BALTIMORE — Almost a month after the close of Pope Francis’ Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on synodality, Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego says the power and depth of the conversations over the month in Rome struck him, as well as the challenge of replicating that atmosphere back home.
“It was a wonderful time being able to dialogue with people, and really understand deeply Christ’s presence in the whole group, and the very different situations that people have across the globe, and the ways in which the proclamation of the Gospel and the tissue of the Church look different and have different imperatives in different countries or different cultures,” Cardinal McElroy told The Tablet.
“What the challenge is now is that you have to find a way to translate that process of discernment, because it’s too intense and too timely in terms of our parishes and dioceses,” Cardinal McElroy explained. “There are analogous ways of having meaningful discernment … that maybe can promote a deeper level of spirit led decision-making in the life of the Church, but we have to develop that in a logical way.”
Cardinal McElroy’s sentiment was common among other American synod delegates The Tablet spoke with and other American synod delegates who spoke publicly about their experience at the synod gathering at this week’s U.S. bishops’ conference general assembly in Baltimore.
By and large, the synod gathering was viewed as a positive and enriching experience, where people with different opinions engaged in respectful discussions seeking common solutions. Delegates lauded the inclusion of non-episcopal participants for the first time, while stressing that Church doctrine is unlikely to change as a result of the synod process.
American participants also pushed back against the notion that there is tension between the Vatican and U.S. church, insisting that it didn’t appear in the context of the synod.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio of Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and the USCCB president, said Nov. 14 that he doesn’t “think that was the case at all,” noting that he spoke with Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod on Synodality, on multiple occasions throughout the gathering.
One suggestion for the synod process, put forth by Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville was the need to better hear priests and the poor throughout the synod process.
“The voice of the pastors and the priests was not heard as clearly as we need to hear it,” Bishop Flores told reporters on Nov. 15. “I think we all, as bishops, will get an encouragement to kind of find the vehicle by which, with their priests, they can reflect on what this document says as we prepare for going forward.”
“But they’re not the only ones. We all admitted that because it was our first sort of effort that we could do a lot better in consulting with the materially poorer,” Bishop Flores continued.
Another question is what happens between now and next year’s synod gathering? And how does the model of synodality continue at the local level of the church? Bishop Flores indicated in his Nov. 14 presentation to the body of U.S. bishops that the USCCB and/or the Secretariat for the Synod will likely distribute materials for local dioceses to use in this interim period.
American delegates The Tablet spoke with highlighted their intention to continue sharing their experience with different diocesan leadership bodies, while simultaneously introducing some of the methodology and attitude toward deep, respectful conversation utilized in Rome.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston told The Tablet the emphasis needs to go beyond hot-button issues.
“Everyone will have their opinion on the hot-button issues, but we need people to focus on mission,” Cardinal O’Malley said. “How can we evangelize this culture? How can we reach out to young people? How can we make use of social media to get out the message of the Gospel? How can we respond to serious social and moral problems that our country is facing? When we start to talk about those issues, I think the value of synodality is going to become much more apparent.”
Cardinal O’Malley added that the synodal approach “can be an anecdote to the terrible polarization we are experiencing in society that has certainly poisoned the Church.”
Speaking with reporters Nov. 14, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, noted that there are existing bodies, including diocesan pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils, that can be more effectively used and “perhaps use the methodology of conversations in the synod.”
From a more global vantage point, Cardinal Wilton Gregory noted that because of the differences that exist in both American and global communities, there isn’t an “add water and stir solution” that will work for everybody, so the unifying factor that is the faith is crucial.
“What unites us is our faith,” Cardinal Gregory told The Tablet. “That’s what Cardinal Pierre’s comments highlighted that we have the source of unity already, it’s using it more effectively, it’s turning to it more frequently.”
From the start of the synod process, and perhaps it will continue until the synod concludes next fall, a charge from critics has been that the process seeks to change Church doctrine on certain issues. Across the board, the American delegates The Tablet spoke with said this is not the case.
Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle emphasized that the goal of the synod is to become a more synodal Church, and the discussions that have taken place toward that goal have all done so “within the guardrails of magisterium and Scripture in a context of prayer.”
“So no, the goal isn’t to change doctrine, but the goal is to allow people to talk about whatever they need to talk about,” Archbishop Etienne told The Tablet. “Yes, there’s going to be some things that come up that make people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean that the goal is to change doctrine of Church teaching, but it means we need to do a better job of allowing people to talk about the things that are on their mind.”
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark agreed.
“The first session evidenced profound respect for Catholic tradition and its doctrinal patrimony,” he said.