The following is an excerpt from an article written by Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv, the bishop president of Pax Christi USA. It was originally published in Commonweal, June 24, 2023; use this link to read the entire article.
On the evening of October 11, 1962, the night preceding the opening of the Second Vatican Council, a crowd of mostly young people gathered in Saint Peter’s Square, filled with energy, enthusiasm, and expectation for what was about to unfold. John XXIII came to the window from which popes customarily address the crowds at the Sunday Angelus and gave an impromptu fervorino, referred to simply as the “moonlight speech.” It is probably his best remembered speech and provides an apt characterization of the man known to the world as Good Pope John. Rejoicing at the sight of the crowd and the glow of their candles, Pope John mused that even the moon came out for the event. After a few more words of encouragement, he said:
When you go home, give your children a hug and tell them it is from the pope. And when you find them with tears to dry, give them a good word. Give anyone who suffers a word of comfort. Tell them, “The pope is with us especially in our times of sadness.”
John XXIII called for aggiornamento so that the worldwide Church could be refreshed and renewed for its mission in the world. His fifth successor, Pope Francis, is convinced that it was the Holy Spirit’s actions that made the council bear fruit, and he is making it clear that the Second Vatican Council has charted the course for the Church that he intends to follow. Like his smiling predecessor, Francis is attuned to the realities of the suffering of the innocent and is painfully aware of how inequality of access to the world’s goods and the phenomenal disproportionality in the consumption of those goods contributes to violence, instability, and the threatened future of humanity. It doesn’t have to be so, he reminds us again and again, and the remedy is to simply live as sisters and brothers as God’s plan has designed. The aggiornamento needed for the present moment is to get back on course with the “pilgrim people of God” ecclesiology of the council and to forge even stronger bonds of fraternity—not only with other Christians, but with all of the world’s religions, and even those of no faith who would be characterized as people of good will.
In the past few months, there have been many assessments of the Bergoglio papacy—some lauding its fruitfulness, others bemoaning the lack thereof. If one’s primary concern about the Church today is access to the pre-conciliar liturgy, or pre-conciliar attitudes about ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, or a rigid interpretation of the Church’s moral tradition when it comes to sexual ethics but not to social ethics; if one fears a Church in dialogue with the world or fears a hierarchy that listens to its own flock; if one wants to be certain that the sacraments be exclusively offered to the saintly or fears any greater inclusion of laity, especially women, in co-responsible roles in the Church—then the Francis pontificate has been an outright disaster. That is supposedly how a cardinal, once a close collaborator of Francis, described this decade in a posthumously released commentary.
If, however, one has been inspired by the fact that the cardinals selected a Bishop of Rome from the “ends of the world,” a pope who chose the name of Francis in remembrance of the saint of the poor, of creation, and of peace; if one is grateful for relief from the imposition of Tridentine rubrics and pre-conciliar liturgical fashion by young clerics; if one is enthusiastic about the reintroduction and reimagination of synodality in the West; if one prefers a pope who washes the feet of women, Muslims, prisoners, and who brings refugees on board papal flights and invites them to live in the Vatican; if one nods in agreement with the idea that the Church is supposed to form consciences and not replace them; and if one rejoices to see accompaniment and discernment as the proper approach to those who lives are not fully reflective of the Church’s teachings—then it is hard to consider these ten years as anything but a successful beginning.
No pope should be remembered for only one thing, but it seems that recent popes have each introduced a memorable word or phrase into the Catholic lexicon. For John XXIII it was “aggiornamento,” for Paul VI it was “evangelization.” For John Paul II, the word “solidarity” probably takes first place; for Benedict XVI, the “rejection of relativism.” For a good while I was convinced that the Francis word would be “periphery.” Was anybody talking about the peripheries before 2013? It shouldn’t been surprising, coming from the first Latin American pope, who brought with him the legacy of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference and its aim to create missionary disciples, the same conference that declared a preferential option for the poor and aligned itself with the impoverished masses of the continent after centuries of being part of the privileged elite. The peripheries to which Father Jorge once sent his Jesuit novices have now become a worldwide directive from the center of the Church.
The word “joy” was also a real contender. When had we ever heard so much about the joy of the Gospel? The joy of love, especially married and family love? The joy of the call to holiness? Certainly more far-reaching than any of his encyclicals is the joy that Francis expresses in every encounter with refugees, migrants, the imprisoned, those who dwell in ghettos, the hospitalized, and those in nursing homes. Recently, after seeing so many pictures of the pope in discomfort and awkwardly moving around, I wondered if we would see that smile again. But sure enough, on Holy Thursday at the Marmo Juvenile Detention Center where he washed the feet of inmates, I saw the beaming smile, returned to him by those who experienced that close connection. The “Joy of the Gospel” was the title of his first apostolic exhortation, and it really did serve as a programmatic essay about the way his papacy would unfold and the direction in which he would lead the Church.
But now my hope and prayer is that “synodality” becomes the lasting Franciscan contribution to our Catholic vocabulary. This pope—a man of deep prayer who is schooled in the Ignatian spiritual tradition of discernment and who bears witness to the freedom of the Holy Spirit—is content to convene the bishops and the whole People of God to learn again to “walk together,” which he reminds us is the foundational meaning of “synod.” It is also a phrase used by John XXIII in that moonlight speech: “tutti insieme in fraternità,” everyone together in fraternity towards peace. Pope Francis is also reformulating the use of synods so that they are not only periodic events for convening bishops in affective collegiality, but also the new way of being the Church at every level. If this attempt is successful, its impact will be comparable to that of the Second Vatican Council, opened by another pope who was seen to be nearing the end of his days.
Francis builds on the legacy of the Second Vatican Council’s restoration of the Synod of Bishops as a permanent reality in the Church. Lumen gentium provided a renewed look at the traditional ministry of the bishop; the council restored the office of diocesan bishop as being much more than a “branch officer” for the corporate offices in Rome. The council also discussed the collegiality necessary among all bishops who share responsibility for the universal Church with and under Peter. Still, there was no intermediary structure between the local bishop and pope, except for the national and regional conferences of bishops, which are more about fraternal collegiality than effective governance. The Synod of Bishops would be convened by the pope, discuss pertinent issues at the pope’s request, and provide a global perspective to the pope.
Pope Francis himself, as a bishop, did not appreciate synods that seemed to merely rubber-stamp decisions and directives made elsewhere, mainly by the Roman Curia. He lamented his own experience of bishops who shared opinions and critiques outside the synod hall, but who had been much more reserved about doing so in the Holy Father’s presence. At his first synod as Bishop of Rome, the extraordinary Synod on the Family, Francis instructed the participating bishops to speak boldly and listen charitably. It seems that some were better at implementing the first half of the directive. Another of the frequently repeated words in the Francis lexicon is parrhesia, or boldness, which he insists is necessary in the synodal process if real discernment, listening, and dialogue are to take place. The Acts of the Apostles describes such parrhesia. But in the synodal setting, time for silence, prayer, processing, and discernment is just as important.
The recent diocesan phase of the universal Synod on Synodality was meant to be an exercise in teaching this method to the whole Church. Indeed it was a start, but there is a long way to go. Francis has clarified that synods are not to function in parliamentary fashion: there are no parties and it is not simply a matter of winning the majority to one’s side of an argument. Real synodality should not have winners and losers; if people are not open to a change of heart through dialogue, they have yet to learn the synodal method. Francis is not at all afraid of learning from failures and trying repeatedly to get it right. Many across the ideological spectrum would consider the Amazon Synod to have been a failure—some because it did not result in the ordination of married deacons to the priesthood or women to the diaconate, others because of their horror that such issues even came to the floor. In his discernment, Pope Francis said that it was not the moment to act on such proposals, because all the participants came with their preconceived views on the topics and no one was open to change.
In considering the implementation of the Synod on Synodality in the United States up until now, we can see both an initial grasp of the concept of synodality along with an enthusiasm for the process of listening and consultation—but also a well-founded wariness about whether anything will come of it. (I am referring here to the laity primarily.) There are also critiques of the process, suspicions of its agenda, and attempts to discredit it. Reception by the bishops in the United States can be characterized as lukewarm at best. There are places in the country where the synod has been embraced and eagerly implemented, and places where there has been little to no engagement with the process.
My perspective is shaped by having been the bishop from my region (the ecclesiastical provinces of Louisville, Mobile, and New Orleans) who coordinated our regional synthesis and was part of the USCCB team that coordinated the national synthesis. I also participated in the drafting of the continental synthesis. While every diocese in my region did something, some were content to merely offer an online survey. An online survey can be a helpful tool, especially when there was a desire to include the disaffected and alienated who would probably not be inclined to come to a church gathering for the purpose. But an online tool alone can hardly be an expression of the “walking together” that the synod is supposed to be about.
The dominant cultural pragmatism in North America was evident in the desire to know “where this is going.” Bishops frequently stated that they do not know how to lead a process when the desired outcome of that process is unclear. I think the pope’s response to that complaint would be that the bishops are not meant to lead the process, but to facilitate the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It is easy to see why the national “Eucharistic Revival” has received far more energy, attention, and resources in the U.S. Church: there is a plan, there is marketing, there is a beginning and end point, there is substantial funding, and there is a problem to be addressed, namely the concern that Catholics do not believe sufficiently in the Real Presence. Instead of ensuring a eucharistic centrality to the synodal process, allowing for an organic discernment about our eucharistic understanding, plans for a mega-event featuring plenty of pre-conciliar piety and theology have replaced the focus on the Synod for a Synodal Church in the USCCB. It does not strike me as coincidental that much of the Eucharistic Revival focuses on eucharistic adoration, passive in nature, and so offers an easy alternative to the active engagement of walking together synodally.
Several places in the United States could not resist creating a local action plan for their synod, even though this is clearly not the stage of the synod for that. Sometimes that push for a plan was about making sure that the insights gleaned from the People of God in dialogue would not be lost; I think that concern is valid, but also comes from thinking that the synod is an event rather than the way of being Church.
The first phase of the Synod, from October 2021 until April 2022, was to be the phase for listening and discernment in local churches, dioceses, and bishops’ conferences. The National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the diocesan phase of the synod emphasizes the joy with which participants were engaged and the positive feelings that came from the listening sessions. The structure and facilitation of such sessions varied greatly. This was not seen as problematic by the Office of the Synod in Rome because the Church is diverse, and this phase was not meant to be a one-time opportunity to get it right, but rather a part of an evolving process. The number of people who expressed gratitude for being listened to and being able to express themselves was impressive, even if some of those who wish to discount the process prefer to emphasize the miniscule percentage of all Catholics who actually participated in a formal session.
My own experience of sensing a palpable love for the Church, even when members have been frustrated, hurt, and are worried about its future, was echoed throughout the country and around the globe. The enduring wounds of the sexual-abuse and mismanagement crises were prominent in discussions; related issues, like the concentration of power among clerics, the loss of respect and trust in the hierarchy, and the fear about the faith not being received by the next generation, also came up frequently—as did concerns about the roles of women and LGBTQ people in the Church. There was a great desire expressed to become a more welcoming Church and to offer accompaniment to people at every stage of faith development.
It seems that those who were engaged in synodal processes throughout the country have come to appreciate the language and spirit of Pope Francis and really are learning the art of discernment. It should be noted that many groups conducted synodal listening sessions outside of diocesan or parish structures and sent their syntheses directly to the Synod Office in Rome or to the USCCB, sometimes expressing dissatisfaction with the local process. Even so, the concerns that came up frequently throughout the United States also surfaced in many other parts of the world. If Pope Francis was hopeful that the Spirit would provide the issues to be discerned, the Spirit is speaking. …