Synod With a Difference?

The Catholic Church’s Synod on Synodality (from the Greek “syn” meaning “a way of living and working together”) hasn’t received much media attention, but it is a first for the Church – a two-year synod that began in October 2021 and will run until 2023.

Synods have been held fairly regularly since Pope Paul Vl reintroduced them during his post-Vatican II pontificate, as Dr. Jessica Murdoch, associate professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology at Villa Nova University, told the Catholic News Agency:

What the synod is, practically speaking, is an advisory panel. It is a body which gives the pope a way of discussing the issues of the day, and receiving feedback and advice from the episcopacy. St. Paul VI may have given it its current shape, but the reality is that popes have always done this, consulting with their bishops on different matters, in one form or another.

Synod 2021-2013 logo
Most synods last a month and are  intended specifically for bishops, whereas the Synod on Synodality, with its theme of “Communion, Participation and Mission,” seems a much more monumental project, involving participants from all levels of the church — Diocesan, national and universal. As the Vatican website explains:

Although previous synods also began with wide consultations in the form of questionnaires, this is the first time that everyone has been directly asked to engage in an exercise of listening at the level of parishes and dioceses.

(The introduction and discussion piece issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops does not make for easy reading and I must admit that, in researching the what, when and why of synods, I began to wonder if Christ had ever encountered a theologian? The words attributed to him in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, particularly those of the parables that were his usual way of teaching, were easily understood by his listeners. Theologians, on the other hand, seem to take great pleasure in writing in a way the proverbial Philadelphia lawyer would have trouble understanding. But maybe that’s just me.)

For Catholics, the Synod has provided an opportunity to attend parish meetings and consider the changes they believe are necessary to bring the faith they profess more in line with the times.

Here in the Diocese of Antigonish, consultations with parishioners are underway, some drawing more participants than others, depending, one pastor suggested to me, on the age of parishioners — the more elderly seemingly not so concerned about changes in the Church.

Each bishop must “collect input” from all parishes in his diocese, as well as from lay movements, religious institutions and schools, and condense it into a 10-page report to be submitted to the CCCB by April 2022. A summary of each country’s work will then be forwarded to the Vatican.

Bishops, having received suggestions and questions from these pre-synod gatherings, will then meet to discuss “matters of vital church interest” and will serve in an “advisory capacity to the Pope.”


But changes to church rules and dogmas do not come easy. Many arising from Vatican ll, like allowing Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular rather than the traditional Latin, having the celebrant face the congregation, allowing congregants to receive communion in their hands and (God forbid!) permitting women to serve as Eucharistic ministers, are still, almost 60 years later, rejected by many Catholics — have even caused some to abandon their faith.

I recall my mother, who became a Catholic in order to marry my father, saying that she preferred the Presbyterian Church in which she had been raised for the simple reason that they were allowed to sing in church while only the choir sang at Mass, until Vatican ll changed all that and choirs were given a place ‘downstairs’ and parishioners were invited to sing along,

These were considered major changes by congregations that had for years been bound by rules that included forcing women to wear hats. Of course, it was a boon for the milliners, especially on Easter Sunday, when any woman worth her salt sported an Easter Bonnet, even it happened to be snowing as you left the church. The rules also made meat a no-no on Fridays, although that just seems like a good idea these days, given the price of beef!

But Pope Francis, judging his pre-Synod statements, is contemplating much bigger changes, including something he has been preaching about since the start of his papacy:

The whole Church is called to deal with the weight of a culture imbued with clericalism, (a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy) that she inherits from her history, and with those forms of exercising authority on which the different types of abuse (power, economic, conscience, sexual) are grafted.

Francis actually seems to have jumped the gun on this, and some other issues likely to come up during Synod discussions, having on March 19 announced an overhaul of the Vatican’s central bureaucracy “expanding the numbers of top leadership roles that lay men and women may hold.”

On February 24, he met (virtually) with college and university students from 58 institutions in 21 countries across the Americas to discuss problems associated with migration — the situations that cause people to migrate and the situations they encounter in the countries that accept them. Many of the involved students were migrants themselves and had much to offer to the discussion.


Unfortunately, given the atmosphere surrounding today’s Catholic Church, parish discussions will (and should) include topics like the abuse scandal that shocked the world when it was finally revealed — although it had long been known to the Vatican and local bishops, who moved abusive priests around from parish to parish for years.

A recent column in the St. John’s Telegram by Glen Whiffen considered the Christian Brothers’ and clergy’s legacy of abuse in Newfoundland where, as of 2019, some victims — boys at the time, now men — were still in court, seeking compensation that the Catholic church has fought against providing for years.

 Pope Francis meets with representatives of Canada's Inuit (pictured here) and Métis indigenous peoples Pope Francis meets with representatives of Canada's Inuit (pictured here) and Métis indigenous peoples

Pope Francis meets with representatives of Canada’s Inuit Indigenous peoples, 28 March 2022. (Source: Vatican News)

Whiffen notes that, as a result of the abuse scandal, church properties, including the Roman Catholic Basilica of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, are up for sale and wonders if Catholics will be faced with a lack of buildings in which to worship? Ironically, he suggests (and I’m not sure if he’s aware of the upcoming synod) that:

Catholics should demand sweeping changes, totally re-organizing and improving the leadership structure, [clericalism again] so that the church can get back to the work which it was meant to do.

Meanwhile, a delegation of 32 Indigenous Elders, Knowledge Keepers, Residential School survivors and youth is currently in Rome for meetings with Pope Francis that were to run from March 28 to April 1, when a larger group of Indigenous Peoples were to join them. The CCCB statement announcing the meetings reads:

As Canadian Bishops, we are grateful to these delegates for walking with us on this journey and to Pope Francis for his attention to the suffering, faced to this day by Indigenous Peoples, as well as to the role of the Catholic Church in the Residential School system which contributed to the suppression of their languages, culture and spirituality.

I would prefer if they’d said:

As Canadian Bishops, the six of us are grateful to these delegates for allowing us to walk with them on this journey.

National Inuit leader Natan Obed, who is part of the delegation, told the CBC they had a simple message for Francis:

…the Holy See must apologize for the church’s role in residential schools in order to help the survivors bear the burdens of the past inflicted on the present.

Other “hot-button issues” that might be on the agenda for the Synod include the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood and of “weakening the rule of celibacy to a choice for men [and women, should a miracle occur and they are finally acknowledged as worthy] considering the priesthood. Same-sex marriage, access to communion by divorced and remarried Catholics are two other long-discussed possibilities, as is an interesting, although arguably less doctrinally significant, issue, one directly connected to COVID-19, that of wine producers whose business could be in trouble if church-goers no longer want to use a communal wine cup during the Mass.

Francis also continues to promote the importance of evangelization as part of the Synod’s raison d’etre, but will the Catholics and clergy who have kept the faith throughout the storm of anger and betrayal from parishioners agree to be ambassadors of that faith to others?


Still, if the Synod, as a result of its outreach to Catholics around the world, comes even close to the Pope’s hopes for renewal and if, as is stated so often in the CCCB’s statement, the Holy Spirit provides “inner strength” to all those involved, who knows what miracles may occur?

Pope Francis is hoping that a welcome will be extended to the poor and those on the fringes of society as a result of the upcoming synodal gathering, and I know at least one participant in a pre-Synod group has suggested the Church focus on “four concepts central to Jesus and the Gospel: compassion, nonviolence, forgiveness/mercy and service.” Pope Francis would certainly give his blessing to that.

Recently, he gave people around the world experiencing homelessness and poverty the chance to ask him questions, fielding inquiries “from about 80 countries” posed by people “from the slums in Brazil to people on the streets in India, Iran and the United States,” according to AFP. (The questions and answers have been turned into a book to be released on April 1). During the exchange, Francis said:

It hurts me that men of the Church – priests, bishops, cardinals – drive in luxury cars and far from giving an example of poverty, give the most negative side of testimonies.

He explained that he isn’t paid but:

…my poverty is fictitious since I lack for nothing. They feed me and if I need something, I ask for it and they always give it to me, by the way.

If this Synod does result in the sort substantial changes the Catholic Church has resisted for decades, it will finally provide, as Sister of St. Joseph Katie Eiffe, Director of Synodal Planning for the Diocese of Syracuse, New York, stated so well:

…a wonderful opportunity to live out what Vatican ll called us to 60 years ago as a church.

Amen to that!


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.