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 latest letter from Rome below.

Yesterday I showed you an image of an empty Paul VI Hall. Today it was filled with Church members from every part of the globe. I am the only person from Oceania (Australia and the Pacific) but I did run into a fellow Australian – Cardinal Pell! He was in good spirits having recently returned from his time in Australia.

The day was organised into two parts: a two-hour session with formal presentations to open the Synod followed by a break, then another two-hour session, but this time in working groups. The working groups were structured to model a synodal approach (more on that later).

We were all assembled in the hall by 8.45am, the arrival time of Pope Francis. There was a choir singing in perfect harmony, and they continued after the arrival of the Pontiff. The Pope was joined on the Podium by Cardinal Mario Grech, the Secretary of the Synod of Bishops; Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the General Relator of the Synod; and Sr Nathalie Becquart and Bishop Luis Marin who are both Under-Secretaries of the Synod of Bishops.

As is the expectation in a synodal process, we began with a reading of the Word of God (Apocalypse 1: 9-20), followed by three minutes of silent reflection. It was an amazing feeling to be in a huge audience hall in total silence, deeply reflecting. (Not one mobile phone rang!) This was followed by two powerful meditations on the Church of today – one from Fr Paul Béré SJ, a priest from Burkina Faso (and the first African recipient of the Ratzinger Prize) and the other from Christina Inogés-Sanz, a theologian from Spain.

Pope Francis: Let us invoke the Holy Spirit

Pope Francis then gave a stirring address. He returned to many of the ideas and themes he has previously spoken of in relation to synodality as a general concept, and to the Synod on Synodality in particular. To paraphrase, he said that synodality is not a parliament, an inquiry, or an opinion poll, but it is a call to community in the life of the Church and to union as all of the People of God. It is a process of spiritual discernment. The starting point is baptism which he called our “identity card”. Baptism invites and authorises all of us to participate in the life of the Church and its mission. He encouraged everyone in local Churches (dioceses) to participate – this is the living expression of being Church.

Pope Francis also warned against the risks in the process including formalism (relying on elites in the local conversations); intellectualism or abstraction (treating the synodal exercise as a study group); immobilism (inactivity and not reading the signs of the times), and missing the foundation of a synodal process which is in prayer. We need to start from the foundation of an encounter in local churches, walking together with an inclusive, listening approach.

The Pope also said we need to avoid becoming a museum. ‘We are not creating a new Church, but a different one.’ he said. ‘Let us invoke the Holy Spirit and listen ... with meekness and courage.’

‘The Synod offers us the opportunity to become a Church of listening,’ Pope Francis said. ‘We have the opportunity to become a Church of closeness. This is the style of God; being close with compassion and tenderness.’

We then had five-minute input sessions from each continent – mostly pre-recorded videos. I was immensely proud of the Australian video created by the Archdiocese of Brisbane involving six families talking of what synodality means to them. It was very powerful and there was spontaneous applause at the end of the video. (I’d also like to acknowledge that the Archdiocese of Melbourne was very supportive of creating the video, but was unable to because of lockdown restrictions.)

The core elements of synodality

We were ready for a substantial morning tea after the formal opening session – good Italian coffee and a range of tempting pastries. This was also a great opportunity for people to meet old friends – and make new ones. After sustenance we moved into our working groups in English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

I was facilitating an English language group of 15 participants from all walks of life in the Church – religious, lay workers, priests and leaders of Vatican dicasteries (departments).

We had the challenge of distilling into a two-hour process the core elements of the process of synodality – prayer, reflection, listening to one another and creating a synthesis of what had emerged from the group. There was harmony and respect amongst participants that encouraged a range of viewpoints to be heard. We were fortunate to have the Anglican representative in our group who described the Anglican Church as synodally governed and episcopally led.

Among the ideas that emerged from our synthesis were that we recall the passage from Jeremiah 6: ‘behold you stand at a crossroads’; that we consider the models of communion and decision-making in Religious Institutes for our diocesan Church; that becoming a synodal Church will require personal and structural conversion; that we ensure diverse voices are heard and remind ourselves of the need to explicitly invite those with a negative experience of Church or who feel at the margins; and that we will need to motivate people with the authenticity of the process so they feel it is worth creating space in their busy lives for this synodal process. And I reflected that this is especially the case in Australia where we are still immersed in our own Plenary Council process.

More tomorrow.