How will the Synod continue and end?

     Looking at how the First Session of the Synod on synodality ended, we cannot help but be amazed, because they tell us that it is not yet clear what synodality is. The Cardinal Relator of the Synod tells us that “we are still learning, synodality is not a concept, it is a process and it seems to be progressing well”.

     But if there is no clear concept of synodality, with what criterion is it stated that the process was synodal and that the Church is becoming synodal?

     Starting from the etymology of the Greek word – “walking together” – synodality was given as the theme of this XVI Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops; a sub-theme was also given: “Participation and communion for the mission”.

     Since it is not possible in many languages (including the Chinese language) to directly translate the word “synodality”, it is assumed that the sub-theme is a faithful explication of the theme. So, without directly studying the synodality, we began to study “how to dialogue together to walk together on the path of evangelization”.

     There is a doubt to be resolved. They tell us that synodality is a fundamental constitutive element of the life of the Church, but at the same time they emphasize that synodality is what the Lord expects of us today. Participation and communion are obviously permanent characteristics of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. But doesn’t saying that synodality is “the thing that the Lord expects of us today” mean that it is something new? In order not to see a contradiction in it, we must understand this invitation to synodality not as having to do something completely new, but as giving a new impulse to something that has always existed in the Church.

     With this understanding, our Diocese has actively undertaken this first phase of the Synod, the local one (not belonging to any episcopal conference due to the political situation, we only have the diocesan level of this phase and not that of the Episcopal Conference).

     The Diocese conducted 13 consultation assemblies with approximately 1,200 participants; small group “spiritual conversations” were conducted 170 times, with 930 participants; there was then an online questionnaire and in six months 1,278 responses were collected from 150 communities, the participants must have exceeded 2,000. Through scientific methods, a synthesis done of all this work shows that the most important thing for the Diocese is to promote the training of priests, faithful and especially young people. The themes of this training include: parrhesia in expressing oneself and attention in listening; responsible participation in discernment and decisions by the established authorities; dialogue in the Church, with society and between religions.

     Here I allow myself to open a parenthesis.

     The Diocese of Hong Kong is one of those in the world with a very large number of Chinese faithful. The population density in the city favours communication. At the turn of the two millennia and shortly after the return of the city under the sovereignty of the Nation, my predecessor Cardinal John Baptist Wu promoted a diocesan Synod.

The members were around 200:

25 ex-officio;

45 chosen from among the priests in care of souls;

20 religious and missionaries;

30 nuns;

78 representatives of the faithful, of which

     58 from the parishes,

     10 from Diocesan commissions,

     10 from the Associations of the faithful;

10 appointed by the Bishop.

The members were divided into 7 groups responsible for organizing the study of 7 themes:

(1) formation and ministries of the faithful

(2) youth pastoral

(3) social awareness

(4) missions ad gentes

(5) marriage and family

(6) education and culture

(7) training of vocations and ongoing training of diocesan priests.

     The method of the synodal process was the one started by the JOC Movement (Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne) and then adopted by many Catholic organizations: see, judge, act.

     This diocesan Synod reached very wise resolutions, so that I, who succeeded Cardinal Wu as Bishop of Hong Kong, only had to follow them, without needing to have my own plans in my episcopal service (I hope the volume of the Synod Proceedings is still available) .

     I was saying that the Diocese did a very good job in the first preparatory phase of the Synod, but it did not study the exact meaning of the word “synodality”. By focusing the study on the generic sense of “walking together”, no reference was made to the word “synod”, but Synod or Synods are a historical reality. The adjective “synodal” and the abstract noun “synodality” come from the word “synod”.

     Walk together? Yes, but in the Church who walks together with whom? What is the goal of this journey? Is there a guide that ensures the right direction?

     Precisely to answer these questions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had commissioned its International Theological Commission to draw up a document entitled: “Synodality in the life and mission of the Church“. The Commission worked between 2014 and 2017; the text was approved by the Prefect of the Congregation and published on 2 May 2018 with the approval of Pope Francis.

     This document is obviously listed among the documents that concern the theme of this Synod. But, strangely, the Synod Secretariat makes little reference to it.

     Reading the aforementioned document and the voluminous first introductory document of the Secretariat of the Synod, I cannot dispel the perception that we are faced with two opposing visions of ecclesiology. On the one hand, the Church is presented as founded by Jesus on the Apostles and their Successors, with a Hierarchy of ordained ministers who guide the faithful on the journey towards the heavenly Jerusalem. On the other hand, there is talk of an undefined synodality, a “democracy of the baptized” (Which baptized people? Do they at least go to church regularly? Do they draw faith from the Bible and strength from the Sacraments?)

     This other vision, if legitimized, can change everything, the doctrine of faith and the discipline of moral life.

     Someone will cry: “conspiracy theory!”.

     They say there is no agenda, but this offends our intelligence, how can we forget that Note in Amoris Laetitia after the two Synods on the family? And that resolution on the “viri probati“, even if it was not included in the Post-Synodal Exhortation of the Amazon?

     How can we not worry when we look at the “synodal path” in Germany. A group of lay faithful, self-proclaimed representative of the Catholic people, together with a majority, but less than 2/3 of the bishops, almost smugly mention “sex abuses”, blaming them on clericalism; from there they conclude that there is a serious problem in the structure of the Church, which would require its complete overhaul (overturning the pyramid?) and the sexual ethics of the Church need to be updated to the modern culture. This synodal path has not yet been decisively repudiated. Let’s remember also the movement which exploded in Holland in the aftermath of Vatican II (with the new Dutch Catechism) which led the Church of that country to languish today as if moribund?

     It does not seem out of place to mention the case of the Anglican Community. The poor Archbishop of Canterbury has received a warning from the Archbishops of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAF, which includes 85% of the world Anglican Community), to repent of having legitimized homosexual unions, otherwise they will no longer recognize his position as an authority.

     In the voluminous document of the Secretariat, perhaps not everyone has noticed that terrible but gratuitous statement that the most feared obstacle to synodality is clericalism. Clericalism is often tendentiously considered as the main cause of sexual abuse, while it is obvious that the sexual revolution has also entered in the Church and even in seminaries.

     And that long list of problems that only synodality would be able to help us address, is it there simply as an inventory? Reading it, I mischievously suspected that what the drafters of the document were interested in was what was mentioned at the bottom of the list, that is, minorities with particular sexual tendencies who would be discriminated against, despised and cruelly marginalized by the Church. (Thus the acronym LGBTQ entered for the first time, solemnly, in a Church document!)

     Concluding what has been said so far about the first preparatory phase of the Synod, I think that for the promoters of the Synod this first phase was a great failure. From this phase, apparently, they wanted to gather an abundance of experiential facts as a foundation for all subsequent construction of the edifice of synodality.

     But, first of all, many, as well as our people in Hong Kong, did not even understand what the promoters wanted. Moreover, the quantitative participation of the faithful was also discouraging. Reliable statistics say that it barely reached 1%, which is understandable, if we think of the insufficient time given for the consultation and of the difficulties created by Covid-19. Promoters tried to put a good face on bad luck, saying that there had been an enthusiastic response from all sides.

     The second phase arrives, the continental one. Finally, promoters have more ability to direct the operation. The Secretary General and the Cardinal Relator, together with some “facilitators”, went in person to 6 of the 7 continental meetings to lead the consultation.

     For Asia, the FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, which also includes the Dioceses of Hong Kong and Macau which do not belong to any Episcopal Conference) was obviously representative. The people summoned were those who had animated the work of the first phase, but who were now well guided towards particular themes of dialogue and with a particular method.

     The emphasis is still on sharing experiences, listening to the experiences of people who have no voice in the Church (the absent, symbol an empty chair at the table around which in small groups painful experiences of people excluded from the community are told). These experiences obviously arouse emotions, feelings of compassion. These are especially experiences of minorities with particular sexual tendencies and with situations of irregular “marriages”, for which they are not accepted, that is, are excluded, while the Church should welcome everyone (todos! todos! todos!)

     The peculiar method used is the so-called “conversation in the Spirit”. We pray and then everyone shares their experience, everyone listens. We pray again and talk again, but integrating what everyone had heard. Then we pray again and check points of convergence and points of divergence. Conversation, not discussion!

     But without adequate debate, how will the problems be resolved? There are problems, so we need to debate. Obviously the discussion must be based on the Word of God and the Sacred Tradition of the Church. The Holy Spirit will guide the discussion to consensus conclusions as in the Second Vatican Council. The prayers must have been accumulated already before the meetings; in the meetings, the Spirit is there to guide everyone in the discussion.

     Father Tony Lusvardi, a Canadian Jesuit, professor at the Gregorian University, says that the method of “conversation in the Spirit” does not come from St. Ignatius, but from the Canadian Jesuits. This method is not used for discernment, but to pacify the spirits before discernment, so that we do not immediately start arguing with excited souls, but by opening ourselves to the inspirations of Heaven. Moreover, he says, one cannot discern things that are already certain (if an action is already evidently sinful, one cannot discern whether one can commit it or not). Among the Jesuits, after all, the Superiors command and the subjects obey perinde ac cadaver (“as if they were corpses”).

     Imposing this method on the Synod proceedings is a manipulation aiming at avoiding discussions. It is all psychology and sociology, no faith and no theology.

     Since several things mentioned were controversial, a beginning of discussion was still able to emerge in the little time left for dialogue in the Assembly with the few minutes given to anyone who wanted to speak.

     The Final Report on this phase of participation made by the FABC, rather than responding to the issues which interested the facilitators, draws heavily on the results of the recent General FABC Conference on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of foundation of the FABC. This General Conference was a true general mobilization. It carefully reflected on the needs present in the Church in Asia. The time coincided exactly with the beginning of the Synod process.

     It seems that even this second, continental phase, still preparatory to the Synod itself, must not have satisfied the promoters of the Synod. But from the synthesis they made of it, in the Instrumentum laboris for the actual Synod, we at least finally have the clear perception that the problems posed for discernment are the structures of the Church and the problems of sexual ethics.

     The third, global, phase, with those two big problems facing it, was supposed to be the real Synod that had to provide the solution to these problems. I hoped that they would return to the procedure tested by many past Synods, that is, to start with the Assemblies, where everyone hears everyone and the status quaestionis can emerge clearly; then to proceed to the laborious discussion (but without the help of the facilitators); then to conclude with the linguistic circuli minores, where concise deliberations are thrashed out to be offered to the Holy Father, in a confidential manner, as advice from his brothers in the episcopate.

     It was my great disappointment when I saw that this phase had begun with the same method as the continental one, a method that does not favour the solution of problems. Foreseeing this eventuality, I had, as you know, attempted to incite some Synod Fathers (Cardinals and Bishops) to insist on the procedure, but in vain, they are gentlemen and reluctant to any gesture of opposition.

     There was also a very severe warning regarding secrecy (almost pontifical) to avoid, they say, a lot of media chatter. There was, yes, a daily meeting with journalists, but only the “good guys”, chosen by the facilitators, spoke to the journalists. To avoid media chatter, the faithful were kept in the dark about a Synod that was intended to be a model of synodality.

     Among the members of the Synod with the right to vote, in addition to the bishops elected representatives of the Episcopal Conferences, there were also a large number of bishops appointed by the Pope, evidently with the aim of “balancing the two sides”, then there were religious men and women, while in the original system there were also the elected representatives of Major Superiors of clerical male congregations, who, similarly to bishops, have a considerable number of ordained ministers under their jurisdiction.

     But there is something more serious: a large number of lay people, men and women, participate in the Synod with the right to vote (while previously there had also been religious and lay people, but as experts and observers, without the right to vote); this means that this is no longer a Synod of Bishops (just as a bottle of wine to which a lot of water has been added is no longer what it should be).

     Someone said that we had forgotten synodality, while the Orientals had always maintained it. But this is a big misconception. About this His Excellency Monsignor Manuel Nin Güell, O.S.B., apostolic exarch for the Catholics of the Byzantine rite in Greece, says that for the Orientals the Synod is always exclusively of the bishops; the word “Synod” is not used to mean the walking together of all the People of God, but is used to mean that the bishops are walking together with Our Lord Jesus Christ (we must know that the Patriarchs in the Eastern Churches are not the equivalent of our Roman Pontiff, since, for every important decision, they must have the consent of the Synod of Bishops).

     The Pope can convene any kind of assembly to give him the advice he wants. But in the Synods of Bishops only Bishops vote. Calling the recent hybrid assembly the First Session of the Synod of Bishops involves a serious misnomer.

     Matter of serious concern is the fact that in the Pontifical Yearbook (Annuario Pontificio) the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops is re-named the Secretariat of the Synod. Which Synod? An Ecumenical Council is also a Synod. There is also a diocesan Synod. From now on, will there also be this hybrid consultation assembly with the name of Synod? Meanwhile, the true Synod of Bishops has been eliminated, the one established by Pope Paul VI at the conclusion of Vatican II as an instrument of collegiality, that is, as a body through which the Pope receives advice from his brother bishops in the Episcopate!

     At the end of this session there were no deliberations. A second session had already been scheduled. Then the first session must not be understood as a proper Synod, but only as a further preparation for the Second Session which alone can properly be called the Synod of Bishops, which will conclude with resolutions voted only by the Bishops.

     The lay people already present at the “first session” may also be welcome at this true Synod, but as observers and experts, and will not vote together with the bishops. They will also be able to make interventions in the discussion, but at the invitation of the Presidency, perhaps upon prior request; it is obvious that the President Delegates must all be bishops.

     What I have pointed out so far can be considered a problem of mere confusion of terms, but it is a dangerous confusion. It is convenient to call everything with its proper name, and this will also clarify the task during this year of intermission for all of us in the Church.

     We can and must all take an interest in the coming Synod, that is, the Synod of October 2024 by organizing study sessions on the problems that the previous phases have brought to the table; study that must be done with the help of everyone (priests, men and women religious, competent lay people), indeed, with the assiduous presence of the Bishop; study accompanied by a supplement of experiences of concrete facts, so that our Bishops can bring to the Synod the smell of their sheep (only they are able to bring to the Synod the true situation of their Church, the Pope cannot get the smell of all his sheep in the world, especially if these are in the periphery…)

     But above all in this year there is a need for a study that will help true discussion at the level of faith; knowledge of the Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) of Vatican II and of the aforementioned document on synodality of the International Theological Commission will be of utmost importance.

     There would also be a document from the International Theological Commission (“Sensus fidei in the Life of the Church”, 2014), which explains the true meaning of the sensus fidelium.

     Before Christmas, December 18, 2023, came the Declaration “Fiducia supplicans” from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which justifies blessing of homosexual couples in certain circumstances. The signatory is the Prefect of the Dicastery, with the signed consent of the Holy Father. It was first a surprise and then a great confusion follows. A Press Release, of January 4, 2024, looked like half a-retraction of the previous Declaration.

     Surprise, first of all. Before the start of the Synod, we five Cardinals had asked Pope Francis five questions or Dubia, to which we hoped to have a clear answer, thus saving discussion time at the Synod. Within 24 hours, with incredible speed, a long answer came. The author could not be the Holy Father himself, but had to come from the arsenal of the Secretariat of the Synod prepared to counter contrary opinions. The Declaration Fiducia supplicans On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings merely develops that already long response to the Dubia.

     A most unpleasant surprise. Since the problem had already come to the table, it was more than reasonable to wait for the next Session of the Synod, after serious discussion, to provide a solution. Pre-empting such a discussion is an act of incredible arrogance and disrespect for the Synod Fathers.

     Despite the repeated protestation in the Declaration that confusion must be absolutely avoided in such matters, the Declaration has inevitably caused great confusion, and threatens a serious division never before seen in the Church.

     At the end of this long disquisition of mine, all I can do is wish “Good work!” to everyone and may the Lord bless us!

     Your brother,

     Card. Joseph Zen

15 February 2024  Day after “the ashes”


P.S. The first reading of the Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time that we have recently celebrated is from the book of Deuteronomy, the last two sentences sound a severe warning to all of us: “If anyone does not listen to the words that [the prophet] will say in my name , I will ask him to account. But the prophet who presumes to say anything in my name that I have not commanded him to say, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die” (Deut 18:19-20 ).

I am consoled by seeing that the beautiful prayer “Sub tuum praesidium” was sung during the Synod. I hope that many will learn it (even by heart) and that it will accompany us throughout the time that we will dutifully spend working for the true success of the current Synod.


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