Wendie Libert, Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center
Owen Phelps, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Center
WENDIE: Greetings! It is such a pleasure to welcome you all today to this conversation about the upcoming synod. My name is Wendie Libert, and I am the director at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center, which sits beside pristine Trout Lake in northeastern Wisconsin.
Now, I was born a little Methodist girl, but I was called to the Catholic Church during my early days as a nursing student at Viterbo College (now University) in La Crosse, WI. I came away from Viterbo, which, as Marywood still is, was run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, with more than a Bachelor of Science; I also gained a husband—and subsequently, three children, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, a granddog, two grandkitties, and a Master’s Degree in Servant Leadership. I was also deeply attracted to the charism of the FSPA sisters, so, for the past 30 years, I have been a lay affiliate of the community.
After completing a Master of Arts in Holistic Health Studies focused on spirituality and healing and a doctorate in nursing focused on teaching care that tends the spirit this past May, all the doors seemed to fling open, and I was hired as director at Marywood. I come to my role as director very much committed to the principles of servant leadership, especially what Robert Greenleaf had to say about true leaders approaching each problem first by listening. That was reinforced by my experience with FSPA communal decision making through an assembly process, and it is how I have met challenges before and since I arrived at Marywood.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to “catch up” on this important, I hope inflection point, in the unfolding of our Church history as we listen to our key presenter, Owen Phelps.
OWEN: Thank you, Wendie, and welcome one and all. I see we have registrants from 16 different states for this webinar – so that’s really exciting.
It’s also exciting – and an honor --to be offering this webinar as the first fruit of a collaboration between Marywood Spirituality Center and the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute. Wendie, as you know, it’s been my privilege to visit Marywood many, many times – and I must say you have a wonderful facility in an exceptional setting for people to explore their spiritual development. I hope all of our participants today will check it out. That’s www.Marywoodsc.org.
Finally, but perhaps most important, it’s also exciting that we are gathering here on the eve of what is arguably the most important part gathering of church leaders since the Second Vatican Council. My goodness!
I want to call your attention to 2 features of our briefing today. First, at the bottom there’s a Q&A button as well as a Chat button. You are invited to ask questions or make comments. If you do use the Chat feature, be sure to go down to the bottom of that screen where it asks in tiny type “Who Can See Your Messages“ and change your choice to “Everyone.” That way – in the spirit of synodality -- we can all listen to what you have to say.
Okay, let me tell you just a bit about myself. Wendie mentioned that she is a convert – to distinguish herself from what’s known as a “cradle Catholic.” Well, I’m a “cradle convert.” That is, I was baptized Catholic as an infant, we brought up Catholic and attended Catholic schools, including a Catholic college. But at some point, I quit the active practice -- for a variety of reasons. Later I came back to the practice of my faith -- also for a variety of reasons.
I have a bachelor’s degree in theology from St. Norbert College, did graduate studies at Cardinal Stritch University and earned a doctorate in administration and management from Walden University.
For over 20 years I was Director of Communications & Publications for the Catholic Diocese of Rockford and for about 10 years I was a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee.
I’ve been married 56 years – that’s years, not times. Jane and I have 5 children and 17 grandchildren – which is to say I’ve been very, very blessed … and now I am grateful to be in your company today.
PRAYER: To begin this briefing, let’s start with a brief prayer. It comes from the Archbishop of Seattle Paul D. Etienne, one of the participants in the synod:
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God the Father, your will make known,
Through your Holy Word, Jesus Christ your Son,
By the whispering, promptings, and power of your Holy Spirit,
Through the intercession of our Mother Mary,
Okay, Wendie, where do you want to begin?
WENDIE: People in the pews probably know the word synod has something to do with bishops getting together to make decisions, so does that mean a "synod on synodality" is a meeting where the bishops get together to make decisions about making decisions? If so, decisions about what? If not, then what does it mean?
OWEN: What a great question? And you’ve really answered it for us: Yes, it is a synod of bishops where they come together to make decisions about making decisions. But I need to add a few caveats:
- The delegates’ decisions are actually recommendations to the Holy Father, who will consider them and then comment on them in a document that won’t be written until after the second session of the synod, scheduled in October 2024.
- In the end, it’s all the pope’s call – but he is supposed to take the counsel of the bishops very seriously, especially if their recommendations come to him with a large consensus.
- Remember, this month’s session is just the first of two sessions – the other will be held a year from now, in October 2024.
- The word “synod” may sound new to some of us, but the term “church councils” is a familiar one – and synods are basically church councils.
- About the word “synod:” It’s composed of the preposition syn – that’s sYn – which means “with” and the noun odos, or “path”. The meaning is that the People of God “walk together,” as the Holy Spirit leads. And it actually describes the church, for as St. John Chrysostom, an early church father said, “church” is the name for “walking together,” or synodia.
- The practice of holding synods dates back at least to an account in the Acts of the Apostles, 6:1-7. The church was growing fast, but a fracture was opening up between Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking members, call “Hellenists.” They were all Jews and Christians, but the two groups worshipped in different synagogues and even used different sacred texts.
- Then a practical problem arose. Hellenist widows, who were at the very bottom of the social ladder, were being neglected when it came to the community’s social services -- violating the community’s commitment to Jesus’ own teaching about justice. In response, the apostles gathered members of the community and put a synodal dynamic in motion.
- They proposed selecting 7 people to look after these needs, and the members approved the proposal. Long story short, we see the establishment of deacons in the church.
- Mind you, all of this occurred even before the Council of Jerusalem, which was the church’s first formal council and about which we read in Acts, chapter 15. There, too, we see a synodal dynamic in place, all through the chapter but especially in verse 22, where we read that “the apostles and presbyters (meaning priests) in agreement with the whole church, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. …”
- At some point the Western church began to distinguish between councils and synods, and the latter term dropped from general use – although synods continued to be a popular way to listen to the Spirit and conduct church business in our sister Eastern Rite churches.
WENDIE: But Pope Paul VI revived the term, didn’t he?
OWEN. Yes, on Sept. 15, 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI created the permanent Synod of Bishops in response to the desire of the Fathers of that Council to keep alive the positive spirit engendered by the conciliar experience.
The Synod of Bishops was to meet every 4 years, although the pope could call “extraordinary synods” whenever issues required more immediate attention. Since then there have been 19 synods – 9 ordinary, 2 extraordinary and 8 special ones.
Pope Francis has called major synods on the topics of the family (2014), on youth (2018), and on the Church in the Pan-Amazon region (2019).
Some of us might also be familiar with the term “synod” in the context of “diocesan synods.” I participated in one of those in my home diocese a couple of decades ago – and perhaps some of you have too.
Now as a Synod of Bishops, this synod is unique in the sense that the bishops will be joined by other non-bishops, including women – and all of the delegates will have a vote.
Why? The point is to involve the whole church – the whole People of God, the whole Body of Christ – so non-bishops are included. However, remember, any proposals approved by the delegates are, in fact, recommendations.
WENDIE: How did all of this get started? Where did it come from? Who and what is the impetus behind the Synod on Synodality? What is its purpose?
OWEN: That’s another great question, Wendie. This gathering in Rome is actually a mid-point in the whole process, which began in October 2021 in the world’s 3,171 ecclesiastical jurisdictions -- including our own local dioceses.
In many places the process actually began in parishes, and I’m betting some of our guests today were involved there and/or at the next levels, maybe regional or event diocesan.
To be fair, some dioceses had more extensive consultations than others – and my reading is that the process was more robust in other parts of the world than it was generally in the U.S.
BTW, reflecting modern developments in communications and to assure the widest possible involvement, people also had the chance to comment individually on various church-sponsored websites. We have to acknowledge that there is no mention of any opportunities for website input anywhere in the Act of the Apostles.
After dioceses engaged in the process, their recommendations were forwarded to national bodies and then to continental bodies. Most recently, those continental recommendations were brought together in a 60-page global summary called an Instrumentum Laboris – or “working document.”
WENDIE: Is there anything we should know about that document?
OWEN: Yes there certainly is. In an interesting twist apparently designed to foster discussion, rather than offering a collection of proposals, the working document presents a series of questions for the delegates to respond to. That opens up the process because it avoids a “for/against” split as could occur if delegates were dealing with proposals. As always, the focus is on listening to one another.
BTW, that “working document” was provided to the 464 delegates some time ago and it’s also posted on the U.S. bishops’ website, www.usccb.org if you’re interested. It is 60 pages – but it’s a very helpful 60 pages.
I should also say that its focus is on three themes:
So those are the things the delegates will be discussing starting tomorrow. Note that Communion comes first.
Let me say one more thing. All of the delegates’ time together will not be spent in discussions. A lot of time will be spent in prayer. In fact, the delegates attended a 3-day retreat this past weekend, and they will open their proceedings tomorrow with a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
After that the delegates will listen to one another and will spend alternating time in prayer -- discerning what they have heard from others and in their own hearts. It’s a slow, deliberate, prayerful process – not at all like what we’re used to seeing in our own civil proceedings.
WENDIE: How are the various players: bishops, clergy, and lay people, reacting to the idea?
OWEN: You had to ask, didn’t you? In a phrase, all the players are all over the board regarding the idea of this synod.
The many reports I’ve read from delegates indicates they are very excited to be involved and are focusing on trying to free their minds from expectations, from expected outcomes. They want to focus on the process, which is supposed to let the Holy Spirit come forth and guide them through a long and deliberate process of discernment.
Others are not so excited. In fact, some are downright critical of the whole process …
In their objections, I hear a lot of fear.
Some are fearful of any change, thinking – incorrectly – that the church has never changed since Jesus’ own time. If you are inclined to think there is f always only one right way to think about or do anything, -- if you cling to a sense of certainty about all your religious beliefs and practices -- the prospect of any change is always scary.
I remember my own grandfather struggling with changes after the Second Vatican Council. For example, it troubled him greatly that we could suddenly eat meat on Friday. Even though it made things easier, that was more difficult for my grandfather. He was a very devout man. He saw the practice of his faith like climbing a ladder to an eternal reward. When the prohibition against meat on Fridays was removed, it was like someone taking a rung out of that ladder. Maybe he could have responded by saying, “that was a bad rung; I’m glad it’s gone,” and kept right on climbing. But no, he didn’t see it that way. It was like when that rung fell out, it made him wonder about the integrity of the whole ladder – every rung.
In the end he continued to pursue his climb. He was on his knees next to his bed every morning and every night. He was a traveling salesman in the car a lot, and he said at least one rosary every day while he drove. And he was blessed not to wreck when he saw a church. If it was Catholic, he wanted to make sure he said the sign of the cross. But if it wasn’t, he wanted to make sure he didn’t. So he’d take great pains to find any sign in front of any church and try to read as he drove down the road. I often wondered if the Lord spared him a real calamity.
He was devout. He was loving and caring – a really good man. But the change that came with the Second Vatican Council was hard for him, so I feel for those who have trouble with change in the church – if and when it does come.
But the fact is that the church, like the world, is always changing – and sometimes it helps that the change is considered and deliberate.
Some are fearful that the process of focusing on listening and discussing will constrict the authority of bishops – and in that way corrupt the church. However, the pope and various delegates have noted that bishops are the key to the whole process, and it cannot proceed without them.
Still others are fearful that certain “hot button” issues will dominate – you know, issues like teachings about sexuality, about the roles of women in the church, or the ordination of married men. But let me say here that the focus of this synod is not on specific issues like these. It is much more about how the church tries to listen to the Holy Spirit and fulfill its God-given, Christ-given mission in the world.
As beloved St. Pope John XXIII said at the start of the Second Vatican Council: there are “prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster” in the world and in the future of the church.
And Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago has noted that this synod is part of an ancient Catholic tradition that seeks how to “remain faithful to Christ’s own plan” for the church.
I should note one issue that is at hand with this synod – and, indeed, all synods and councils: How does the Holy Spirit reveal its will in the church through the course of human history? Or to put it another way: What does God want from us … and how can we provide it?
Some take a “top down” perspective – and there is more than one of these. There is a camp that for some centuries has insisted that the pope – and only the pope – has privy to the will of the Holy Spirit. So the pope proclaims and the rest of the church – bishops, priests, religious and laity – complies. Period.
Another “top down” perspective says the Holy Spirit reveals itself through the bishops, acting collectively or, more often, in company with the pope, the bishop of Rome.
Another perspective is more “bottom up” – that the Holy Spirit reveals its will all across the plain … in the ordinary, everyday experiences of everyone, and that the role of bishops and the pope is to discern the Spirit’s action in the whole process of life.
In many places, including especially Latin America, before bishops gather for their group meetings, they are encouraged and expected to consult with their own local people so as to discern the activity of the Spirit in their own dioceses – and then to take their widely-informed perspective to share with their fellow bishops.
Of course, for a strict “top down” bishop, this sort of consultation would not be necessary, not even desirable, because the Holy Spriit is going to make itself manifest only in the will of bishops.
The Synod on Synodality takes a “both/and” perspective on how the Holy Spirit reveals its will for the church in any place and time.
- There is a “bottom up” process …
- And there is a “top down” process …
Pope Francis and many others have said that both have to be respected and integrated for the church to have an assurance that it is doing the will of God. That’s the synodal process.
In the end, it’s slow, it’s consultative, it’s deliberate and very, very thoughtful and prayerful – as a synod, by design, should be.
You should also know that even after the next session a year from now, you will have not heard the end of words like “synod” and “synodality.
Pope Francis wants “synodality” to be all encompassing way the church does church at every level of the church – from parish through diocese and bishops’ conferences right up to and through the Vatican, including the pope.
Did you know – that before each of the synods on family, young people and the Amazon, Pope Francis urged bishops to hold local listening sessions in their dioceses? As I mentioned, it is a practice that is common among bishops in Latin America before they gather for bishops’ conferences.
[RECORDING FOR THOSE REGISTERED BEGINS HERE!]
WENDIE: What is likely to come of this Synod on Synodality? Any real change? If so, what might it look like? What are the people who have participated in the process so far saying about it?
OWEN: As regards specific outcomes, I have no idea – and neither, really, does anyone else. We do know that the process does not end with this session on Oct. 29.
It continues – first with the participants going home to prayerfully consider what they’ve heard and seen for a full year, and then with another extensive session next year – followed by the pope’s own discernment of the proceedings and any recommendations that come from it.
Yes, the 60-page document that all delegates have received includes questions about some “hot button” issues, including:
- The possibility of women deacons;
- Access to priesthood for married men – which, I must note, was the norm in the church for the First Millennium, is still the norm in our Eastern Catholic Churchs, and is today permitted under specific circumstances in the U.S.;
- The integration of LGBTQ+ Catholics;
- Penance for sexual abuse, as well as the abuse of power, conscience and money.
But let me stop here and quote Cardinal Mario Grech of Malta, who Pope Francis appointed Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops. In an interview with National Catholic Reporter, he said that the question of church structures (or ecclesiology) must be addressed before tackling specific issues.
I quote: “Once we become more synodal, then the church, I believe, will be in a better position to address the particular issues.”
For emphasis he added: “This is fundamental: Processes before issues.”
By the way, he also said it would be impossible to take on every pastoral issue in one synod. Indeed, as you will recall, the practice has been to call a synod for one specific issue, and I’m guessing that’s something we will see in the future.
One other thing that should be mentioned again: It is clearly Pope Francis’ hope that the synodal process becomes the norm in decision-making at all levels of church – beginning in parishes, in dioceses, in national bishops’ conferences and in all relations with the Vatican and the office of the pope.
One commentator said: “Pope Francis aims to give Catholics an experience of a church that comes together instead of fragmenting, that discerns together instead of making decrees in isolation, and that walks together” – indeed, the very meaning of the term “synod”
After working over 20 years in diocesan ministry and having served as a catechist and a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I am certain that not all of my fellow members of the church will welcome that prospect.
Some say, “The pope should just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.”
But as I know -- and I’m sure the pope knows -- it’s not that simple. If people don’t accept what he tells them – even though he is the pope -- they won’t do it. And they’re often very loud about not doing it, and in every time that happens it strains to pull the church apart.
You can see that in some of the pushback against this synod and the pope’s endorsement of it.
So Pope Francis has come to believe that synodality, while it can get messy, is the best way for the church to move forward and, in Communion, submit to the will of the Holy Spirit in the days ahead.
Remember, his first concern is “communion” -- that we all come together and we hold together despite our disagreements with the prayerful hope that we can resolve those disagreements before they tear us apart – before we tear one another apart.
That’s his hope and that is my prayer. Ever onward!
If we have learned anything in these past 2000-plus years, it is that unity is not uniformity. As Augustine told us long ago: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
One last thing I should mention – especially for any of you who might be fearful that this whole process is a sham to allow Pope Francis to hijack the church and lead it down a road to perdition.
At the Synod on the Amazon, a major point of contention was whether the church should permit the priestly ordination of mature married men in stable relationships in order to bring the Eucharist – the source and summit of our faith – to the many Catholics in the vast Amazon River Basin who seldom can receive it because of an acute shortage of priests there.
The bishops at the synod actually voted in favor of ordaining married men and sent that recommendation to Pope Francis. We know, of course, that according to church law, he could have acted and approved the practice.
But he didn’t – even though the delegates voted 128-41 to permit married men to be ordained for service “in the most remote areas of the Amazon region.
Why didn’t he follow their recommendation? Because, he said, he did not sense a true discernment among the participants.
He explained: "There was a discussion ... a rich discussion ... a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something different than just arriving at a good and justified consensus or at a relative majority."
Does that sound like the actions of a man who has called this synod to overturn or undermine the church? I don’t think so.
WENDIE: You’ve been following this process for a long while as it has unfolded. Can you summarize the key insights that you want us to take with us from our conversation?
OWEN: Well I can try. First, let’s keep the theme of this synod front and center:
As I said, Communion comes first. We all need to keep that at the fore. Let’s be the People of God … let’s live as one body, the Body of Christ.
As St. Paul said in may places, including Chapter 12 of his first letter to Christians in Corinth, we are one body. All of the parts of the body are important, they are essential. So we need them – ourselves – to work together for the good of the body and of the world in which it exists.
That means Participation is important. We are called, in the words of Pope Francis, to be disciples. We are not just to revere Jesus – not just to be spectators, not even devout spectators. We are to be disciples – to say and do as he said and has did. We are his hands and feet on earth in history.
We are, to use Pope Francis’ term, called to be missionary disciples – and that get us to Mission. As the church fathers at the Second Vatican Council said – and as popes since that time have said – the church by its very nature is missionary. Jesus told us, we are to go and make disciples of all nations.
And as St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is tomorrow, said: “Go and preach the Gospel. And if you must, use words.”
WENDIE: As I have studied this synod and heard what you’ve had to say today, Owen, some very important things come through for me.
First, this is about embracing the work of the Spirit.
Second, The focus of this synod is on the process of listening rather than on decisions on specific topics.
Third, the real point is WHOSE voices are present and taken into account – as many as possible, although in various times, places and ways.
Fourth, there is precedent for this listening process that reflects the Spirit at work in the whole of the Body of Christ.
OWEN: Yes, Wendie, you have it exactly right. Thank you so much for that synopsis. Ah, look, another “SYN” word – that’s syn with a Y.
Now why don’t we take some questions from the greatest group of listeners we could hope to have today.