The Working Document for the Continental Stage of the Synodal journey launched by Pope Francis in 2021, was presented during a press conference at the Vatican on Thursday, 27 October. The text, which is in English and Italian, is the outcome of the syntheses of consultations with the People of God which took place in the first phase of the synodal path. It will provide a “frame of reference” and serve as the basis for the work of the second stage. The following is a summary.
The newly presented Document is not just a summary or a report of local experiences but rather “a working document that seeks to bring out the voices of the People of God”. Indeed, it includes “a series of tensions” that emerged. However, “we should not be afraid of them, but articulate them in a process of constant communal discernment, so as to harness them as a source of energy without them becoming destructive” (DCS, 71). The first is “listening as openness to welcome” starting from “a desire for radical inclusion”. “No one is excluded” is, in fact, one of the key concepts of the text.
The Document reveals that many communities have understood synodality as “an invitation to listen to those who feel exiled from the Church”, those who feel “denigrated, neglected, misunderstood,” first and foremost “women and young people who do not feel that their gifts and abilities are recognized”.
Among those who ask for a more incisive dialogue and a more welcoming space are priests who left the ministry to get married, and those who “for various reasons, feel a tension between belonging to the Church and their own loving relationships,” such as “remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, [and] LGBTQ people”. People request that “the Church be a refuge for the wounded and broken, not an institution for the perfect”, reads a contribution from the U.S. Meanwhile, from Lesotho there is a call for discernment from the universal Church: “There is a new phenomenon in the Church that is absolutely new in Lesotho: same-sex relationships. [...] This novelty is disturbing for Catholics and for those who consider it a sin. Surprisingly, there are Catholics in Lesotho who have started practising this behaviour and expect the Church to accept them and their way of behaving. [...] This is a problematic challenge for the Church because these people feel excluded” (DCS, 39).
In spite of cultural differences, substantial similarities can be seen across continents with regard to those perceived as “excluded” in society and in the Christian community. On the other hand, there is a pluralism of positions even within the same continent or country. “Issues such as the Church’s teaching on abortion, contraception, ordination of women, married clergy, celibacy, divorce and remarriage, Holy Communion, homosexuality, LGBTQIA+ were raised across the Dioceses both rural and urban”. However, with so many different views, it was not possible to provide a definitive community stance in many cases.
Numerous syntheses express regret and concern that the Church has not been able, always and everywhere, “to effectively reach out to the poor on the peripheries” — not only the destitute, but also the lonely elderly, indigenous people, migrants, street children, alcoholics and drug addicts, victims of trafficking, survivors of abuse, prisoners, groups who suffer discrimination and violence because of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality.
Many local churches report that they are facing a cultural context marked by a decline in credibility and trust due to the clergy abuse crisis. “This is an open wound that continues to inflict pain on victims and survivors, on their families, and on their communities,” reads the Document, citing the following contribution from Australia: “There was a strong urgency to acknowledge the horror and damage, and to strengthen efforts to safeguard the vulnerable, repair damage to the moral authority of the Church and rebuild trust”.
“The call for a conversion of the Church’s culture … is linked in concrete terms to the possibility of establishing a new culture, with new practices and structures and attitudes”, including the role of women, their vocation and their full participation “in the life of the Church”, the Document reads. This critical point exists in different forms, in all cultural contexts, and concerns the participation and recognition of laywomen and women religious. “There is almost unanimous affirmation” that many women “feel sadness because their lives are often not well understood, and their contributions and charisms not always valued”. The Church faces two related challenges, the Document states: although women are the majority of those who attend liturgy and participate in activities, men hold the most decision-making and governance roles.
Also prominent in the Document is the witness of faith lived to the point of martyrdom in some countries, where Christians, especially young people, “face the challenge of systematic forced conversion to other religions”. Many reports “emphasize the insecurity and violence with which persecuted Christian minorities must contend”. There is talk of fanaticism, massacres or even, as the Maronite Church affirms, forms of “Sectarian and ethnic incitements” degenerating into armed and political conflicts, which make the lives of so many faithful around the world particularly painful. Even in these “situations of fragility” however, “Christian communities have been able to take up the invitation addressed to them to build experiences of synodality, to reflect on what it means to walk together”.
“Equally prominent is the commitment of the People of God to the defence of fragile and threatened life at all its stages”, the Document says. It gives the example of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, for whom, part of synodality is “paying special attention to women who decide to have an abortion due to fear of material poverty and rejection by their families in Ukraine”, as well as carrying out “educational work among women who are called upon to make a responsible choice when going through a difficult time in their lives, with the aim of preserving and protecting the lives of unborn children and preventing abortion”, and caring “for women with post-abortion syndrome”.