Austen Ivereigh: The church has been changed

The biographer of Pope Francis participated in the Synod on synodality as a theologian expert. He explained why this assembly was exceptional and how to move forward in the synodal renewal.

– After the first session of the Synod on synodality, what impressions are in your heart?
– Most of us feel that something important has happened, grace has been operating, the Spirit has been active. We have the feeling that we are part of each other – in spite of our differences, which is a sign of the Spirit. The conclusion of the assembly, with the marathon of the 35-hour-long reading of the final document followed by the voting was incredible – the numbers of the votes in favour were very striking, over 95 per cent, on every paragraph of the document.The only exceptions were the two paragraphs on women deacons, but neither of those was close to being opposed by a third. This shows that there was far more unity we hoped for. Something has changed during the session. The assembly ended with a spirit of openness. I think there’s a feeling that “we did it”. What actually happened is harder to explain, because if you look at what has been decided, everything is expressed in terms of proposals: commissions to look at this, we need to explore that. But thinking about where we were at the beginning of October, when the global church assembled for the first time to have conversations in the Spirit at a universal level, which has never been possible before, it is quite remarkable that we ended the session like this. If we had ended with “okay, we all think differently”, if there had been no agreement on the document summarizing the assembly, we would have to say it had failed. But it’s clear that, in spite of our many, many cultural differences and the incredible diversity of perspectives on the faith, there is a consensus that we must act as a body to wrestle with these complex questions, and find common paths forward.

– So you’re not dissatisfied with the Synod.
– No, I am not, but the real work begins now, and of course, by next October, many of these issues will not have been resolved. The fact that we have committed ourselves to this journey together, we are committed to looking at these issues together from canonical, moral, theological, pastoral perspectives, as the decision has been made to deepen our understanding, shows that we are in a process of ecclesial discernment together, and I find this remarkable. The church has been changed by this and will be changed by this.

We have chosen a vehicle, that is a very different vehicle from what we used to have.

Austen Ivereigh (Photos of this article made by Balázs Gégény)

– Thanks to the media briefings I had the chance to follow the first session of the synod from a distance. I have realised, that one important fruit of the conversations is the recognition that Europe isn’t the centre of the church anymore, the Catholic church is more diverse and multipolar than many of us imagined. Do you think that respecting, or even celebrating this diversity will be a challenge?
– Yes. It’s easy to say that we should celebrate our diversity. The phrase can sound very nice. To choose to stay together and work together despite our differences is quite hard work, and it demands an existential displacement which was painful to some during the assembly. What I mean is, we had a format and a method. This was the first time we had had a Synod of Bishops which had 25% of non-bishops and a few of the bishops found it hard to accept that. Some of them questioned the authority of the synod. We had moments of tension, which shows how hard work it has been. This was also a Synod at which the global church asserted itself over the western church. Participants from Africa or from the Middle East were saying: your priorities are not my priorities; your churches are empty, ours are full; you have hardly anybody trying for priesthood, our seminaries are full; you use ‘LGBT’, that’s not our term – it’s a western, liberal, ideological term. These are difficult things to hear! Sometimes, you know, voices like this come with a certain arrogance. And the fact that LGBT is missing in the final document is a sign of that. It was in many continental documents, it was in the Instrumentum Laboris, but it got taken out in the revision of the synod synthesis. But this reflects what happened. In many ways, we didn’t begin a conversation on this issue because we couldn’t start having a conversation on it since we’re not ready for it; for some parts of the Church, even the term ‘LGBT’ is hard to use. You might say, ‘okay, there’s a failure there’, but I don’t consider as a failure since we have never had this kind of conversation, on this level, as a global church. It’s vital that everyone can say what they think and we are honest about our differences. Only then can we begin to come together. While on some issues, like the women’s issue, we worked hard, and the documents show some important breakthroughs, such as on the diaconate question, on some other issues the conversation began but never really developed. So we were able to work together on many issues, but not all. This is the first of two stages. My point is, that it’s a success itself that we were able to begin an honest conversation, and at the end, to agree to continue this conversation.

– Let’s speak about your participation. There were two groups of non-bishops at the Synod: the voting members and a group of theologian experts. What were you doing during this session?
– There were 364 members of the Synod, meaning they had a vote and they had the right to speak. They took part in the small groups discussion meetings. There was another category of the fraternal delegates, invitees from other churches. They were also in the small groups; they could speak but they didn’t have a vote. And there was the group, known as experts, about 80 people in total. Most of them were facilitators who sat in on the small groups, guiding the process, but weren’t formally part of them. Their job was to facilitate the process. Finally, there was a smaller group of 24 theologians such as myself. We didn’t sit with the members, we sat at our own tables, in the same room when a plenary session was being conducted. When they were working in small groups, we did our work. It was to read everything coming out of the assembly or from small groups and as well as individual contributions. We worked on a synthesis to assist the writing of the Synthesis report. So we were the ones who were standing back, observing the process, helping the groups of writers to compose the final synthesis document. The writing of the report was also overseen by a commission elected by the assembly.

– As a theologian, what’s your answer to those who doubted the validity of the Synod?
– The answer to this question was very clearly given by Cardinal Grech in the assembly, who referred to Episcopalis Communio of 2018, which makes clear, first of all, that the Synod is a consultative body, called by the Pope to give him advice, and the Pope is free to arrange the Synod how he wants. It also says, as long as 75% of the voting members are bishops, it is a synod of bishops. What happened here was that 25% of the members were non-bishops. They were priests, religious men and women, deacons, and lay men and women, most of them delegates of 7 continents. Their contributions mattered very much. They were listed as “witnesses to the synodal journey”. According to Cardinal Grech,

this Synod had actually a greater authority because it was rooted in the “sense of faith” of the People of God. So the authority of the bishops is actually strengthened by the “others” present at the Synod.

The final document says there are canonical questions to be answered about how – at the end of the process – our bishops will be able to exercise their hierarchical charism of authority. Some think, for example, that should be a vote of only bishops at the end of the process next year. But I think there was a consensus that the Synod was richer because of the presence of non-episcopal members. You got a variety of people fulfilling a variety of roles in the Church from around the globe.

– I also heard many bishops, cardinals said that this Synod was much better because it wasn’t just one big hall of bishops, with some of them talking at the front table, but it was a fruitful conversation thanks to the roundtables.
– It was really better. In the former system, under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, it worked like this: in the first week, everyone could speak for 10 minutes on whatever topic they wanted. Literally, about everything! It was chaotic. One bishop described it as like being on a transatlantic flight without movies. There wasn’t really any discussion. Under Francis, the synods have become more dynamic, but no doubt, moving the whole event into the audience hall with the roundtables was a great breakthrough. I don’t think anybody wants to go back to the earlier system now. People also loved the retreat at the beginning, it really helped them to enter prayerfully into the process. At the heart of the roundtables was the conversation in the Spirit method, whichwas also new to the synod of bishops: each member speaking for 4 minutes, no discussion, just listening. Then silence. Then a second round during which you, rather than debating, shared what resonated in your heart about what you had just heard. At the third stage they would try to reach agreement on where the group agreed, where they disagreed, and what further steps were necessary to clarify and take things forward. This method means having to listen deeply to other people but, unlike a parliamentary system, you don’t seek to convince others; it wasn’t an attempt at negotiation or persuasion. The idea was to listen deeply, and hear what the Spirit was saying to us. And it worked! When someone tried to persuade someone of their point of view, there was a negative reaction to that. It’s not about persuading others, it’s trying to find out what the Spirit is trying to say to the Church. It’s a collective search for the truth which has a very different dynamic. Many have said, “hey look, we’ve got something here that the world needs”. In this time of war and polarization we’ve found a method, actually a very old method dating back to the early church which allows consensus, but also allows divisions to be generative and fruitful instead of being polarizing. We don’t have to settle our differences by majority-minority votes, we can grow into a consensus, which is neither A, nor B, but something else, a different horizon. It was a learning process for everyone, and it was hard for some; people got impatient. But by the end, In think the view was: this works and this is how we should operate, as a Church, at every level.

– What do you suggest for local and national churches in which the clergy and the lay people seem to be far from each other?
– The Church is in a state of crisis in the western world, because the structures and mindset in many ways were set up in a way to defend ourselves from modernity, from hostile states and so onThese structures were made to survive and even thrive in modernity. But modernity is breaking down and the Church is not well equipped for the listening and dialogue that a postemodern society of seekers demands. It is no longer enough to say to people, “we have the answers, don’t worry we’ll tell you what to do and what to think” by the bishops and the pope. It just does not work anymore. The question arises: how do we proceed?

Patriarchalism, authoritarianism don’t work any longer. But nor does a parliament-like system at a time when democracy itself is breaking down. We rather need to recover the way given by Jesus to the Church. He said to the disciples: do not worry, the Spirit will lead you,

and that is what happened when the apostles all assembled at the Council of Jerusalem, 20 years after Pentecost. There was a breakthrough, a coming-together around a new horizon opened by the Spirit. But it required all to assemble, and all to be involved in the listening and discernment, and the authorities to decide only at the conclusion fo that listening and discernment. This is what synodality is, putting into practice what Lumen Gentium says about us being the People of God, by the virtue of our baptism, and about the Spirit being poured out on all of the baptized. We have to start to take this seriously in the structures and in the culture of the Church. That’s what this really is about, what the whole Synod on synodality is about. This assembly is an attempt to act like this at a global level, with the Synod of Bishops, making the participation of all important. It is the reason why we have a religious sister alongside a deacon or a layman or a bishop and a cardinal. We are all engaged in this together although we have different functions, different roles. However, we’re, first of all, the people of God, engaged in this collective discernment, listening to what the Spirit is saying to the Church..

– How can we use our time best between the two sessions of the synod?
– As Cardinal Grech said at the last briefing: we hope that the participants will now go back to their churches, with their feelings, transformations, testimonies from the Synod, to suggest having conversation in the Spirit at every level in the Church – diocesan level, pastoral councils, parishes. When people participate in the Church, they take responsibility, the Church can become missionary, evangelizing. The three go together: missionary, evangelizing and participating. Now we have a year, and if you look through the document, a lot has to happen this year. Realistically, I think, much of it isn’t going happen because we’re at the beginning of this journey. The trouble is that our local churches, whether in Hungary or in the UK or in America or in France, are not ready for this. We don’t have the proper mechanisms and culture at hand. No parish is going take this document and suddenly form groups to debate, I doubt it. It’s going be more difficult. But we can begin to open windows identified by the assembly, to create commissions, and come up with proposals, and bring those experiences to the next assembly.

– My last question is based on the title of your book, Let Us Dream. What could lay people do to achieve their dreams within the Church?
– I often tell this story when I’m asked about how all of this works in practice. In February ‘22 I gave a workshop in my parish on the conversation in the Spirit. People loved it, and said we need to use it in the parish. And then everyone went away and nothing happened. Some time passed, Putin invaded Ukraine, and my parish priest, the abbot of a monastery, asked what we should do. I proposed to call a synodal meeting. What makes it synodal, and not a business meeting, was that we didn’t ask, how do we help Ukrainians? The question was: what is the Holy Spirit asking us to do? We need to begin there, it’s a discernment question. So I advertised the day, and on the occasion, we had people coming to our parish, but not just from our church. Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists participated, too… They had no idea about the conversation in the Spirit method, so I had to teach them first. As a result, we were gathered in four different groups, made up of Catholics, Anglicans etc. all discussing what we are asking from the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the whole morning of discernment was the realisation: yes, we should open our houses to the refugees, but more importantly, that in the future we should work together as churches in the whole area, we should build unity among us. We realized that the main challenge for us was not having the material resources, but are we capable of working together? Do we have communion? It shows the essence of the synodal method: the Spirit would point at things you hadn’t expected. As the result, we did create a group, which is ecumenical, and at the moment various families are housing six families in the area.

I encourage you to always start with the question: what is the Holy Spirit asking of us at this time? The ‘us’ can be a parish, a school, it can be a diocese. First of all, you have to start facing the reality you’re living in.

Make sure you listen as widely as possible, listen to as many different people as you can. Have a consultation phase when you’re just listening. Later, have another phase when you’re discerning, using the conversation in the Spirit method so you’ll listen for what the Spirit is saying to you through all of this. It should be one or two things, don’t make a long list, find the most important issues. Finally, the last question is how to do it, how to move forward, but this really should be the last question, and only if there is consensus in the earlier ones. Any organization, any school, any institution, can do this. Begin with prayer, begin with the word of God, learn to listen, use the conversation in the Spirit method, be aware of the temptation to always have to have a debate and to turn into a business meeting. The church is not a corporation, is not an NGO. If you want a business meeting, go into business. If it’s the church, you do it in the church’s way, meaning: synodally. I believe we are all called to do that: it is only by practice you get to discover what it means. You’ll see its fruits. And we, who lived it in Rome, we know how hard work it is, sometimes painful and difficult, it requires commitment but its fruits are very, very great. It is transformative. Most people, when they do it, realise: this is how the church should be.

Written by István Gégény

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Austen Ivereigh’s new book, First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis is published by Messenger Press in February.