At a special Mass on Sunday, October 17 in Saint Paul Cathedral, Bishop David Zubik will ask the Holy Spirit to guide local Catholics as they prepare to participate in a worldwide consultation that Pope Francis has convened to help him find the best ways to discern God’s call to the Church.
The Mass is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and will be live-streamed.
Every Catholic – including those who feel marginalized or who have left the Church — will be invited to participate on some level. Grassroots listening will culminate in a Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in October 2023.
“It’s a global invitation to a process that stretches far and wide,” said Ellen Mady, chancellor of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and co-chair of the local organizing team for the synod. “The Holy Father is the leader of the universal Church and this process, by design, is intended to be meaningful at the local level and the universal level.
“Going through the process enables us to engage in listening and discernment and participation that helps us to better get to know our own church. And the very fact that it is a universal process is bringing the whole Church together.”
The official name for the consultation, the “synod on synodality,” is literally Greek to most people. The Vatican handbook for those who are planning the synod puts it in easier terms: “[T]he purpose of this Synod is not to produce more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be[.]”
The words “synod” and “synodal” translate into “journeying together.” The preparatory document, found at www.synod.va, emphasizes that this journey of discernment is part of the renewal mandated by Vatican II. The three key concepts for the synod and its recommendations are communion, participation and mission.
“[B]y journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has been made, the Church will be able to learn through Her experience which processes can help Her to live communion, to achieve participation, to open Herself to mission,” the document states.
The synod “is a complicated concept that is very foreign to the modern American mindset,” said Father Michael Sedor, diocesan director for canonical services and co-chair of the synod organizing team. “Americans are very focused on results. This is really about the experience, more than the result.”
The focus is on how the Church discerns its mission, not on what it should teach.
“We’re not getting together to talk about doctrinal questions,” Father Sedor said. “At the same time, we are not looking to exclude minority experiences because of doctrinal issues. If someone’s experience of the faith doesn’t exactly line up with the doctrine of the Church, it’s okay to express that. We are not voting on change, but we do want to listen to people.”
The goal of Pope Francis and diocesan organizers is to provide small group opportunities for people to offer their thoughts, culminating in a diocesan-wide gathering in the spring. All participation will be synthesized into a 10-page document and sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB will, in turn, send a summary of all diocesan documents to the Vatican.
“The synod will succeed or fail to the extent to which we rely on the Holy Spirit,” said Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, at a September news conference to launch the synod.
When bishops gather from around the world in 2023, there will be a “first” among the participants. Although women have long been consultants and observers at synods, a woman will now vote alongside the bishops as Sister Nathalie Becquart fulfills her role as undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops.
“This isn’t just another program that gets completed and then we move on,” Father Sedor said. “The Holy Father is looking for a new way of being and operating in the Church. Hopefully these small groups will continue to share their experiences. A document is a document. The goal here is to have a new experience of the faith.”