Sr Bernadette Reis is a Religious Sister with the Daughters of St Paul, an Order whose charism is evangelisation through the means of social communication. She currently serves in Rome as Coordinating Multimedia Editor with Vatican News and has been involved ‘behind the scenes’ with the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, colloquially known as the ‘synod on synodality’.
As the synod gets underway in Rome on Wednesday 4 October, Sr Bernadette shares some of her thoughts on what synodality means, what this current synod is hoping to achieve, and why the process of listening and discernment is so important to what’s going on.
Sr Bernadette has impressive experience working with synodal assemblies. She was a member of the communications team for the Pan-Amazon Synod in 2019 and currently acts as a ‘point person’ for the Dicastery for Communication at the Vatican. She was also an envoy on the ground for three of the continental assemblies that led up to the current synod—in Africa, Latin America and in Europe.
The sheer scale of the synod reveals something about the significance of this event, Sr Bernadette thinks.
‘This is one of the largest consultations that’s ever been done in history,’ she says. ‘With all of its limitations—and it has been limited, as any human thing will be—I’ve been fascinated by how Pope Francis is really trying to address the situation in the Church since Vatican II. We’re seeing a change evolve before our eyes about how the Church is engaging.’
The current synod is not only trying to respond to the way in which the world and the Church has changed since the time of the Second Vatican Council, but in the mind of Pope Francis, she says, it is also a way of implementing certain aspects of the council.
‘The request from the council fathers was that the lay people assume their rightful role within the Church,’ she explains. ‘That’s been difficult because of the modus operandi of the Church that has been cemented in culture, you might say, for centuries. That doesn’t serve any longer a Church that wants the lay people to take their rightful position.’
‘I think the Holy Father has understood that, and, of course, he’s been listening to all of the questions that have been simmering under the surface for so long.’
Another unique feature of the synod, she says, is that, for the first time in history, lay people and women religious have been granted the ability to vote.
However, the logic and thinking behind the synod go deeper than simply being about ‘firsts’. Sr Bernadette thinks there is a background to this synod that people should understand.
Part of what Pope Francis has wanted to do with the ‘synod on synodality’ is hear from ‘as many voices as possible’. When he was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Francis was nominated to lead the committee that drafted the Aparecida Document, which resulted from the 5th CELAM Conference (the Latin American episcopal conference) in 2007. One of the hallmarks of that conference and the document, Sr Bernadette says, was the number of voices they heard from as they tried to tackle the greatest challenges faced by the Church in Latin America.
It was also characterised by honest conversation and reflections on the state of the world. Sr Bernadette believes Pope Francis came away from that experience with the question, ‘Why can’t we take that to the universal level?’
This is why the synod will have limited media coverage, at least insofar as the debates and conversations are concerned. Ultimately this synod is a process of spiritual discernment.
‘What we’re searching for is the voice of the Spirit, and the voice of the Spirit creates harmony out of chaos,’ she explains.
It won’t only be the unanimity of themes and ideas that they are looking for, but the dissent, too. Speaking of the document that will emerge from the discussions at the synod, Sr Bernadette says, ‘The consensus that was arrived at will be noted, but also the dissent, and that will be noted but also described.’
At the heart of this synod is the desire to understand how the Church is, or is not, walking alongside its people—both inside and outside the Church—and how we might do that better.
Much like in the Acts of the Apostles when the Church had to wrestle with new situations emerging, calling on the Holy Spirit to guide them, the synod is about wrestling with the new situations of today. While critics have raised concerns about significant doctrines of the Church being on the table for discussion, the synod has no authority to deal with matters of doctrine.
‘We always go back to Revelation,’ Sr Bernadette says. ‘Revelation in the Church consists of both Scripture and Tradition. Those are the voices that we use in order to confront the new situations. The fonts are always the same, but the situations are new.’
There are essentials that the Church can never, ever, concede on. Why? Because we need to be faithful to the Revelation … But how we accompany the faithful in the acceptance of those essentials, and how we accompany the people through the different situations that we live through time, will change and needs to change, and we’re probably dealing with that more than anything.
In this sense, she says, the synod is nothing like the conventions of some other Christian denominations that put to the vote critical issues like same-sex marriage or women’s ordination. There is no ‘deliberative’ voting at this synod—it is all ‘consultative’, even for the bishops, and they will be discerning many of the issues raised in the instrumentum laboris (the working document).
While debate can certainly be had, it is more important that the synod members move towards discernment, and for Sr Bernadette, that is a very important distinction. At the Pan-Amazon Synod, there was debate on a number of issues that Pope Francis did not move on because, she says, he did not hear discernment; it was merely debate.
‘I think that’s why he’s created a space where discernment can take place,’ Sr Bernadette says. Like the early Church, we are trying to ‘grapple with being faithful to the Revelation that we’ve been given by the Lord’ while ‘applying it’ to our own time. For the early Church, the challenge was being faithful to the Revelation of Christ amid pagan culture. ‘That’s what we’re trying to do. We don’t have a Christian culture anymore.’
Discernment is a delicate thing, and when it happens on such a large scale, especially in a media-saturated world, it can easy for different agendas and narratives to be imposed on it. ‘We need to let the process unfold without trying to impose the words on it yet,’ Sr Bernadette says. There are tensions ‘bubbling under the surface’ that will require intense and prayerful discussion, but always with the aim of hearing how the Holy Spirit is moving them towards ‘a new Pentecost’.
‘The Church is always nascent. The Church is always being reborn, because the mystery of the Trinity that Jesus revealed is infinite. So, in that sense, the Church is always being born again because we’re trying to understand and live an infinite mystery.’
Banner image: Pentecost by Jean Restout (1692–1768).
Melbourne Catholic02 October 2023
Melbourne Catholic27 September 2023