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‘For A Synodal Church’: The Working Document for the Continental Stage

Giacomo Costa, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Jan 12th 2023

‘For A Synodal Church’: The Working Document for the Continental Stage
A year after opening in October 2021, the Synod “For a Synodal Church: communion, participation, mission” has taken a decisive step forward. Indeed, it has even expanded. At the Angelus on Sunday, October 16, Pope Francis announced that the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will take place in two phases: to the session already scheduled for October 2023 a second one will be added for October 2024.[1]

“This decision,” explains the General Secretariat of the Synod, “stems from the desire that, because of its breadth and importance, the theme of the Synodal Church should be the subject of prolonged discernment, not only by the members of the Synodal Assembly, but by the whole Church. […] Therefore, the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will also assume a dimension of process, taking the form of ‘a journey within a journey,’ with the aim of fostering a more mature reflection for the greater good of the Church.”[2]

The Church is already moving toward those dates, and the journey has entered its Continental Stage, a novelty of the current Synod.[3] In fact, on October 27, 2022, the Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) was officially presented. Its title – “Enlarge the space of your tent” – takes up an expression from the book of Isaiah (54:2) as its symbolic reference. These pages are dedicated to the presentation of that document.[4]

A great love for the Church

The DCS gathers the fruits of the first year of the synodal journey that took place throughout the world and relaunches them, with the aim of facilitating a dialogue between the local Churches.[5] For this reason, as we shall see, it is interwoven with quotations from their materials. Thus, even before considering perspectives on specific problems and questions, account is taken  of the emotional tone of the People of God on their way along the synodal path. In words that come from Zimbabwe: “Largely, what emerges from the fruits, seeds and weeds of synodality are voices that have great love for the Church, voices that dream of a Church of credible witnesses, a Church that is the inclusive, open and welcoming Family of God” (No. 16).

The first sign of this love is the joy and enthusiasm of those who have allowed themselves to be involved: globally, millions have participated, attending meetings, accompanying the process with prayer, and working to animate and coordinate it. Together they addressed the basic question that moves and guides the entire synodal journey, expressed as follows in the Preparatory Document (PD), published on September 7, 2021: “How does this ‘journeying together,’ which takes place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?” (PD 2).

The fruits of this work, often carried out at the level of individual parishes, were sent to the diocesan synodal teams, which synthesized them and transmitted them to the episcopal conferences. In turn, these drew up a synthesis on the basis of the outline contained in the PD and sent it to the General Secretariat of the Synod. These syntheses reflect the work done “at the base” of the ecclesial structure. At the same time they were officially approved, in different ways, by the individual episcopal conferences.

The response exceeded the most optimistic expectations; contributions arrived in Rome from local Churches in every corner of the world, including those experiencing persecution and war. Difficulties did not discourage them, indeed they decided to make their own voices heard. Even compared to the experience of the previous Synods, the numbers are astounding: “In all, the Synod Secretariat received contributions from 112 out of 114 Episcopal Conferences and from all the 15 Oriental Catholic Churches, plus reflections from 17 out of 23 dicasteries of the Roman Curia besides those from religious superiors (USG/UISG), from institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, and from associations and lay movements of the faithful. In addition, over a thousand contributions arrived from individuals and groups as well as insights gathered through social media, thanks to the initiative of the ‘Digital Synod’.” (No. 5).

The DCS was elaborated from these materials – a total of almost 2,000 pages – thanks to the work of a group of experts (bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, lay men and women, from all continents). After reading them, they met for almost two weeks, in an atmosphere of prayer and discernment, “together with the writing group, composed of the General Relator, the Secretary General of the Synod, the Undersecretaries and various officials of the Synod Secretariat, plus members of the Coordinating Committee. Finally, this group was joined by the members of the General Council” (ibid.).

The DCS gives voice to the joy produced by the meetings in which, starting from the Word of God, people discussed the future of the Church, and records the emotion of many who say that it was the first time the Church had asked their opinion. This enthusiasm does not translate into naive and uncritical optimism. The DCS is well aware of the difficulties encountered: “Some are related to the coincidence of the consultative phase with the pandemic; others stem from the difficulty of understanding what synodality means, the need for a greater effort to translate and enculturate the materials, the failure to organize synodal gatherings in some local contexts, or resistance to the basic proposal” (No. 18).

There are also doubts about the real intentions and effectiveness of the process, fears about the risk that synodality will lead to the government by majority principle, in imitation of democratic principles, and also signs of separation between the clergy and the rest of the People of God, with resistance to involvement on the part of some  priests and difficulties in articulating the role of pastors within the synodal dynamic. In many countries, also, the synodal path has to reckon with the consequences of the “scandal of abuse by members of the clergy or by people holding ecclesial office […]. This is an open wound that continues to inflict pain on victims and survivors, on their families and on their communities” (No. 20), as well as seriously undermining the credibility of the Church.

Serving the Continental Stage

To become aware of the richness of the gifts that God has bestowed on his people during the first year of the synodal process is of great importance, but it is not the main purpose of the DCS, which is rather oriented to the future, and in particular to the continuation of the listening phase through the unfolding of the Continental Stage of the Synod, at the service of whose dynamic it is placed.

In particular, after its publication, the DCS was sent to all the bishops of the world, who are invited to organize in their dioceses an ecclesial process of discernment. They are to identify, starting from the perspective of each local Church, which intuitions resonate as the most promising, new or enlightening, and which are the emerging tensions and questions, so as to formulate “priorities, recurring themes and calls to action that can be shared with the other local Churches around the world and discussed during the First Session of the Synodal Assembly in October 2023” (No. 106).

The reflections of the dioceses will flow back to the episcopal conferences, which will synthesize them to prepare their own contribution to the Continental Assembly in which they will participate. In the first quarter of 2023 seven are planned: Middle East, which will see in particular the contribution of the Eastern Catholic Churches; Africa and Madagascar; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and the Caribbean; North America; and Europe. The Continental Assemblies will be ecclesial and not only episcopal. Their composition will reflect the variety of the People of God, involving  the presence of bishops, presbyters, deacons, men and women religious, lay men and women. “With respect to the participants in the Continental Assemblies, it is important to pay special attention to the presence of women and young people (laymen and laywomen, consecrated men and women in formation, seminarians); people living in conditions of poverty or marginalization, and those who have direct contact with these groups and persons; fraternal  delegates from other Christian denominations; representatives of other religions and faith traditions, and some people with no religious affiliation” (No. 108). Within them the bishops are called to meet in order to re-read the experience from the point of view of their charism and role and “carry out their task of validating and approving the Final Document, ensuring that it is the fruit of an authentically synodal journey, respectful of the process that has taken place and faithful to the diverse voices of the People of God in each continent” (ibid). The Final Documents of the seven Continental Assemblies will be the basis for the drafting of the Instrumentum laboris, in view of the Synodal Assembly of October 2023.

This dynamic of the Continental Stage involves the pursuit of two equally important objectives. On the one hand, it operates as a recall of what has been heard during the first year to the ecclesial communities who have spoken up and that can thus verify if they have been understood. On the other hand, it facilitates a dialogue between the local Churches, making it possible to create an experience of synodality at a continental level, hitherto substantially unexplored, apart from some regions marked by precise specificities. As the DCS explains, in the “context of a world that is both globalized and fragmented, each continent, because of its common historical roots, its tendency toward socio-cultural commonality and the fact that it presents the same challenges for the mission of evangelization, constitutes a privileged sphere for stirring up a synodal dynamic that strengthens links between the Churches, encourages the sharing of experiences and the exchange of gifts, and helps to imagine new pastoral options” (No. 73).

The structure of the Document for the Continental Stage

Consideration of the genesis and purpose of the DCS also makes it possible to clarify its nature: “it is not a conclusive document, because the process is far from being finished; it is not a document of the Church’s Magisterium, nor is it the report of a sociological survey; it does not offer the formulation of operational indications, goals and objectives, nor a full elaboration of a theological vision, even if it is theological in the sense that it is loaded with the exquisitely theological treasure contained in the experience of listening to the voice of the Spirit enacted by the People of God, allowing its sensus fidei to emerge. Rather, it is a document that is also theological in the sense that it is orientated to the service of the Church’s mission: to proclaim Christ who died and rose again for the salvation of the world” (No. 8).

In this light, its structure also makes sense. It is functional in formulating and making accessible a rereading of the experience of the first year on the basis of the outline provided to the episcopal conferences for the elaboration of their syntheses, and freely adapted by them. There is therefore an effort to tune in to the internal dynamism of the contributions received, rather than being limited to using them as sources of themes to be dealt with or quotations to be inserted into a different structure.

For this reason the DCS “opens with a chapter that offers more than a simple account of ‘what happened,’ presenting a narrative of the synodality experienced so far, with the consultation of the People of God in the local Churches and the discernment of the Pastors in the Episcopal Conferences” (No. 9).

It continues by offering, in the second chapter, a biblical image, that of the tent, recalled in the title and taken from chapter 54 of the book of Isaiah. This symbol is compatible with the many images of the Church present in the syntheses of the episcopal conferences, first and foremost the family and the home, and “represents a key to an interpretation of the contents within the DCS in the light of the Word, placing them in the arc of God’s promise that becomes a vocation for his People and his Church”(No. 10). In particular, it dwells on the articulation between the structural elements of the tent to which the prophet refers: “The first are the tent cloths, which protect from the sun, wind and rain, delineating a space of life and conviviality. They need to be spread out, so that they can also protect those who are still outside this space, but who feel called to enter it” (No. 26). Then there are the ropes, which hold the tent cloths together, but above all they must have the right tension to prevent the tent from collapsing and at the same time are able to absorb the forces to which it is subjected, especially the action of the wind. This metaphor recalls the need for continuous discernment. Finally, there are the stakes, which anchor the tent to the ground, but remain movable. They represent “the fundamentals of faith that do not change but can be moved and planted in ever new ground, so that the tent can accompany the people as they walk through history” (No. 27).

The third chapter takes up the image of the tent as “a space of communion, a place of participation and a basis for mission” (No. 11), and on this it articulates the fruits of listening to the People of God with the key words of the title of the Synod: “communion,” “participation” and “mission.” From these, five generative hinges emerge, around which it is possible to gather the many dynamic tensions that emerged during the process, to which we will return shortly in more details.

Finally, the fourth chapter casts a glance at the future of the synodal process, composing two equally indispensable time horizons. “The first is the long-term horizon, in which synodality takes the form of a perennial call to personal conversion and reform of the Church. The second, clearly at the service of the first, is the one that focuses our attention on the events of the Continental Stage that we are experiencing” (No. 98).

Five generative pivotal hinges

The discernment carried out on the materials received by the General Secretariat of the Synod revealed five pivotal points, around which a wide range of tensions, at times evident and at times latent, are woven. On the one hand, these can represent sources of energy for the continuation of the synodal process, and on the other hand they allow us to glimpse some crucial areas in which to continue the work.

For this reason, it is necessary to continue to come to terms with “two of the main spiritual temptations facing the Church in responding to diversity and the tensions it generates. The first is to remain trapped in conflict, such that our horizons shrink and we lose our sense of the whole, and fracture into sub-identities. It is the experience of Babel and not Pentecost, well recognizable in many features of our world. The second is to become spiritually detached and lose interest in the tensions involved, continuing to go our own way without involving ourselves with those close to us on the journey” (No. 30). The five hinges are a tool in this direction, because they allow us to articulate the tensions, going beyond the simple listing of problems, and help us focus on the connections.

The first hinge, which emerges strongly from the syntheses received, is “listening as openness to welcome. This starts from a desire for radical inclusion – no one is excluded! – to be understood in a perspective of communion with sisters and brothers and with our common Father. Listening appears here not as an instrumental action, but as the assumption of the basic attitude of a God who listens to his People, as the following of a Lord whom the Gospels constantly present to us in the act of listening to the people who come to him along the roads of the Holy Land; in this sense listening is already mission and proclamation!” (No. 11). This urge to inclusion translates Isaiah’s invitation to “enlarge the tent” and is directed toward a wide range of people and groups who for the most diverse reasons live a condition that the DCS describes through the biblical category of exile, “an exile, the consequences of which affect the entire People of God: if the Church is not synodal, no one can really feel fully at home” (No. 24).

There is room here for attention to “women and young people who do not feel their gifts and abilities are recognized” (No. 38), to “many members of the clergy who do not feel listened to, supported and appreciated” (No. 34), as well as to “those who for various reasons feel a tension between belonging to the Church and their own affective relationships, such as, for example: remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, and LGBTQ people” (No. 39). The request to be welcoming profoundly concerns Christian communities, but uncertainties emerge about how to respond to it: a deeper discernment on the part of the whole Church is needed. In any case, listening clearly constitutes an urgent matter to which we must commit ourselves immediately, without waiting for the conclusion of the synodal process.

The second hinge is constituted by the outgoing thrust toward mission, to be implemented by recomposing in an original way two tensions that have always accompanied the action of the Church: that between the proclamation of the kerygma and dialogue with the world, as well as that between the proclamation of the faith and the service of integral human development. These are structural tensions, which cannot be resolved, nor become the basis for dividing into factions. This thrust to mission is expressed in the language of Laudato Si’ (“The People of God express a deep desire to listen to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth”, No. 45) and of Fratelli Tutti, and therefore with particular attention to interreligious and intercultural dialogue: “Synodality is a call from God to walk together with the whole human family. In many places, Christians live in the midst of people of other faiths or non-believers and are engaged in a dialogue formed in the exchanges of everyday life and common living” (No. 43). But above all it puts ecumenism back at the center: “Many reports emphasize that there is no complete synodality without unity among Christians” (No. 48). On the subject of dialogue with religions and cultures, the DCS does not fail to underline some problematic points, such as a culture increasingly marked by secularization, individualism and consumerism, and above all recalls how there are contexts in which “witness to the faith is lived to the point of martyrdom” (No. 52), which very often unites Christians of all confessions.

The third hinge is that of the style which a synodal Church is called to assume, “based on participation, which corresponds to the full assumption of co-responsibility by all the baptized for the one mission of the Church deriving from their common baptismal dignity” (No. 11). The reconfiguration of mission brings us out of the dualism ad intra/ad extra, which various contributions invite us to overcome, and allows us to refocus the whole life of the Church around the missionary responsibility of everyone. This is a key element for a correct understanding of synodality, which is not an organizational expedient for the division of roles and powers, but  goes beyond the perspective of the breaking up of the pyramid, through a reconversion of the field of vision. Vocations, charisms and ministries – including ordained ministry – are to be understood from the logic of mission, not from the organizational dynamics within the ecclesial community, which are an instrument of mission. For example, the DCS points out “the importance of ridding the Church of clericalism, so that all its members, both priests and laity, can fulfill the common mission” (No. 58). In this light, there is also the question of lay ministries and especially the place of women within the Church, also with respect to participation in decision-making processes and access to the structures of governance: “From all continents comes an appeal for Catholic women to be valued first of all as baptized and equal members of the People of God” (No. 61).

In order to build  possibilities of living communion, participation and mission – this is the fourth hinge – “the Church needs to give a synodal form and way of proceeding to its own institutions and structures, in particular those of governance” (No. 71), also foreseeing opportune innovations in canon law. The path followed so far has already made it possible to identify some structural nuclei of great relevance, on which to continue working: from the “harmony between the ordinary ways of exercising the episcopal ministry and the assumption of a fully synodal style” (No. 76) to the distinction between ecclesial synodality and episcopal collegiality, to the revitalization of participatory bodies so that they can be authentic places of community discernment. However, “structures alone are not enough; there is a need for ongoing formation work that supports a widespread synodal culture” (No. 82). Finally, this “new vision will need to be supported by a spirituality that will sustain the practice of synodality, avoiding reducing this reality to technical-organizational issues, but living this path of common mission together as an occasion of encounter with the Lord and listening to the Spirit. For there to be synodality, the presence of the Spirit is necessary, and there is no Spirit without prayer” (No. 72). In particular, the method of spiritual conversation, which many identify as a key factor in the fruitfulness of the first year of the synodal process, must become “ordinary practice in the life of the Church, as is demanded by many, [and …] evolve … toward community discernment” (No. 86), which, moreover, represents its authentic horizon of meaning.

Finally, the fifth hinge – last, because most fundamental – is constituted by “the liturgy, especially the Eucharistic liturgy, the source and summit of Christian life, which brings the community together, making communion tangible, enables the exercise of participation, and nourishes the momentum toward mission with the Word and the Sacraments” (No. 11). It is in the liturgy that the three key words of the synodal process find their full synthesis, not only in the understanding, but in the profound experience of the Christian community.

The Eucharistic celebration is the engine of apostolic dynamism and the place of formation of a missionary synodal community. This is why it is so fundamental to “strongly encourage the implementation of a synodal style of liturgical celebration that allows for the active participation of all the faithful in welcoming all differences, valuing all ministries, and recognizing all charisms” (No. 91). In this regard, the DCS does not fail to highlight some limitations and obstacles: from an excess of the celebrant’s enthusiasm to the passivity of the faithful; from the quality of homilies almost unanimously reported as problematic to the relationship with the preconciliar rites; from the forms of sacramental deprivation suffered by communities living in very remote areas or resulting from the “use of tariffs for access to celebrations, which discriminates against the poorest” (No. 94), to the pain of those who cannot access the sacraments in relation to the discipline of marriage. At the same time the DCS stresses that “the synodal process represented an opportunity to experience anew the diversity in forms of prayer and celebration, increasing the desire to make it more accessible in the ordinary life of communities” (No. 95) and values the “variety of ritual traditions of liturgical prayer, as well as the symbolic forms with which different cultures express themselves” (No. 97).

Many voices to build harmony

Outlining the horizon of personal conversion of believers and of reform, the DCS states: “The reports do not call for uniformity, but ask that we learn to grow in a sincere harmony that helps the baptized fulfill their mission in the world, creating the bonds necessary to walk together joyfully” (No. 102). It thus expresses the direction in which the People of God intend to continue the journey, but it also recounts what has been experienced during the first year of the synodal process.

Many voices have spoken, some for the first time. But, after all, this multiplicity is nothing new, and sometimes it has generated polarization within the community. The synodal process, through the method it uses, presents itself as the experiment of a way to begin to articulate the pluralism of voices, without standardizing them, but fostering encounter and dialogue.

In particular, through the dynamism of taking the floor, listening and giving back what has been heard, in which the DCS is also placed, the method on which the synodal process is based tries to build mediations – which are inevitable when working on a global scale – that escape the risk of becoming imprisoned in particularisms and idiosyncrasies, recognizing a role for everyone while respecting the differences within the ecclesial structure: the process is not acephalous or anarchic, without becoming top-down or pyramidal in structure.

It was first of all an attempt, the limits of which are evident, and so above all are the margins of possible improvement, in which to invest right from the start. But it has worked, at least for those who have chosen to throw themselves into it and let themselves be involved: “synodality has ceased to be an abstract concept for them and has become a concrete experience; they have tasted its flavor and want to continue to do so. ‘Through this process we have discovered that synodality is a way of being Church – in fact, it is the way of being Church’.” (No. 3).

The Synod continues, with the planned stages, but, beyond these, above all, the search for ways to be an ever more synodal Church continues. To all God’s people we wish a good Synod, that is, a good “journey together”!

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.12 art. 1, 1222: 10.32009/22072446.1222.1

[1].      New dates for the Synod on Synodality. Communiqué from the General Secretariat of the Synod, October 16, 2022, at

[2].      Ibid.

[3].      For more information on the stages that mark the process of Synod 2021-2024, we refer to the official website

[4].      References are made to the numbering of the paragraphs (the numbers indicated in brackets in the text of the article) and not of the pages. The original languages were together Italian and English, and it can be downloaded free of charge also in various other languages from the Synod website:

[5].      Reference is made here only to the path of the Universal Synod 2021-2024 and not to the “Synodal Path of the Churches in Italy”, articulated in three phases from 2021 to 2025, which in any case is intertwined with the first one. In this regard, see the website

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