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Signs of the Times: Creating a Synodal Church

by Catherine Vincie, RSHMCategory: Updates

cover of pamphlet for synodal church, photo of four sets of hands clasped in prayer resting on open bibles

Pope Francis is calling the entire Church – laity, religious and clergy – to change our way of being Church, to become a more Synodal Church. He calls us to be a listening and discerning Church: listening to one another, and especially listening to the Holy Spirit as it manifests in prayerful conversation among the People of God regarding what is most vital to the Church at this time.

The Synod process extends from 2021 to 2024 and is divided into a listening phase followed by a two-part Assembly phase to be held in October 2023 and October 2024 in Rome. The first phase began quite unevenly among dioceses in the United States. Some participation was robust, some not. Meetings were held at the local level – the parish, religious communities, or other select groups in the Church – and moved to a national level. The feedback from these initial gatherings was synthesized and passed to a regional level followed by continental assemblies (from Asia, Africa and Madagascar, Europe, Oceania, the Middle East, North America, Central and South America and the Caribbean). These assemblies brought together all prior discussions and created final reports which were sent to Rome for the formulation of an instrumentum laboris (hereafter IL) or working document for the second phase – the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. At these two Episcopal Assemblies, women and men, religious and laity for the first time will be voting members, as provided by Pope Francis himself.

map of the world indicating where synodal continental assemblies took place. Countries in green against light blue backdrop with different color pins indicating assembly locations

The aim of the IL is to incorporate all previous input into a format that will enable the Assembly “to continue to animate the synodal process in the ordinary life of the Church, identifying which pathways the Spirit invites us to walk along more decisively as one People of God” (IL3). The IL is not meant to merely repeat the responses of earlier sessions or serve as a first draft of a final document that will be crafted by Pope Francis. Rather, the IL articulates many of the priorities that emerged from listening to the People of God and expresses them as questions addressed to the Synodal Assembly which “will have the task of discerning the concrete steps which enable the continued growth of a synodal Church” (IL10). The IL lists three distinguishing marks of a synodal Church which sound deceptively general (communion, mission, and participation). However, the process of dealing with these major themes through prayer and discussion is concrete, pointed, and even prophetic.

As the IL says, the Church is constitutively synodal; it endeavors to be a listening Church, in dialogue with its own members, but also open and welcoming to other Christian denominations, other religions, and the many cultures of the world – although not uncritically. The Synod’s first goal is to make the Church more synodal in its “institutions, structures and procedures” (IL 21). The second goal is to address the many issues that surfaced in the first phase of the Synod, recognizing diversity, but not flattening it into uniformity.

Following is a sample of the questions raised:

  • How can we honor the baptismal identity and mission of all the baptized?
  • What kinds of formation ought we to have for the laity, religious, seminarians and clergy that fosters participation, communion and mission?
  • How does the service of charity and commitment to justice and care for our common home nourish communion in a synodal Church?
  • How do we address the needs and contributions of the poor and marginalized within the Church and without?
  • How do we include other marginalized people in the Church(e.g., women, LGBTQ+persons, divorced and remarried, survivors of abuse) as agents in the life and mission of the Church?
  • How can we revitalize the ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues initiated by VaticanII?
  • How do we include the experiences of Local Churches in the teaching of the Magisterium and achieve a better balance between the Local and the Universal?
  • How can we rethink the ordained ministries from a ministerial conception of the entire Church? How can we rethink the role of bishops and the pope in a synodal Church?
  • How can we better honor the baptismal dignity of women and how can they be included in new ministries, in positions of authority, and in governance?

These questions and many others articulated for consideration by the General Assembly are profound, challenging and call for conversion through the power of the Spirit. Before 2021 we could hardly imagine even asking these questions; now we recognize that we cannot become a more Synodal Church without addressing them.

The instrumentum laboris is available at

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