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Beginning Reflections on the October 2023 Synod Assembly

This note comes to you between the October 2023 and the October 2024 Synod Assembly gatherings, a profoundly fertile time for our Church and for us as theologians. Serving as a ‘experti’ at the Synod Assembly 2023 was a profound experience. While my Synod letter of invitation mentioned service as a theologian, facilitator and, as needed, writer, the most accurate description of my participation was that of theologian facilitator at the Synod. I was one of 35 table facilitators, several of whom were theologians. As facilitator I witnessed transformation which I can only attribute to the movement of the Spirit. I’m grateful for this invitation to share some of my experience of the Synod Assembly. I also invite each of you to participate in this synodal movement of the Church. Everyone is needed. I offer a brief reflection in three points of insight and one call to theologians.

#1 Another Way is Possible

In a church and society that knows polarization, I experienced firsthand that another way forward is possible. There is a way to build a community which can together discern what it means to be church, the people of God, and engage in mutually respectful, responsive and creative conversation about areas of church in need of renewal. Already in 2017 Pope Francis described what I would witness: “To walk together is the constitutive way of the Church; the figure that enables us to interpret reality with the eyes and heart of God; the condition for following the Lord Jesus and being servants of life in this wounded time.”[1] The Synod essentially engaged these questions : “How does this ‘journeying together,’ which takes place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?” (Instrumentum Laboris).

#2 Building a Faith Community

Before we shared on the different topics of the Synod Assembly (what is means to be church; communion, mission and participation), we gathered for a public ecumenical prayer service held outside at St. Peter’s Square. The Adsumus Sancte Spiritus prayer was sung in a new arrangement by the Taize community.[2]  This prayer was recited during the Vatican II sessions, and it would be recited almost daily by Synod Assembly members. The words offer a glimpse of the humility necessary for synodality:

We stand before You, Holy Spirit,

as we gather together in Your name.

With You alone to guide us,

make Yourself at home in our hearts;

Teach us the way we must go

and how we are to pursue it.

We are weak and sinful;

do not let us promote disorder.

Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path

nor partiality influence our actions.

Let us find in You our unity

so that we may journey together to eternal life

and stray not from the way of truth

and what is right.

All this we ask of You,

who are at work in every place and time,

in the communion of the Father and the Son,

forever and ever, Amen.

Following the ecumenical prayer service, the participants left Rome for a three-day retreat, preached by Timothy Radcliffe, OP and Maria Grazia Angelini, OSB. Early in the retreat, as he opened the Word among us, Radcliffe invited us to all become friends! I don’t know that anyone came to the Synod thinking about this, but his words opened spaces for deepening of relationships. This deepening happened in the later afternoons when we gathered in groups of about twelve to share some of the fruits of our prayer that day. The method explained and used was Conversation in the Spirit (CIS), the same method we would use throughout the Synod Assembly. It made a difference that people first practiced CIS in a low risk, retreat environment.  Also included in the self-introductions were one’s name, location and how one wished to be addressed, and almost every person offered a first name, “Emmanuel, Pat, Stephen, etc.” For communal discernment to bear fruit, we needed to build a community.

#3 A Methodology for Communal Discernment: Conversation in the Spirit

As theological ethicists we expect students to utilize some method of discernment for decision-making. CIS was very effective for both building a community of discernment and the actual discernment itself.  I offer a brief description. As we began each of the four modules(topics) of the Synod Assembly, each participant came prepared to offer a response of 4 minutes maximum to the module question given to them from among their given preferences.

My role was to facilitate an environment for each to share freely and be heard, and for the group to together create a written response to the given topic. As timekeeper I ensured that each person, whether student or cardinal, was given an equal amount of time (in Round 2: 2-3 minutes). In the first two rounds there was a significant pause of silence between response so that all had opportunity to absorb what was offered.

My experience was that while many of us are used to speaking, we are not used to listening at the depth at which the group members listened to ten others. In Round 2, participants reflected, with head and heart, on what each heard from the others. Resonances, dissonances, and connections were offered that spurred new ideas rather than summaries. Round 3 was more conversational, with comments in no particular order, no time limit (within reason) and a period of silence after several comments.  In this round the group (with designated secretary and rapporteur) drafted a first response to their question. The question for the third round was “What are WE to offer about this topic? In every round was a reminder that we are together seeking to listen to the Spirit’s movements within, among and around us: What is the Spirit inviting?

I experienced the most creativity, a fruit of the Spirit, in Round 3.  A world church was gathered, and contexts shared influenced the writing. As group members built trust with one another, each could share fears and hopes about their people, the earth, and even the process. Local contexts were seen within larger contexts and vice versa. Sometimes what was accepted with ease in the first draft was what needed to be looked at again in much greater detail in the second draft. There were times when we returned to the same point; over time the choice and understanding deepened. At various moments Cardinal Grech (Secretary General of the Synod) or Cardinal Hollerich (General Relator to Synod) also publicly announced to the Assembly that they were asking the facilitators to encourage the groups to speak with parrhesia.

After plenary sessions that allowed all to hear brief summaries from the tables and general plenary comments, groups met to finalize drafts. After 15 minutes of silence in which each reread the draft and looked over notes, the ensuing discussion produced a document richer for the editing and conversation. For me it was an experience of breathing in (steeping in prayer and reflection) and then breathing out (offering what is emerging from the sharing), followed by another set of breaths for members to together discuss and discern.

The final paper was a product of listening deeply and engaging deeply. Different positions could be named in the document, with questions that still needed to be resolved noted. Each person in the group took ownership for the final draft sent to the Synod writing team.

As a theologian who facilitated, my theological background was used to ask questions, invite clarity, point out lacunae, note the cultural lenses offered, and constantly invite a deeper listening to the calls of the Spirit. Allowing sufficient time for the process, including spaces for silence, was essential.

I wonder: Do we have opportunities to share with one another how we teach (communal) discernment, and perhaps more than one method? Do we create spaces to practice communal discernment?

Call to Theologians

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this time in our Church. The ongoing reception of Vatican II in terms of Church as the people of God and in a synodal church is a clarion call to us. How might we participate in this synodal movement? I offer a few brief areas and invite your creativity.

  1. As theological ethicists we are aware of the multi-disciplinary nature of our field; this time is asking for engagement with ecclesiological questions as they are linked to the moral life. Would you offer your experience, interest and discipline to address, with others, some of the many questions in the Synod Synthesis Report[3]? Our participation is greatly needed?
  2. How might our pedagogy be more synodal?
  3. Might our academic conferences model synodality in how we present, how we sit (if the Vatican can have circular tables…) and how we discuss with one another that would invite another method of shared learning and wisdom from the community gathered?
  4. Participation in local communities. The December letter from the Synod office[4] is asking the people of God to participate in their local community/parish on the topics in the Synthesis paper.

So much is possible at this time, and with the Spirit as protagonist we are invited as the people of God to participate. Let us do so – walking together.

[1] Francis, Introductory speech at the opening of the work of the 70th General Assembly of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, May 22, 2017(


[3] Synod, A Synodal Church in Mission, 28 October 2023

[4] General Secretariat of the Synod, “Towards October 2024,”