Last Wednesday, the synod teams for the U.S. and Canadian Bishops Conferences released their jointly written North American Final Document for the Continental Stage. The 22-page document (excluding Appendices) captures the process and fruits of an historically unprecedented North American communal discernment of 931 delegates from our two countries in 12 virtual synodal assemblies convened in three languages from December through January. Although ours was the only of the seven continental assemblies to convene virtually, North American delegates engaged “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” the global synthesis document from the first phase of the synod, with the same set of questions as delegates around the world: what resonates, what questions arise, what should our priorities be?
The 18-person North American Synod team, comprised of bishops, priests and lay people from both Conferences, identified three themes that surfaced in synodal conversations: Gifted and Called through Baptism; Communion with Christ and One Another; and Sent Forth in Mission. These serve as the foundation for five concrete recommendations, which will inform the the Vatican’s working document, the Laboris Instrumentum, for the first of two global gatherings of bishops in Rome this October:
- Integration of synodal consultation in the local Churches via formation in synodality and the spirituality of discernment;
- Welcoming those who feel excluded from participation in the life of the Church in a manner that is authentic and faithful to the Gospel and the Catholic faith;
- Co-responsibility for mission;
- Addressing the unity and communion of the Church in the midst of various kinds of polarization and division; and
- A Church that goes out to the peripheries
As was the case in previous official documents associated with the synod – the U.S. Bishops’ National Report and the Vatican’s “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” – there is good news here! Several delegates to the North American Continental Assemblies, as well as a participant in the Region XVI discernment session hosted by the USCCB Synod Team, who are active with Discerning Deacons, help us recognize that good news.
First, although constrained by the limits of a virtual process, the North American Synod Team was committed to a synodal process that privileged listening and communal discernment. In other words, if synod is something we learn by doing, then the Bishops Conferences in the U.S. and Canada are indeed learning. For example, efforts were made to create synodal relationships among the smaller discernment groups in each of the virtual assemblies. The drafting team also sought feedback as they wrote, itself an important synodal commitment to accountability and trust.
Perhaps most importantly, the bishops themselves embraced a vulnerable posture in their public reflection of their experiences of synodality, whether as leaders of initiatives in their respective conferences or as participants in the process at diocesan and continental levels. In their introductory letter, as well as a 16-paragraph section of personal reflections, they acknowledged that they “can and must do better in consulting those who are poor, migrant communities, Indigenous peoples, and racial minorities in our communities, and the many others who are wounded in the Church and in society” (#50). They admitted to being as uncertain as many lay people about where this synodal process may be taking us, needing as much formation as any other Catholics in the spirituality and skills of synodality, and resolving to trust in the Holy Spirit. “Synodality is an adventure and we aren’t very familiar with it,” they said, acknowledging that synodality is something “bigger” than the “parish pastoral councils, presbyteral councils, and diocesan pastoral councils” with which they are more familiar. “We need to do more with our people – listen to them more to aid our discernment; sit down with them and discuss the religious life in the diocese. We cannot just sit in the office and make important decisions by ourselves” (#48).
Bernadette Rudolf, Program Director at Cranaleith Spiritual Center and a delegate from the National Association for Lay Ministry to the US Bishops discernment session with delegates from Region XVI, was struck by the bishops’ humble posture. “I am moved by the way synodality frees people to speak honestly – about their hopes, about the tough issues that must be tackled and about what is difficult for them in the process. The ‘Bishops’ Reflection on the Experience of Synodality’ was particularly humble in its tone. The bishops acknowledged how much they have to learn and change. They asked that the people not give up on them. Wow! That is significant!”
Second, this official synod document largely affirms what we heard from brothers and sisters around the world back in the fall with the release of the global synthesis report. The People of God desire more synod and need more opportunities to become synodal by engaging each other synodally. The wounds of violated trust and exclusion at the hands of the Church itself are deep and can be healed through intentional encounters of loving affirmation and inclusion in the tent of God’s holy people. Our baptism gives us equal stake in the responsibility for the Church’s mission in a world that needs it more than ever. Our young people are “the now” of the Church and want to be in the mix, including at global gatherings of bishops in Rome (#20). And while it is women who keep the church “alive and healthy,” we remain a marginalized group within it, a reality that can be remedied by acknowledging the “baptismal dignity” of women and continuing “the examination of a variety of aspects of Church life, including decision making roles, leadership, and ordination” (#19).
“The document echoes what I heard in the session for Region XVI,” said Rudolf, “as well as what I heard at various sessions responding to the DCS. Despite the narrowness of participation in this part of the synodal journey, people of good will have named some key issues for the North American Church. The document seems accurate. This process of synodality has begun and the cat is out of the bag. As one participant is quoted as saying, ‘There is no going back’ (#57). It is essential to the future of the Church that this conversion continue with the same honesty and humility.”
The last bit of good news is the fact that the five priorities for the U.S. and Canadian Church are the permission slips we need to keep walking the synodal path with confidence and courage! Who better to partner with our bishops in achieving their priority of formation for synodality and discernment up and down the Church than those who have been doing so faithfully since Pope Francis invited us to the synod in October of 2021? Who better to help model welcoming those on the peripheries in ways that are consistent with the Gospel message and Church teaching than many of us who already attempt to do precisely in and through aspects of our identities that relegate us to the sidelines in our Church? Who better to understand the co-responsibility that women and young people are ready to take on than the women and young people, especially the young women, at the heart of synodal efforts to date? Who better to foster unity and communion in the midst of polarizing and politicizing forces in our society and Church than those who already know the power of synodal encounters to replace fear with curiosity and judgment with affirmation of shared dignity? Who better to catalyze a Church that goes out to the peripheries than those who have been doing so since before October of 2021 in order that they too be included on this synodal path?
“Let’s enrich the life of the Church by taking seriously the baptismal call of women from the moment the living waters flow over them,” said Bridget Deegan Krause MDiv, an NACC board certified chaplain and delegate from the Archdiocese of Detroit. “Every child, including girls, should grow up hearing and see themselves in the Church’s discernment of full gifts for all levels of ministry, including ordered ministry and governance.”
To that end, Deegan Krause appreciated the North American Synod Team’s acknowledgment that “discerning a practical way forward” on issues related to co-responsibility in the Church will require “consideration of current canonical norms and ecclesial structures.” (#54.3).
Michelle Catania, a delegate from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, echoed Deegan Krause’s appreciation. “There seemed to be a recognized disconnect between the ‘smaller’ Church efforts in our Catholic communities (and ourselves) and the ‘bigger’ institution,” she said. ”There were no answers about how to combine this divergence, but there was emphasis that continually ‘naming’ it is also a vital step in our Synod journey.”
“The need for formation is stated over and over again in the document,” commented Rudolf. “The fulfillment of this need is crucial. We have entered a strange new world and everyone needs to learn the lay of the land.”
“The document lands in a lovely place,” concluded Deegan Krause, who acknowledged again that the bishops’ own reflections convey a pastoral tone and recognition of the fact trust has been broken and bridges need to be built. “Always we need to account for the clericalism, elitism, sexism, racism and ableism that poison our ability to be peers with one another, laity and clergy. Structured conversations with rules and expectations, governed by the Spirit through prayer is where this happens.”
Fear not, global Church. The North Americans are on the synodal path.