My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Following a preparatory meeting with representatives of bishops’ conferences from around the world at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2021, Pope Francis formally opened the first phase of the Synod on Synodality with a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 10. The plan is for a series of regional, national, and international meetings that will lead up to the Sixteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023, whose theme is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.”
By convening this synod, Pope Francis invites the entire Church to reflect on a theme that he sees as decisive for its life and mission: “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” The three dimensions of the theme are communion, participation, and mission. These three dimensions are profoundly interrelated. Communion finds its deepest roots in the love and unity of the Trinity. It is Christ who reconciles us to the Father and unites us with each other in the Holy Spirit.
Participation calls for the involvement of all the members of the People of God — laity, consecrated and ordained — to engage in the exercise of deep and respectful listening to one another. In a synodal Church the whole community, in the free and rich diversity of its members, is called together to pray, listen, analyze, dialogue, discern and offer advice on making pastoral decisions which correspond as closely as possible to God’s will.
Mission recognizes that the Church exists to evangelize. We can never be centered on ourselves. Our mission is to witness to the love of God in the midst of the whole human family. This synodal process has a deeply missionary dimension to it. It is intended to enable the Church to fulfil her mission of evangelization more fruitfully in the world, as a leaven at the service of the coming of God’s kingdom.
The Preparatory Document for the Synod on Synodality says that the fundamental question that guides this consultation of the People of God is the following: “A synodal Church, in announcing the Gospel, ‘journeys together.’ How is this ‘journeying together’ happening today in your particular Church? What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our ‘journeying together’?”
In answering this question, I am pleased to say that our diocese has already embraced this synodal path of “journeying together” in a variety of ways, most significantly in recent years through our Fourth Diocesan Synod, which took place throughout most of the 2017 calendar year on the theme of discipleship and stewardship. Our diocesan synod included consultations with all the laity, priests, deacons, and leaders of the various religious communities in our diocese, as well as delegates from each of the 129 parishes in our diocese. This culminated in the adoption of 12 Synodal Declarations and 172 Statutes I followed up in 2018 with the publication of my Post-Synodal Pastoral Letter, Ars vivendi et moriendi in Dei gratia (On the Art of Living and Dying in God’s Grace).
At my request, Benedictine University (Lisle, Ill.) conducted a survey of inactive Catholics from November 2012 through March 2013, and then a second survey on active Catholics was gathered through February to March 2014. The survey results were published in September 2014 under the title, “Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese: Results from Online Surveys of Active and Inactive Catholics in Central Illinois.” In my reflections on the results of these surveys, I said that “I thought it was essential to hear not only from those who have stopped attending Mass, but also to hear from those who do attend regularly to find out what draws them and keeps them coming to church. If we are doing something right for some people, that should help us learn what we need to do to bring back those who have drifted away.”
According to the Preparatory Document for the Synod on Synodality the “purpose of the first phase of the synodal journey is to foster a broad consultation process in order to gather the wealth of the experiences of lived synodality, in its different articulations and facets, involving the Pastors and the Faithful of the particular Churches at all the different levels, through the most appropriate means according to the specific local realities: the consultation, coordinated by the Bishop, is addressed to the Priests, Deacons and lay Faithful of their Churches, both individually and in associations, without overlooking the valuable contribution that consecrated men and women can offer. The contribution of the participatory bodies of the particular Churches is specifically requested, especially that of the Presbyteral Council and the Pastoral Council, from which a synodal Church can truly begin to take shape.”
At the conclusion of our Fourth Diocesan Synod in 2017, I said that I did not plan to call another diocesan synod during my tenure, since a diocesan synod sets the pastoral direction for the indefinite future, but would leave that to my successors to determine when it would be opportune to convoke another diocesan synod. I think much of the information that we are being asked to gather during the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality can be gleaned from what we learned from our surveys of active and inactive Catholics and what we heard during our listening sessions and consultations held during our Fourth Diocesan Synod. Additional consultations will be done with our canonical consultative bodies, the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Presbyteral Council, and parish pastoral councils, supplemented perhaps by focused listening sessions in the deaneries as needed.
The diocesan phase is to last from October 2021 to April 2022. A second, continental phase will take place from September 2022 to March 2023. The third, universal phase will then take place with the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in October 2023.
Pope Francis concluded his homily on Oct. 10 with these words: “The Synod is a process of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, that unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the word of God. … Let us not miss out on the grace-filled opportunities born of encounter, listening and discernment. In the joyful conviction that, even as we seek the Lord, he always comes with his love to meet us first.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.