A report summarising discussions at the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, entitled A Synodal Church in Mission, said the Church may need more welcoming pastoral approaches, especially to people who feel excluded, but also acknowledged fears of betraying traditional Church teachings and practices.

Among the topics addressed in the report were clerical sexual abuse, women’s roles in the Church, outreach to poor and the concept of ‘synodality’ itself.

After the voting on the synthesis concluded, the Pope said he wanted to remind everyone that ‘the protagonist of the synod is the Holy Spirit.’ He briefly thanked the synod officers and joined members of the assembly in giving thanks to God.

The assembly’s discussions set the stage for a year-long period of reflection that will culminate in the second and final synod assembly in late 2024 on the same topic.

The assembly’s 364 voting members—365 counting Pope Francis—voted on the 41-page synthesis report paragraph-by-paragraph on 28 October. The report’s writers described its purpose as presenting ‘convergences, matters for consideration and proposals that emerged from the dialogue’ on issues discussed under the headings of synodality, communion, mission and participation.

Every item in the report was approved by at least two-thirds of the members present and voting, synod officials said. They published a complete list of the votes.

Within the synod topics, members looked at the role of women in the Church, including in decision making, and at the possibility of ordaining women deacons. The report asked for more ‘theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate’, including a review of the conclusions of commissions Pope Francis set up in 2016 and 2020.

The paragraph was approved 279-67, which was more than the needed two-thirds support but still garnered among the highest negative votes.

Among members of the assembly, the report said, some thought the idea of women deacons would be a break with tradition, while others insisted it would ‘restore the practice of the Early Church,’ including at the time of the New Testament, which mentions women deacons.

‘Others still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church,’ it said. But, the report added, some members thought that would ‘marry the Church to the spirit of the age’.

Assembly members also discussed pastoral approaches to welcoming and including in the life of parishes people who have felt excluded, including the poor, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ Catholics and Catholics whose marriages are not recognised by the Church.

The synthesis said that ‘to develop authentic ecclesial discernment in these and other areas, it is necessary to approach these questions in the light of the Word of God and Church teaching, properly informed and reflected upon.’

‘In order to avoid repeating vacuous formulas, we need to provide an opportunity for a dialogue involving the human and social sciences, as well as philosophical and theological reflection,’ it added.

The divergences in the assembly, it said, reflected opposing concerns: that ‘if we use doctrine harshly and with a judgmental attitude, we betray the Gospel; if we practise mercy “on the cheap,” we do not convey God’s love.’

Still, it said, ‘in different ways, people who feel marginalised or excluded from the Church because of their marriage status, identity or sexuality, also ask to be heard and accompanied. There was a deep sense of love, mercy and compassion felt in the Assembly for those who are or feel hurt or neglected by the Church, who want a place to call “home” where they can feel safe, be heard and respected, without fear of feeling judged.’

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Pope Francis smiles at Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, as the first assembly of the synod on synodality concludes on 28 October in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (Photo: CNS/Vatican Media.)

In several places throughout the report, assembly members insisted that greater efforts must be made to listen to the survivors of clerical sexual abuse and those who have endured spiritual or psychological abuse.

‘Openness to listening and accompanying all, including those who have suffered abuse and hurt in the Church, has made visible many who have long felt invisible,’ it said. ‘The long journey toward reconciliation and justice, including addressing the structural conditions that abetted such abuse, remains before us, and requires concrete gestures of penitence.’

Members of the assembly said the process helped them experience the Church as ‘God’s home and family, a Church that is closer to the lives of her people, less bureaucratic and more relational.’

However, it said, the terms synodal and synodality, which ‘have been associated with this experience and desire’, need further clarification, including theological clarification and, perhaps, in canon law.

Some participants, it said, questioned how an assembly where about 21 per cent of participants were lay women, lay men, religious and priests could be termed a Synod of Bishops.

The report also acknowledged fears, including that ‘the teaching of the Church will be changed, causing us to depart from the Apostolic faith of our forebears and, in doing so, betraying the expectations of those who hunger and thirst for God today.’

In response, though, assembly members said, ‘We are confident that synodality is an expression of the dynamic and living Tradition.’

‘It is clear that some people are afraid that they will be forced to change; others fear that nothing at all will change or that there will be too little courage to move at the pace of the living Tradition,’ the report said. ‘Also,’ it added, ‘perplexity and opposition can sometimes conceal a fear of losing power and the privileges that derive from it.’

Members of the assembly described the synodal process as being ‘rooted in the Tradition of the Church’ and taking place in light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its emphasis on ‘the Church as Mystery and People of God, called to holiness’.

Synodality, they said, ‘values the contribution all the baptised make, according to their respective vocations’, and thus ‘constitutes a true act of further reception of the Council’.

The report also insisted that the purpose of synodality is mission.

‘As disciples of Jesus, we cannot shirk the responsibility of demonstrating and transmitting the love and tenderness of God to a wounded humanity,’ the report said.

Throughout the synod process, the report said, ‘many women expressed deep gratitude for the work of priests and bishops. They also spoke of a Church that wounds. Clericalism, a chauvinist mentality and inappropriate expressions of authority continue to scar the face of the Church and damage its communion.’

‘A profound spiritual conversion is needed as the foundation for any effective structural change,’ it said. ‘Sexual abuse and the abuse of power and authority continue to cry out for justice, healing and reconciliation.’

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Members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops use tablets to vote on the gathering’s synthesis document on 28 October in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (Photo: CNS/Vatican Media.)

While some of the issues discussed at the synod were judged to require further study, members came up with a list of things that can or should happen immediately and others that should be considered.

The suggestions included in the synthesis report included regular evaluations of parish priests, bishops and even nuncios.

For example, it said that ‘it is necessary to implement, in forms legally yet to be defined, structures and processes for regular review of the bishop’s performance, with reference to the style of his authority, the economic administration of the diocese’s assets and the functioning of participatory bodies and safeguarding against all possible kinds of abuse.’

‘A culture of accountability is an integral part of a synodal Church that promotes co-responsibility, as well as safeguarding against abuses,’ it added. The idea of a review of bishops’ performance passed 317–29.

Members said canon law should be changed to make diocesan pastoral councils mandatory and not simply recommended.

Responding to a ‘widely reported need to make liturgical language more accessible to the faithful and more embodied in the diversity of cultures,’ the members said national bishops’ conferences should have greater responsibility for translations and adaptations with less Vatican control, a process Pope Francis already began in 2017 with his document Magnum Principium (‘The Great Principle’).

The synthesis also called for the establishment of ‘a permanent Council of the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches to the Holy Father’ to discuss issues of concern and ensure the needs and gifts of Eastern Catholics are at the heart of the Church.

Members noted that in 2025 Easter will be celebrated on the same Sunday according to the Gregorian and Julian calendars used by Western and Eastern Christians. ‘The Assembly expressed a keen desire to come to a common date for the feast of Easter so that we can celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord, our life and our salvation, on the same day,’ the report said.

With Pope Francis appointing women to positions of authority at the Vatican, members said more of the same must be done on a diocesan level.

They also said that ‘labour injustice and unfair remuneration within the Church need to be addressed, especially for women in consecrated life, who are too often treated as cheap labour.’

Many of the suggestions involve greater education and formation opportunities for all Church members and special attention to the selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood to ‘avoid creating an artificial environment, separated from the shared life of the faithful.’

Acknowledging the ministry many people, mostly young, already are doing, the assembly members said there is need ‘to provide opportunities for recognising, forming and accompanying those already working as digital missionaries’ and facilitating their networking with each other.

Banner image: Pope Francis and leaders of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops applaud at the conclusion of the gathering’s last working session on 28 October in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (Photo: CNS/Vatican Media.)