The latest step in the synodal process towards synodality for a synodal church was presented at the end of October, a document for the “continental” phase. This phase will occupy the meeting’s agenda until next March, when all the newly prepared papers will be sent back to Rome for further collation, summarization, synthesis and elaboration.
The cud was prayerfully chewed at this point, “making room for the Holy Spirit.” laboratory (working document) will then be prepared for the planetary or “universal” phase, which should conclude with a Synod of Bishops in Rome next October.
The “universal” stage was recently extended by Pope Francis for a year. The synodal process now includes a second synod of bishops in October 2024, on the first anniversary of the first synodal synod.
And how does the synodal process towards synodality work for a synodal church? Floating, with “unprecedented” participation and “surpassing all expectations”. Some of the most fervent enthusiasts consider it the most important ecclesiastical event since Vatican II, certainly more important than the Council of Trent (1545-1563) but perhaps not as important as Nicaea (325). At Nicaea, however, manuscript massing was somewhat easier, since the ‘continental’ and ‘universal’ levels were more or less the same by the fourth century.
For those who might find the synodal process to synodality a bit opaque for a synodal church, papal biographer and amanuensis Austen Ivereigh lifted a veil on how the “continental” stage document was woven together over two weeks by a committee of “experts” Frascati, near Rome. There is cause for concern.
The hand of history, heart of the church
Ivereigh’s “insider account” begins with an admission that he was “impressed by the solemnity of the task” and how they felt “the hand of history and the weight of responsibility on our shoulders”. Apparently they got along pretty well.
If the suspicion was raised that the synodal process towards synodality for a synodal church would be a little “self-referential”, to borrow the Holy Father’s preferred term, Ivereigh’s account bears this out to a great extent. The designated “experts”—papal insiders, advisers, leadership gurus, communications specialists, clergymen, curial apparatchiks—all sat together, reviewed reports, split into small groups, reported to the plenary session, recalibrated the small groups, adjusted the drafts, and re Reporting to the plenary. One bishop was among about two dozen experts. The Church was not so much locked in the sacristy, again borrowing from Pope Francis, as in a boardroom.
“I hope you keep a journal,” Ivereigh’s friend advised.
It may be that Ivereigh’s account will be the first of several episodes chronicling her expert service to the Church. And it was a sublime ministry.
“We are the heart and ears of the Church to hear the cry of God’s people,” Ivereigh reports, as Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, told them.
The last full day of the experts in Frascati was October 1st, the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the little flower who died 125 years ago and famously declared that her vocation was “to be love in the heart of the Church”. . Cardinal Grech has upped the ante on the saint; He seems to think that he and his appointed experts are the heart of the church, plain and simple.
bone and brain function
The anatomical imagery evidently resonated with Ivereigh declaring that “it was time” for hearts and ears “to put flesh on the bones of Vatican II’s understanding of the church as the people of God.”
The heart and ears may be in tip-top shape, but the brain seems a little shaky. Cardinal Grech’s experts seem to have forgotten recent Church history. The Second Vatican Council put a lot of flesh on its own bones, so to speak; yes, his dogmatic constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) is a fairly lengthy account of the mystical body of Christ.
As for the “People of God” of Vatican II, it is the body at large, not just the laity Lumen Gentium learned a lot. A man as intelligent and well-read as Ivereigh would surely have read his English compatriot on Vatican II, the Dominican Father Aidan Nichols, in his book Council Octet:
“Lumen GentiumThe chapter on God’s people does not pay special attention to the laity compared to other parts of the Church. What became a typical post-conciliar journalistic habit of referring to the laity as “the people of God” has no basis in the conciliar texts. … ‘People of God’ designates the ecclesiastical totality, of which the laity make up a part – albeit numerically, of course, the majority.”
There was a fair bit of such laziness in Frascati, as the experts mixed accounts of distant listening sessions with the Holy Spirit authoritatively speaking in the church. The drumbeat of the synodal process that something completely new is underway is intentional; otherwise, observant people might recall that much “flesh” has already been laid on the “bones” of Vatican II.
Indeed, Synods of Bishops have put “flesh on the bones.” Lumen Gentium for decades. John Paul II convened synods on the family (1980), the lay faithful (1987), priests (1990), religious life (1995) and bishops (2001) – not to mention half a dozen regional and special synods – all of which were made accompanied by extensive apostolic exhortations. The different chapters of Lumen Gentium have all received significant and sustained synodal attention for decades.
The Frascati experts want to put all that aside, as if nothing constructive had been said on all these issues since Vatican II. John Paul 1988 Christifideles Laici, on the vocation and mission of the laity; his letters to the wives, to the family, to the elderly, and to the young—all this is an immense amount of “flesh on the bone” of God’s people.
The premise of the synodal process to synodality for a synodal church is that this recent inheritance counts for little and can be put aside as the “spirit” blows through a vast series of synodal sessions for the synod to synodality.
The abolition of the papacy of John Paul has become a hallmark of Pope Francis synods. The first two synods produced by the Holy Father on the family Amoris Laetitiawhich, remarkably, said so Veritati’s splendor has never been written. Now this second pair of synods on synodality for a synodal church, as made clear in Frascati, is trying to overrule the entirety of John Paul’s synods for about 20 years. Along with the ongoing demotion of the Pontifical Academy for Life – another John Paul project – the synodal process towards synodality for a synodal church is another step in the de-John-Paulization of the church.
The Jesuit hand and the empty chair
“The process was intense and tedious, and the task a race against time,” writes Ivereigh of the collaboration in drafting the working document. How, then, did they manage not to be crushed by the “hand of history” and complete their work within a tight deadline?
Enter Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, official in the Synod Secretariat.
“An expert in group discrimination processes”, Ivereigh described him as “the engineer of our process”. In Pope Francis’ protracted synodal processes, the Holy Spirit has the competent support of Jesuit engineers, Father Costa at the front end and Father Antonio Spadaro at the back end.
Readers may remember Father Costa from the 2019 Amazon Synod, to which he was dispatched several times to explain the strange presence of the Amazon pachamama. However, at the 2018 Youth Synod, his role became clearer. A lot of material on synodal processes and synodality was included in the draft final document for this synod, although it was not part of the actual deliberations.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, a member of the Holy Father’s “Council of Cardinals” and close papal adviser, let it be known that the Synod Secretariat had prepared this text and suggested that Father Costa himself may have been the engineer. It now appears that Father Costa had been working on this synodal process before the last one was even completed.
“It was also at Frascati that I learned the importance of not only getting everyone involved, but also going in search of the missing,” Ivereigh wrote. “We were told to add an empty chair to our groups and ask several questions: … Whose prophetic voice was not heard? Which perspective has not yet emerged?”
The “empty chair” is a clever tool. If this topic does not come up or this position is not sufficiently emphasized, the empty chair can speak. One can imagine that the empty chairs in Frascati said nothing that would disturb the prevailing thinking of the experts. On the contrary, one imagines that the pundits heard from the empty chairs what they themselves would have said, but are now attributing it to others who have no voice. The empty chair ensures that the engineer always has a seat.
Empty chair in an enlarged tent
Another hallmark of Pope Francis’ synods is an idiosyncratic use of Scripture. During the family synods, countless proponents of the relaxation of church discipline and opposition to Scripture spoke of the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. He walked alongside the discouraged disciples and they “walked together,” it was pointed out, which was the preferred image of the synodal process toward synodality for a synodal church.
But Emmaus is a more complex picture of companionship. Jesus rebuked the disciples for their stupidity. They were taught the error of their ways; They reversed course and returned to Jerusalem. They had a conversion. The family synods were not great at conversion.
This time the biblical nonsense has landed on Isaiah 54 and the image of the “enlargement of the tent.”
“The existing containers are not sufficient to accommodate the diversity of the Church and to allow for the participation of all in mission,” writes Ivereigh. Time for a bigger tent.
But the meeting tent for the children of Israel required thorough cleaning before entering. And the enlarged tent of Isaiah 54 is a picture of Israel subduing the enemies in its borders; The enlargement of the tent is more an image of conquering, not walking together.
In any case, the enlargement of the tent is a strange picture for a moment when the tent already seems too big in many countries; Catholics have abandoned the faith in large numbers, parishes are being closed, not expanded.
In such places, an empty tent might be a better image – so much the better to fill it up with empty chairs.