely worrying that they could not even agree that the issue at hand is about priests sexually assaulting vulnerable people.

As for transparency, there was little of that from this first session of the Synod assembly.

Those of us who were not given access to the closed-door gatherings inside the Paul VI Hall – all but about 400 of the Catholic Church’s reportedly 1.3 billion members – have no real idea how the discussions were even conducted.

Yes, the “method” was explained to us, but we were not able to witness even a few moments of it actually taking place.

The only things shared with the public were the occasional spiritual reflections, witness talks, theological mini-lectures and general introductions by the assembly’s rapporteur.

It was very difficult to get the “feel” or sense of what was really going on in the discussions. We had to rely on participants who shared their “experiences” at press briefings.

And then there’s the issue of women and the Church – what type of responsibility and ministry they are allowed to exercise and how they are treated by the male clerics.

This, in the minds of many serious Catholics, is the most crucial issue in the Church today, right up there with the clergy sex abuse crisis.

And, of course, the hierarchy’s response to the Rupnik allegations (not believing or meeting with the women he allegedly abused and then putting him back in ministry after the Jesuits dismissed him) hits both issues!

The pope also did his part deflect attention away from the women’s issue and focus it, instead, on the way the Church treats gays and lesbians, one of the other hot topics going into the October 4-29 assembly.

It did this by holding much-publicised private meetings with James Martin SJ and Jeannine Gramick SL, two icons of Catholic outreach to the LGBTQ+ community. Fine people, both of them.

And, yes, Jeannine is a woman, but the pope met her and two male officials of her organisation, “New Ways Ministry”. It wasn’t about her gender.

Trickle down synodality?

How all the above will affect the next 11 months, which Timothy Radcliffe OP – one of the assembly’s spiritual directors – has likened to a gestation period or a pregnancy, is hard to say.

The final document is supposed to highlight themes that will require further and more in-depth reflection and discussion, as well as – one supposes – issues that are not on the table.

And where will such discussions take place? In universities, parishes, diocesan chanceries?

The two-session model of this Synod assembly – which actually began in October 2021 with a series of consultations that were held (theoretically) with all the members of the Church at the local, national and regional levels – has, at times, been likened to the process that unfolded during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Preparations got under in various places around the world, beginning in early 1960.

Then the first session was held in autumn 1962 at the Vatican.

Between that and the next three sessions there were those liminal periods when the Council Fathers returned to their dioceses or religious communities and the theologian returned to their universities, academies or research centers.

It has been recognised that this helped bring the Council to the local level and engage Catholics in the work and spirit of Vatican II as it was unfolding.

The Synod fathers and mothers and all the other participants at this year’s assembly will also return home for the next 11 months before returning in October 2024 for Round II of the “Synod on synodality”, as the two-pronged assembly is often called.

But they will not be able to bring their experience from Synod assembly or engage local Catholics with it in the same way that those who participated in the Council were able to do.

For one thing, it’s numerically impossible.

In theory, all the bishops of the world were at Vatican II. Most of them said they were transformed by their experience at the Council and they enthusiastically brought its vision and decisions back home to their priests and people.

Only a tiny percentage of the world’s bishops are part of the Synod assembly.

Therefore, the vast majority of the world’s dioceses have no direct personal connection to what happened in the Paul VI Hall this past month.

And because of the pope’s insistence on a virtual media blackout, they have not had much other connection, either.

You may have heard the old saying “Will it play in Peoria?” It’s often used in the United States to ask whether a product, idea or person will appeal to the mainstream, as it is reflected in so many places like this small, typically average city in Illinois.

We might ask the same question regarding the work of the Synod assembly.

The problem is that it can’t play in the countless Peorias of the worldwide Church if it’s never taken back to the people there.

And how likely is that to happen if their bishops – like the one in the real Peoria – are not part of the Synod assembly?

  • Robert Mickens, LCI Editor in Chief, has lived, studied and worked in Rome for 30 years. His famous Letter From Rome, brings his unparalleled experience as senior Vatican correspondent for the London Tablet and founding editor of Global Pulse Magazine.
  • First published in La Croix. Republished with permission.
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