Pope promotes “safe space” for Synod participants

by Bishop Shane Mackinlay

Later this week, I will be one of 15 Australians and hundreds of people from around the world heading to Rome for the first assembly of what has become known as the “Synod on Synodality”.

Next month’s assembly, and another to follow in October 2024, are the continuation of what has been dubbed “the world’s largest ever consultation”. When you consider that almost 120 bishops conferences from every part of the world gathered the thoughts of the People of God in their dioceses, that claim makes sense.

This consultation has also been marked by an openness and transparency that hasn’t always been characteristic of Vatican processes. It is part of a wider awareness across the Church internationally of how much we can learn from good practices in other parts of society.

Much like the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia, the Synod’s process reflects a conviction that by sharing the fruits of the community’s prayer, conversation and discernment, we can build a shared spiritual and emotional investment in what is being discussed, as well as having new opportunities to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.

As the Synod on Synodality prepares to open on October 4, there has been some discussion about how the openness and transparency that has been evident over the past three years might continue over the next few weeks.

This is similar to issues that we grappled with during the Plenary Council journey.

After more than 220,000 people had shared their joys and their hopes, their griefs and their anxieties, we wanted to invite those people to continue their journey with the 275 members who would participate and vote in the Council’s two assemblies.

At the same time, we wanted to create a protected space for Council members to engage in prayerful and deeply personal conversations, while still sharing the fruits of that discernment with the Australian people.

It wasn’t an easy balance to find, but daily updates through stories, photos and videos sought to capture the essence of the discussions and the spirit – and indeed the Spirit – that was present in those conversations.

Council members were able to share their own experiences and their own views on the important topics that were on the agenda as they chose, but with an understanding that the views of others were theirs alone to share (or not).

At this stage, it appears that during next month’s assembly of the Synod on Synodality, the priority will be on ensuring that the confidentiality of the “conversations in the Spirit” is protected, so that there can be a free exchange of people’s thoughts across the questions we will be praying with and reflecting upon.

Pope Francis, when asked recently about the upcoming assembly, said “There is one thing that we must safeguard, the synodal atmosphere. This is not a television show where you talk about everything. No. There is a religious moment; there is a moment of religious exchange.”

We know that our faith is one of the most deeply personal parts of our being. Sharing our innermost thoughts on such matters can be hard, and it is certainly important that any vulnerability in those moments is respected.

It is in this context that Pope Francis and his collaborators are seeking to create a “safe space” for Synod participants during the assembly.

Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, explained it this way: “Maintaining the confidentiality, the privacy, and, I would say, the sacredness of certain places for conversation in the Spirit, is part and parcel of the desire to make these moments a true opportunity for listening, discernment and prayer rooted in communion.”

To that end, some aspects of the Synod will be livestreamed and it’s expected there will be regular updates on the discussions that are taking place.

As the Holy Father has reminded us, “the Synod is not a parliament”, and so the proceedings of the Synod will not be captured like the debate in Parliament. However, it is expected that a synthesis report on the first assembly will be published to guide ongoing discernment by the whole People of God in preparation for the second assembly next October.

With that in mind, we see the rationale for Pope Francis’ desire to safeguard the prayerful exchange of ideas during the assembly, while still promoting the participation of the whole People of God in the broader synod process. As we Australian participants travel to Rome, we ask you to accompany us in prayer and to stay connected to this ongoing journey of renewal in Jesus Christ.

For our part, we will do what we can to share our reflections on our experiences as part of this global exercise in synodality, both during the assembly and after we return to Australia later in the year.

Bishop Shane Mackinlay was elected as one of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s representatives at the Synod on Synodality. He was also vice-president of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia.