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SynodWatch RoundUP before the Synod Begins: Good News and Catching Up

It is Sunday, October 15, 2023.  Last week’s open-heart surgery on my beloved family member was successful. God is good. After the surgery, we rode the inevitable ups and downs of post-surgery complications and spent most nights at the hospital. But then things began to look up. On Thursday, after an extensive test, we received good news that we could go home.  From his hospital bed, my favorite patient sang, “Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak” by Thin Lizzie.  Everyone else in the room was dancin’.  On Friday, he was released into the arms of his children, the youngest who clung fiercely to him. And he had his first good night’s sleep in weeks.  God is so good.

With the most critical part of this journey behind us, I am returning to my work reporting on the synod.  This first report will be a long one since I am catching up on what has been happening in the synod hall.  I will try to recap other important events as well in other blogs.  So, dear friends, please read what is helpful and leave the rest.  I’ll give you my best and point you to some of the best articles, blogs, and podcasts out there.

SynodWatch, Roundup Style

One of my favorite podcasts is The Daily Beans, News with Swearing.  Dr. Allison Gill offers a roundup of the news each day followed by good news – photos of dogs, cats, and other cute animals.  It is informative, humorous, and, at times, raucous. Given my changed circumstances, I thought it might be a worthy format for reporting on the synod.

This year, all journalists in Rome are facing significant barriers in reporting on the synod. As the synod began, Pope Francis issued a formal request that participants “fast” from talking to journalists. He apologized to the journalists because it creates a kind of media grey-out.  Francis’s worthy goal is to create a space that is more retreat-like and prayerful and where participants can speak freely in their conversation circles without it ending up in a headline.  Yet, it also means that we won’t know many of the details of what is happening between October 4 – 29, or get those up-close-and-personal perspectives that journalists obtained in the past.


Even before synod participants gathered for the opening Mass on October 4, Catholics witnessed some strange shenanigans, and surprisingly, some significant breakthroughs.

September 30, 2023
Discerning Deacons Go To Rome

Photo by Tracy Kemme SC

A number of women, including Tracy Kemme, SC from my Sister of Charity community represented Discerning Deacons as they travelled to Rome to raise awareness about one of the big issues on the table, ordaining women as deacons.  Since 2015, when Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher first uttered the suggestion that synod participants should be talking about women deacons, to 2019 when bishops from the Amazon region asked that the issue be studied, to today, the issue has gathered lots of steam thanks to groups (including the pioneering work of FutureChurch, Voice of the Faithful, Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, Women’s Ordination Conference, etc) and many women including Phyllis Zagano, Sr. Carmen Sammut and the leadership at the International Union of Superiors General who prodded Pope Francis into developing the first study commission in 2016, and more.  The progress that has been made at the synod rests on the shoulders of many pioneering women.

Anna Robertson wrote a blog about some of the Discerning Deacons adventures and they were mentioned in an AP news article.

It is clear that this topic will be coming to the top again and again as synod participants gather.  And I think many who care about this issue are filled with hope that a new day is dawning in the Church for women!

October 2, 2023
Calling Out the Doubters

Photo: Daily Compass

On October 2, Pope Francis published a response to a dubia sent to him in July from Cardinals Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmüller, Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Robert Sarah and Joseph Zen. Their letter containing misgivings or doubts about the synod process focused on five areas; a) the interpretation of Scripture, b) the blessing of same-sex unions, c) the assertion that synodality is a “constitutive dimension of the Church, d) the ordination of women, and e) whether repentance is necessary for a person to receive absolution. While the cardinals had published their dubia, they had not published Francis’s response.  Thus, the Vatican made the Pope’s response public.

The five hand-wringing cardinals who have long opposed the pope’s pastoral vision for the Church, expressed their concern about the way authority would flow at the synod.  Francis used it as an opportunity to teach and to invite them more deeply into the synodal process.

Francis not only reminded the five about the long interpretive tradition of the church, but, also signaled that the church could be open to blessing same sex relationships, a monumental softening of the church’s position.

And in almost the same breath, Pope Francis signaled openness to studying the ordination of women to the priesthood. If you read the dubia, the five cardinals were seeking assurances that the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood would remain closed.  While re-iterating John Paul II’s definitive statement, he suggested that even the notion of a “definitive statement” deserved to be studied and developed.

On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a “definitive statement” has not yet been fully developed. It is not a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be adhered to by all. No one can publicly contradict it and yet it can be a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.

That is a stunning admission making it possible to imagine a church that is no longer crippled by  Pope John Paul’s 1994 Apostolic Letter freeing all to recognize God’s call to ordination.

October 3, 2023
Troublemakers about town: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Two events occurred on October 3rd – one with a tragic dystopian vibe, the other inspiring.

Photo by CNS Lola Gomez

As the synod participants were finishing their three-day retreat, Cardinal Raymond Burke helped lead a nifty little retreat of his own. In the Ghione Theater near the Vatican about 200 people including Cardinal Robert Sarah came together for an anti-synod rally.  Lovingly called, “The Synodal Babel,” the group clamored other’s fears about ordained men losing their special status, “decadent Western sexual mores” and “radical feminist claims about the equality of women.”  In similar fashion, the Catholic Identity conference that took place in Pittsburgh at about the same time featured embattled prelates Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano and Bishop Joseph Strickland leading sessions like, “Francis’s Missionary Genocide,” “and “Pope of Surprises: Chaplain to the New World Order.”  You can’t make this stuff up.

Credit: AP

Across town, at the Basilica of St. Praxedes, a group of women and men, organized by Women’s Ordination Worldwide entered into prayer and prayerful listening as they practiced synodality in real time.  Women from various geographical regions shared their sorrows and their hopes for a church that honors and cherishes the gifts, strength, and vocational call of women. Kate McElwee spoke of her experience moving through the synodal process.  Calling the synodal path a “synod of surprises,” she recounted the ways her voice and the voices of other women who are called to ordination were officially recognized, for the first time, as part of the synodal conversations.


Before We Begin
Spirituality; Technology; and Process

Hall Setup

This year, the synod gathering was moved to a new venue to accommodate the new process. The Paul VI Hall which holds 6300 people for papal audiences, has been revamped for the synod.  In past synods, the hierarchical order was evident in the large theater style space.  Pope Francis and prelates sat to the front and lay and religious auditors sat in the back.  This year, there are 35 large round tables that seat 10 to 12 participants for a total of 365 places and the prelates, religious, and lay persons are interspersed.  They are seated according to language groups – Italian, Spanish, French, English, and Portuguese.  As they move through the modules, they will also be seated according to topic, a move that is controversial to conservatives who fear this is stacking the deck on issues of women, sexuality, etc.


Attention to Spirituality

For the first time in synod history, there has been an intentional effort to create a spiritual atmosphere.  While at past synods, Each morning begins with the Eucharist.  This did not happen at previous synods. Moments of prayer and silence are also interspersed throughout the discussions.  After three or four people share, there is silence.

Advanced Technology

The technology has also advanced this year with features such as simultaneous translation for each participant in the major languages.

At each table there are black encased touch-screen tablets for each voting member including Pope Francis (his tablet in encased in white). The device provides access to the Synod assembly’s reference texts such as the Instrumentum Laboris and a record of the discussions throughout the month. These devices will also be used for voting on the final text toward the end of the month – a document that will become the roadmap for the work over the next year.  When the participants arrive at their places, the first thing they do is to present the QR code on the back of their badge to the tablet bearing their name. Their tablets remain in the hall.

There are also four television sets per table which allow the participants to follow what the speaker of the moment is saying.

The Schedule & Process

The work is divided into five modules focusing on the three priorities outlined in the  Instrumentum Laboris

Each of the first four Modules has as its theme one of the sections of the Instrumentum Laboris (A; B1; B2; B3), while the fifth Module (C) is for drafting and approving (by vote)) the final document.  This powerpoint was shared to show how the methodology works.

Module A on the nature, meaning, and experience of synodality, was discussed from October 4 – 7, 2023.  Those discussions were structured as follows:

  1. Cardinal Hollerich offers overview of module..
  2. There were two sessions of the Small Groups at the tables which discussed the topic. They then prepared a summary of their discussions, main reflections, and questions which was delivered to all participants in the plenary session.
  3. During the two plenary sessions, participants listened to the interventions of the Small Groups followed by free discussion.
  4. Another session for the Small Groups was provided so they could draft a final report of their discussions. The small group wrote a final report and approved it as being an accurate reflection of their discussions.  It was then delivered to the General Secretariat Cardinal Grech.

Modules B1, B2, B3 on Communion, Co-Responsibility, and Participation have a slightly different structure with more plenary sessions. Discussions take place from October 9 – 21, 2023.

  1. Cardinal Hollerich offers overview of module.
  2. There are two sessions of the small groups with a report to be given during the plenary sessions.
  3. There are three plenary sessions where all listen to all the reports of the Small Groups and to discuss what they hear.
  4. The final session of the Small Groups is space to draft a final report, approve it by all the members of the small group, and deliver it to Cardinal Grech.

Module C is the final module for developing the final draft of the Summary Report of the first session of the Assembly, the report that will be used as a roadmap for the following year.  This module will take place from October 23 – 28, 2023.

  1. The outline of the Summary Report for Module A will be presented in a plenary session.
  2. The floor will be opened for debate around the outline of the Synthesis Report;
  3. The Small Groups will have further discussion of the Summary Report.
  4. There will be another plenary session for the presentation and debate of the outline of the Summary Report relating to Modules B1, B2 and B3.
  5. The Small Groups will further discuss the Summary Report for those modules.

Finally, after all discussions and amendments, there will be a reading of the full text of the amended Summary Report to all members in a plenary session along with a vote for approval of the final report.

Useful Resources

Vatican list of participants at the Synod.

The National Catholic Reporter Guide to the U.S. Participants at the Synod

Synod resources and documents:

Sisters involved in the Synod on Synodality

Important Articles and Podcasts

Sr. Angela Perez by Rhina Guidos

Heidi Schlumpf interviews Kate McElwee

Meet the Woman Who Led the U.S. Synod Process – interview of Julia McStravog by Coleen Dulle

Vatican Synod on Synodality Signals Hope for Women’s Ordination Advocates by Claire Giangravé

LGBT Catholics subject of emotional debate by Christopher White

The Vatican’s High Tech Synod