‘We don’t have an agenda,’ Synod on Synodality organizer says in new EWTN interview
Cardinal Mario Grech, who serves as secretary general of the global Synod on Synodality, speaks to EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Andreas Thonhauser for an exclusive interview that aired on EWTN on May 22, 2023. | EWTN Vatican
Cardinal Mario Grech, who serves as secretary general of the global Synod on Synodality, says the ongoing process underway in the Church risks missing “a moment of grace” if it focuses on polarizing issues raised during listening sessions, including same-sex marriage, abortion, and women’s ordination.
In a sit-down interview with EWTN News, the Maltese prelate says that while he believes “a synodal Church is a more spiritual Church,” it is important to remember that the Church “is not a democracy.” He also addresses the involvement of lay men and women and other “non-bishops” in the synod’s assembly of bishops in October, and he draws a distinction between the worldwide synodal process and Germany’s Synodal Path, observing that the latter has “sent negative vibes” throughout the global Church.
The interview below has been edited for clarity.
Your Eminence, you are responsible for organizing the synod’s assembly of bishops in October. A synod is not unusual, but this is a Synod on Synodality. Why does the Church, in your view, need a Synod on Synodality?
These are two different words, synod and synodality. There can be synodality without a synod. But there is no synod without synodality.
I’m not playing with words. It can happen that we have a synodal assembly without the spirit of synodality. We can and we need to become a more synodal Church, even without having a synod.
Synods are an important moment in the life of the Church. In the past, the synod was a moment where only bishops were engaged. Pope Francis has introduced a new dimension of this experience that involves all the people of God.
Everyone is being invited to reflect, to pray, and contribute to help us become more of a Church. After all, if we are talking about synodality, we are talking about the Church itself.
Can you describe in a nutshell what it would look like for the Church to become more synodal?
In simple terms, a synodal Church is a more spiritual Church. There is a temptation that we transform the Church into an NGO [nongovernmental organization], as the Holy Father underlines. The Church is the body of Christ and the anima (soul) of this Church is the Holy Spirit.
A synodal Church is an invitation to the people of God to receive the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the main player in this synodal process. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of this process.
To me, an invitation to a synodal Church is an invitation to give more space to the Holy Spirit. As a matter of fact, a key word in this simple process is discernment: How can we discern what the Holy Spirit is communicating to the Church today?
One of the methods that really was effective in the continental assemblies is what we call the conversation in the spirit: spiritual conversation or synodal conversation.
When we meet to discuss and listen in sessions, they are not purely human sessions. We have to invoke the Holy Spirit, we have to listen to the Word of God. Otherwise, the Church would be my project, our project, but the Church is not ours. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ.
Can you explain why non-bishops are now being invited to participate in the synod assembly taking place this October in Rome?
The synod is an assembly for bishops and it will remain an episcopal assembly. The nature of the assembly is not going to change. But the Holy Father decided, through listening to the people of God, to also invite non-bishops to the synod.
By non-bishops we mean not only laypeople but [also] priests, deacons, consecrated people, religious, and permanent deacons. The total number of non-bishops is less than 25%.
Why this percentage? We do not want to change the nature of the assembly. The synod is an assembly of bishops. The presence of other members of the people of God gives expression to the whole people of God, but their presence there is also a presence to guarantee that the process is being respected by the bishops participating in their synodal assembly.
The people of God that participated from the very start of this process are now also taking part in the final stage of the process. Their presence is there. Bishops are there because they are the shepherds, and there is no flock without a shepherd. And there are no shepherds without a flock.
The reflection on the synodal Church brought up hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and women’s ordination. How should the Synod on Synodality help address these issues?
During the first phase of consultation or listening phase, various issues were raised, as you are underlining. It was the first time that people were given this opportunity to speak out on these issues. The Church was listening to their needs. And I’m not surprised that certain hot-button issues now came to the fore. But at one point, me and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the general relator for this synod, sent a letter to all bishops, highlighting the fact that the theme of this particular synod is for the synodal Church.
Other issues will not be discarded. We will put them on the back burner, as they are not issues that should be tackled by this particular synodal assembly. If we enter into those issues at this particular moment, we will miss a golden opportunity, a moment of grace, a reflection on how we can really help the Church to become more synodal and create those spaces where all the members of the people of God, under the leadership and the guidance of their pastors, can really contribute to evangelization.
So, this should be clear. We tried to make it clear. Again, it’s not that we are putting away certain issues raised by the people of God. These issues need to be addressed. But I believe, and this is my personal belief, that once we become more synodal, the theologians become more synodal, then we will be in a better position to explain the Gospel to the people of God, and also address certain issues.
At a press conference when asked if you were worried that some agendas will hijack the synod, you said that the only one who could hijack the synod is the Holy Spirit.
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I really believe that this moment of grace will help us to become more spiritual, because the winds of the world can also blow in the Church and we have to pay attention. We don’t have an agenda. The agenda is already set, set in the Gospel, set by Jesus Christ. We have to do our reflection and listen to the Word of God, in the light of tradition, in the light of the magisterium.
We are not starting a fresh page today, as if nothing has happened in the past. There’s a continuity. But in order to engage in this spiritual conversation, in this spiritual conversion, because it entails a conversion, we need to make more time for prayer, to be able to kneel down in the presence of the Lord.
The synod is consultative in nature. Having consulted with so many people from around the world, bringing in bishops, and also non-bishops, do you think the synod should become more of a legal body of the Church by making its votes binding?
It’s not up to me to pronounce myself on this issue. And I’m being sincere. I would like the synodal assembly to say something about this. But the nature of a synodal assembly, as you’re saying, is consultative, because ultimately it is the Holy Father’s decision. When Paul VI instituted the synod, the aim was to help the Holy Father, to consult with the Holy Father.
I think there is decision-taking and decision-making. Listening to all the people of God, especially the bishops convened at the synodal assembly, is part of this decision-making, which will enlighten the Holy Father to make his own discernment.
There is this ecclesial discernment going on. I also say, always underlying this, we have the gift of the episcopal ministry in the particular Churches that can guarantee that the people are not going astray in their discernment. And for the whole Church, we have the Holy Father, the Petrine ministry, that really helps and guarantees the whole Church that we are doing God’s will.
There has been criticism concerning the process of the Synod on Synodality. Is there any criticism that worries you that you would like to address?
First of all, I understand those who have doubts or fears or different points of view.
For me, criticism is valuable and it should help us all in our discernment process. Nobody has to be excluded, even if one is critical, or has objections, everyone should be welcome on board. Let us not forget that we are one family. And it takes time until ideas mature, until one really understands what’s going on.
I have my fears as well. For example, those who are opposing the people of God and the hierarchy now, because in this synodal process everyone was allowed to raise his voice, some might think that we are on a way leading to a sort of a democracy. The Church is not a democracy.
The Church is hierarchical, constitutively hierarchical. The ministry of bishops, the Petrine ministry, are a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. And we need to treasure that.
So if those who are opposing, for example, the crowd, the people of God with the hierarchy, that really hurts me, because we have to walk together, respecting all the charisms and ministries.
Ministries are a gift for the Church. And they can give us assurance that we are walking the right path.
Your task of communicating and explaining the synodal process has not necessarily become easier with a parallel process in Europe that has raised a lot of attention — the German Synodal Path. What is your take on this and how is it seen in the context of the global Synod on Synodality?
Unfortunately, the Synodal Path in Germany sent negative vibes in all the Church. I was in Africa, I was in Bangkok, and I listened to people who were a bit hesitant and worried about what was taking place in Germany.
But I always say, do we really know what is taking place in the Church, in our sister Church in Germany? There are two different synodal experiences.
It is not a synod in Germany. It’s a synodal journey. A synodal way, they call it. Canonically it is neither a diocesan nor a national synod, as far as I know.
They are two different ecclesial experiences. One in Germany is trying to address issues that are recurrent challenges for the Church in Germany. And the other one is for the whole Church. And the themes are absolutely different.
Perhaps the global, universal synod will help us, will guide us to avoid other difficulties in the future in our experience of synodality.
It is true that particular local Churches are very important in the whole frame of ecclesiology. The Church is made up of particular Churches, and this is Vatican II, but no particular Church is autonomous, no particular Church is independent from the other Churches.
And if synodality is an important element in the Church, also the communion among bishops is a value.
I’m talking about collegiality now. The bishops in Australia, to give another example, because they had also a plenary council now, the bishops in Ireland, the bishops in Germany, they have their responsibilities and their challenges. And we have to help our brothers to address the difficulties.
But bishops are not autonomous, bishops form part of a college of bishops, and there are issues that belong to the whole Church that need to be addressed by all the bishops together, together with Peter.
This might give us hope for the experience in Germany. I really have trust in my brother bishops in Germany that they are well-meaning. And I hope they will find the right answer to the issues raised in their synodal experience, and to the issues that the people of God in Germany are putting forth.
Are there demands that the proposals in Germany that have been voted on as well as adopted be added to the agenda of the global synod?
No. They are two different experiences. The synod for the whole Church is about synodality. Now, if there are elements in the German synodal experience that deal with synodality, why not? But not everything that was on board in the synodal way in Germany fits in the synodal experience of the whole Church, because I repeat, they are two different experiences.
Are there synodal elements to the upcoming World Youth Day in Lisbon?
One result from all the continental assemblies was that we realized we need to create more spaces for the young generation. We need to find a new language so we can communicate with them. It’s a challenge. And obviously, World Youth Day will be an opportunity.
Our secretariat is studying a project for how to be present on the ground so that we can also listen to the young generation. Because they are not only the future, but they are [also] the present. And when we made the invitation for the non-bishops for the synodal assembly of bishops, we indicated to the episcopal conferences to please also send young people. We want young people to be present to participate in this process.
You have been asking people from around the world to contribute and participate in this process. Are there any inspiring ideas for evangelization you’ve encountered that are worthwhile to pursue?
The idea of mission and synodality started from the Synod for Youth. In fact, in the final document of that synod the youth and the synod members spoke about mission and the synodal Church. Mission and synodality are the two faces of the same coin. We need a synodal Church in order to be more effective in our mission.
How can we be really effective today? If all the people of God become conscious that we are all subjects of evangelization, that evangelization is not restricted only to a special class, a special group. But all the baptized are subjects and empowered by the Holy Spirit to announce the Gospel today.
Everybody is invited and must feel duty-bound to announce Jesus to humanity today. This is the main objective of our reflection on a synodal Church.
A synodal Church is for me mainly a spiritual Church. We need more prayer. We need more prayer to avoid the risk that the Church becomes only a human convention, a human institution.
This is the reason why a few months ago, we sent an invitation to all bishops, so that during the month of May we organize a prayer at the feet of Mary, in the presence of Mary.
Because Mary, the mother of the Church, our mother, she will guide us, help us, accompany us in this particular moment of the Church. I invite everyone to take part even with prayer in this moment of grace.