· Vatican City ·

Interview with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Relator General of the Synod

‘Instrumentum laboris’, a synodal document meant to inspire

23 June 2023

With the publication of the Instrumentum laboris for the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the Church takes another significant step on the synodal journey.

Speaking with Vatican News ahead of the presentation of the document, the Relator General of the Synod, Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, says the Instrumentum laboris is part of the ongoing dialogue within the Universal Church.

Cardinal Hollerich, thank you for joining us this morning. We’re presenting today the ‘Instrumentum laboris’ of the Synod, which is a very significant step in the synodal process. And I’d like to start off by first asking where does the ‘Instrumentum laboris’ fit into the journey that we’ve undertaken so far and that we’re continuing on?

It is the result of the journey. We have had the journey on many different levels, the local communities, the parishes, the dioceses, bishops’ conference, the continental assemblies, and always there was a kind of dialogue because the text was given back to people. And the result of all this is this Instrumentum laboris. So it is part of the synodal journey we have done together.

And can you give us a brief overview of what the document is, what people should expect when they pick it up and begin to read it?

So first we have this introduction, this explanation, that there was a journey and that this document is part of that journey and that the other documents should not be forgotten, which have been written on different levels.

And the document is very short. Normally in synods before, the document was like a booklet. Now in English, the main document is 24 pages. That is very short. And then we have the working sheets afterwards, and the whole together would be 60 pages something. So this is a very short document and it’s a working document.

It is not a text to be amended and to be slightly transformed and voted on at the end. No, it is a text which should inspire. The working sheets give us concrete questions which have emerged in the different levels of the Synodal journey and it is the Synod of Bishops and the participants of the Synod of Bishops who have now to finish this discernment process. And the real finish is the Holy Father when he is given the result of the Synod. So we put questions. We do not give answers. The answers have to be given by the Synod.

And you talked about — perhaps you’ve already alluded to this a little bit — but you talked about the riches of previous documents, the dialogue that has come before that’s reflected in those documents. At the same time, you said in the ‘Instrumentum laboris’ that it’s a step forward. In what way is it a progression from what's already come before?

It is a progression. If you look to the last documents, these are the documents, the different continental assemblies, which have a huge richness, but you can also see a diversity, different colors, different tastes and the different continents. The Church always exists in a cultural, sociological context. And now we have to put this together on the level of the world church. Because, and it is part of the Synod, we have the local churches. But we are together Church. So the universal Church is not just an abstract. The universal Church lives in the local churches. And we have to bring together the voices of the local churches.

You talked about the concrete experiences of the local churches as a foundation for what you — I say you, but the Synod — have brought together up to this point in the ‘Instrumentum laboris’. And at the same time, you say from those concrete experiences, there are some commonalities, even if they’re lived differently in the individual places. Can you give an example of some of the, maybe, common ideas, proposals, or even challenges that have emerged in those different lived experiences?

Oh, yes. We see that we have to walk together with all the people. It’s very important. Now who these people are, that’s different from continent to continent. So in Europe, people speak about different identities, which are now part of the sociological discourse in our societies. In other continents, it’s not so important.

We have, however, in all the continents the importance of women in the Church, which gets expressed in a very different way in Africa and in the United States, for instance. But we have to reflect on how women can fully participate in the Church’s life. And this is not a question of ordination of women. It’s much deeper and much more important. It goes to the dignity of baptism. The dignity of baptism is not lesser for women than for men.

But how is this acted in our normal church life? Have women their say, or do they just have to make tea for the men? No. Like it was the case in many Japanese companies.

A couple more questions. One more on the ‘Instrumentum laboris’ and then a couple more generally on Synodality. A very practical question: We’re releasing this document today at the Vatican, and it’s going to go into the hands of millions of people throughout the world. What are people meant to do with it? How is the ‘Instrumentum laboris’ meant to be used in the coming months leading up to the General Assembly and then at the General Assembly?

First, it is a document for the participants of the Bishops’ Synod. So in this working sheet, there are questions, there are hints for prayer, for prayerful reflection. And the participants have to prepare these questions in their own personal prayer. And it would be good if it were not just personal.

But if they can meet with other people, the bishops, with the people of their diocese, the laymen with their colleagues, with priests and so on, that is a communitarian preparation also for the Synod. The Synod wants to be transparent. So it’s not just now a synod for an elite. We have nothing to hide. And therefore it’s good that people know about all of these questions. That they can watch the Synod and see if the Holy Spirit works in the same way in the Synod and outside of the Synod because the whole church is in synod.

We have two different words in Predicate Evangelium. The Pope speaks about the secretariat of the Synod point. Now we have inside the Synod, which has started for a long time, the Synod of the Bishops. And the Synod of the Bishops, they are the pastors of the church. They are in apostolic succession. And as such they have to complete the discernment.

But they cannot do it without their churches. A bishop is always a bishop of a church of a local community, and you cannot separate completely the bishop from the church. The bishop has his own duties. His own mission. But it is as a service for the church.

We are all in service. We are all “missioned”, and “mission”, I think, is a key word of the synod. Every Synodal church is just speaking about structures. Without seeing the mission our Lord has given the Church, then it has failed.

And a kind of a general question about the Synod — again, something you’ve already alluded to — in the process of discernment, we’ll have the bishops offering their pastoral discernment to the Assembly in October and its follow up the next year, and ultimately the discernment will be given to the Holy Father, Pope Francis. Some people might be concerned that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has the final say and the only say, and they might ask, how can we know that it’s not simply a top down version of the Pope making a decision and imposing it upon the Church? That’s a very polemical way of putting it. But some people might see that, as you know, the Pope is going to have the final say, so what difference does all of this make?

It makes a huge difference. Of course the Pope has the final say, because we are Catholic and we have to find a Catholic synodality.

So if we compare Catholic synodality with Orthodox or Protestant synodality, there is a slight difference. For the Orthodox, it’s, first of all, bishops’ collegiality. And for Protestants, it’s very often like a parliament. We are Catholic, so we believe in the primacy of Peter. We believe that there is a collegiality of the bishops. It’s part of the Church’s teaching. And the Church’s teaching will not be changed. But how will this be balanced in a synodal church? That’s one of the points we have to see.

But the Holy Father has accompanied all the different steps of the Synod. We have never taken any decision without submitting it to the Holy Father, and his reaction was always full of confidence. And when I say full of confidence, it’s not confidence, the kind I find in myself, but confidence that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church. Confidence in all these women and men who express themselves. Confidence that listening is important. Confidence that we all have to work together. How often the Holy Father [has said]: “Everyone, everyone, everyone”. We’re putting the stress on that.

And the Pope, I think, our Pope Francis is a man of Synodality. And I think he deeply inspires us. He deeply wishes a synodal church to be. But a synodal church cannot be imposed.

So perhaps I’ll make this my final question. I’d love to have a very long conversation on synodality… The question then for a lot of people is what will we do or what do we do in a synodal church with disagreement? There might be people who see the final outcome of this long process of discernment, or the outcome at different stages and say, “This does not resonate with me, this is not my experience”, or, “I just disagree with something that's been said”. How will the Synod Church speak to that?

I think that the Church needs to respect differences. In a world church, it is nearly impossible to have exactly the same opinion. You have to share the same faith in Jesus Christ. We have to live and testify to Jesus Christ. We have to keep up the teaching of the Church and we have to live the Gospel. But that will be done with different colors and different tastes, and that’s fine for me. If we find the unity, if we walk under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, together with Christ, the Church does not need to be afraid.

By Christopher Wells