Earlier this year, Melbourne Catholic Susan Pascoe was appointed to one of four commissions supporting the work of the Synod on Synodality. The Synod’s theme is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission”. Susan is currently in Rome for the global launch of the Synod and while there, will offer us an exclusive insider’s look at what’s happening on the ground. Read her first letter from Rome below.

Rome is beautiful at any time of year, but there is a certain mellowness in Autumn. Warm sun, and cool breezes. People sipping coffee in the piazzas in the morning, and something stronger in the evenings. But I’m not here as a tourist!

After a mountain of paperwork, I received permission from the Government to leave Australia and to fly to Rome to attend the opening of the Synod on Synodality in the Vatican from 9-10 October, and to attend Commission meetings afterwards. And I’ve agreed to provide some reflections along the way for people in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

For those who have been too immersed in the Plenary Council to notice that the Universal Church has a listening exercise of its own – a Synod on Synodality – here is an explanation.

Our general conception of a synod in the Catholic Church is an assembly of bishops reflecting on a particular matter, or a range of issues. It was Pope Paul VI who, at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, established the Synod of Bishops as a forum for bishops to come together to deliberate and advise the Pope. Since then, there have been 14 general synods and three extraordinary synods. Pope Francis has had a particular interest in these assemblies having called three prior to this synod on Synodality – on Youth, the Family, and the Amazon.

But a Synod on Synodality – did I hear that correctly? What does it mean? The notion of synodality is being reanimated by Pope Francis. His predecessor Pope Benedict XVI talked of ‘co-responsibility’ in the life of the Church, and there are strong similarities between the two concepts. Both involve the laity having a more direct role contributing to the life of the Church. Underpinning this heightened role is the understanding that all the baptised are the People of God – lay, religious and ordained – and we all have a role to play.

What role will the laity play in the Synod on Synodality? Unique in the life of the Church, this synod begins with the voices of lay people. This is not just an assembly of bishops. Pope Francis has delayed the Assembly by a year until October 2023 so there can be a first phase which is listening to lay people. If you participate, your voice can help provide the foundation for the issues to shape the Church of the Third Millennium. While this kind of input was common in the early Church, it has been less common since. This is a real opportunity to set aside time for prayer and reflection; listen openly to the voices of others; share your own story, hopes and concerns; and make space to be guided by the Holy Spirit toward a conception of the Church for now and the future.

It has been a huge task for the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops to organise this global initiative. The Secretary General of Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, has overseen the work, and the Under-Secretary, Sr Nathalie Becquart has had the hands-on role of convening four commissions on theology, spirituality, communications and methodology.

Today has been a busy day finessing the final details. I’ve been based in the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops assisting with the kinds of tasks associated with any major international event. The building in which the Secretariat is housed is one of the beautiful old buildings in Via della Concilliazione, the wide boulevard leading into St Peter’s Square. One of our tasks was to check the arrangements for the assembly and small groups in Paul VI Hall. To do so we needed to show ID to get approval to enter from the Swiss Guards at the Vatican gates. They may be dressed in fine pantaloons, but there is a razor-sharp edge to the large medieval weapons they carry!

Synod SP3

As you can see from the photo, every second seat in the empty assembly hall has a covering to ensure there is social distancing. There are also very strict COVID requirements including evidence of vaccination and use of a hospital-grade mask.

After months of preparation, I’m looking forward to the synodal process beginning. I’ll provide another update tomorrow.