The Prague Assembly in the Synodal Process - Ursula Halligan
Image: Assembly of the European Catholic Church Feb. 6 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Prague.synod2023.org/Anicka Guthrie)
This article is extracted from Doctrine & Life, March 2023
The Prague Assembly in the Synodal Process - Ursula Halligan
Prague, city of a hundred spires and a centre of European Christianity for centuries, was the location of an historic meeting on the future of the Catholic Church last month.
For the first time ever, lay and ordained Catholics from central, eastern and western Europe convened in a special assembly in the Czech capital to mark the Continental Stage of Pope Francis’s Synodal Process.
Two hundred delegates from 45 different countries, including 65 women and 45 bishops, gathered in the main hall of Prague’s Pyramida Hotel to finalise the contribution of the Catholic Church in Europe to the synodal process. Each country had four in-person representatives.
A further 200 delegates participated on-line; and I, dear reader, was one of them. I took part from Dublin, as one of ten on-line members invited to join the Irish Church delegation. The four Irish delegates who attended in person were Archbishop Eamon Martin (Primate of All Ireland), Dr Nicola Brady (Chair of the Synodal Steering Committee), Julieann Moran (General Secretary of the Synodal Pathway) and Fr Éamonn Fitzgibbon (Convenor of the Synodal Task Force).
The assembly was one of seven continental-regional assemblies taking place around the world in February and March (the other six being: Africa, Latin America and Caribbean; Asia; Middle East-Eastern Churches; North America; and Oceania).
As a gay woman who has campaigned with We Are Church Ireland for the Gospel justice and equality of women and LGBT+ people in the Church, I was delighted and grateful for the invitation. As a student of theology I appreciated its significance.
Sixty years earlier at Vatican II, women were excluded from the Council for the first two years. Eventually, a small number (i.e., 23) were invited but only as ‘guests’ and silent spectators. They joined 3,000 men attending the third session in 1964. The notion of inviting an openly gay woman at the time would have been unthinkable.
A COMMUNION OF EQUALS
Since then, Pope Francis’s four-year Synodal Process has been the biggest thing to happen in the Church. Crucially, it is an attempt to revive many of the Council’s key themes; the vision of the Church as the People of God, the baptismal dignity of all Catholics, and the nature of the Church as a communion of equals.
Most fundamentally, it is a recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit in each and every member of the Church (the sensus fidei/sense of faith) and an acknowledgement of their capacity to hear God’s voice in their lives.
The 86-year-old Pope, who marks the tenth anniversary of his pontificate this month, is shaking things up. He has said he wants to invert the Church’s hierarchical pyramid to create a synodal Church where those in authority ‘do not lord it over others’ but exercise ‘servant leadership’; a humble walking alongside the baptised, in a culture of encounter, mutual learning and deep listening.
Essentially, Francis is inviting the whole Church to engage in a spiritual conversation that is without precedent in the history of Catholicism. In stark contrast to the control and censorship imposed by his two predecessors, Francis is encouraging open and free speech in the listening stage of the Synodal Process. He has called on Catholics (and non-Catholics) to speak boldly (with parrhesia) about the future of the Church and offered to listen in an non-judgemental way.
I was encouraged by the first phase of the Synodal Process in Ireland, especially by its capacity to bring people together and in those encounters, transform relationships. In particular, I was impressed by the integrity of the steering committee who faithfully reflected the main themes of equality for women and LGBTQI+ that emerged from the feedback. I felt our voices had been heard and it gave me hope.
In the global Church, resistance to the Synodal Process was inevitable. Conservatives, on one hand, feared that any change would dilute the tenets of the Catholic faith while reformers, on the other hand, feared that ‘no change’ would betray the truth and love inherent in those same tenets.
By blurring the lines between the hierarchy and laity, the Pope’s ‘inverted pyramid’ created unease in other quarters too. On the eve of the Prague Assembly, the cardinals overseeing the Synodal Process, Cardinals Grech and Hollerich, felt an ‘urgent’ need to write to the world’s bishops, reassuring them that their charism of discernment would become ‘even more decisive’ in the Synodal Process.
In the same letter, the two cardinals sought to dampen expectations ahead of the continental assemblies. They stressed that while some in the Church presumed to already know the conclusions of the Synodal Assembly and others were trying to ‘impose an agenda’, delegates were just being called to deepen their insights into the feedback from local Churches, at a continental level. The assemblies should not be understood, they said, as debating opportunities on the big issues of the Church but rather as another part of the Pope’s ‘listening phase’.
A week before the Prague Assembly began I, and the other Irish delegates, received details of the programme by email. Our task, we were told, would be to consider a working document entitled: ‘Enlarge the Space of Your Tent’ (Isaiah 54:2) that had distilled the feedback from Catholics around the world. We were invited to reflect on the document and to share the intuitions, tensions and priorities that struck us from our reading of it with other delegates.
We were informed that the meeting would be split in two: an ecclesial assembly (involving the entire People of God) from Monday 6th to Thursday 9th February and an episcopal assembly (involving the bishops, behind closed doors) from Friday 10th to Sunday 12th.
Over the course of three days, two representatives from the national delegations of 39 bishops would be invited to express their views on the working document in prepared statements. After every four addresses, a short, meditative prayer pause would follow.
The methodology was clearly designed to reduce the possibility of tensions flaring between conservative and progressive Catholics. To this end, the organisers structured the event along the lines of a spiritual conversation where listening was emphasised over talking. This meant that when statements were read out from the floor, they would be received with silent listening rather than debate. Work-groups had more flexibility but overall the space for debate, whether on the assembly floor or in a work-group, was minimal.
By the time the opening day of the Prague Assembly arrived on Monday 6th February, I thought I knew what to expect, but I was wrong. Within seconds of sitting down at my laptop to watch the opening session at 8am, I was jolted by the audio and the video I was receiving.
A Babel-like cacophony of translators voices talking simultaneously in English, German, French, Italian and Polish assailed my ears while a picture of a line of men sitting at the top table, dressed in clerical attire, hurt my eyes. The technical issue with the audio resolved itself within minutes but the problem with the picture persisted.
All of the men at the top table were bishops or cardinals and in their opening speeches, they urged delegates to ‘really listen’ to each another. However, the optics of an all-male, clerical line-up telling anyone to ‘really listen’, when at the same time they were dominating the top table, displayed a shocking indifference to the issue of women’s inclusion in the Church that had featured so prominently in the Synodal Process.
It demonstrated that the men, who were telling people to ‘really listen’, had not been listening themselves to one half of the church, women. The blindness of the male church on the issue of women was astonishing to witness and worrying in its implications for the Synodal Process.
Pictures from the main body of the hall also showed a preponderance of male clerics and a striking absence of women and young people. My heart sank. It would continue to sink but occasionally soar too like a swinging seesaw, over the coming days.
Most of my time as a on-line delegate was spent watching the addresses of the national delegations, observing prayer pauses and engaging in a work-group for two hours a day.
I was fascinated, and at other times depressed, listening to the various addresses. Fascinated because it helped me to realise how historically, culturally, theologically and geographically diverse, the Catholic Church is in Europe.
Depressed, because to my ears, a significant number of the presentations sounded bland, smug, clichéd, pious and self-righteous. Some spoke as if they were the true Church and the possessors of all truth. Many used vague, abstract language and referred in a token way to the role of women, ‘the marginalised’, and LGBT+ people. Their operating default position, whether unconsciously or consciously, was exclusively male.
The elephant in the room (i.e., no women at the top table) would have been ignored and allowed pass without comment if it had not been for the temerity (or perhaps parrhesia) of the general secretary of the Irish Synodal Process, Julieann Moran. She dared to raise the subject from the floor of the assembly just before the session finished on the first day. Referring to the all-male panel, she said that while ‘cerebral’ discussions on synodality were wonderful, people were also looking for concrete examples of what it was and the ‘optics’ of synodality were important too.
The differences between the Eastern and Western Churches were most obvious on the issues of equality for women and LGBT+ people. In general, the Eastern Churches had less to say about women and when they did, they invoked Our Lady as a role model. They were also less supportive on LGBT+ issues. By contrast, the Western Churches were positively inclined on both.
On the morning of the second day, Julieann Moran and Fr Éamonn Fitzgibbon delivered the Irish delegation address. Their statement was strong on abuse, women and LGBT+ and, in my view, was one of the most enlightened to be made at the assembly. Once again, the integrity of the Synodal Task-force shone through in the way they honoured the voices of those who took part in the Synodal listening sessions in Ireland.
I was glad to hear a significant number of countries expressing empathy and understanding for the position of LGBT+ people (France, Germany, UK). The Luxembourg delegation called on the Church to begin a process of reconciliation with LGBT+ people. Others asked, ‘Where are the LGBT+ voices?’, ‘Why are we talking about them and not hearing from them?’
However, some presentations were painful for LGBT+ on-line delegates to hear. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church described homosexual relations as a violation of the nature and creation of God and objected to even considering it on the same level as issues such as celibacy, the divorced or people who wish to remarry.
Overall, despite the negative moments, internal divisions and patriarchal blindness, I remained encouraged by much of what I heard. I was impressed too by the members of the Irish delegation, from Archbishop Eamon Martin upwards. I say ‘upwards’ deliberately because the humble, generous, self-giving service of his team was a model of synodality – or dare I say, even a picture of an ‘inverted pyramid’. I was in regular contact with many on the team throughout the assembly via WhatApp, email and phone.
I met wonderful people too in my on-line work-group. The concern they showed for all LGBT+ people after hurtful comments were made on the Zoom chat facility (used by on-line delegates) on the second day, touched me deeply. (The organisers of the assembly shut down the facility afterwards and apologised for what happened.)
The next day, it was the turn of my group to read out its report to the floor of the assembly. To my amazement all the members insisted that attention be drawn to the incident. I was moved and grateful when our spokeswoman declared in a strong, clear voice: ‘Yesterday, the harmful language spoken about the LGBTQ community hurt and wounded us; as a Church we can no longer wound people in this way’. It was another example of synodality in action.
A further highlight of the assembly for me was the spiritual introduction delivered on the first day by Mgr Tomás Halik, the Czech priest, celebrated author and former Soviet dissident. [For full text, see ‘The Church, a Dynamic Community of Pilgrims’, pp. 10-18, infra.] In luminous language, he clearly articulated the principles of synodality and the challenges facing the Church. Describing the Church as a communion of pilgrims and a living organism that must always be open to transforming, evolving and reform, he said.
We must not be afraid that some forms of the Church are dying: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears great fruit.’ (John 12:24)
The 74-year-old intellectual reminded his listeners that the Church was not a place only for the ‘fully observant’ but must keep a space open for spiritual seekers because as Jesus declared, ‘He who is not against us is with us’ (Mk 9, 40). He quoted St Augustine who, he said, had argued:
that many of those who think they are outside are in fact inside, and many who think they are inside are in fact outside. The Church is a mystery; we know where the Church is, but we do not know where she is not.
Halik warned too against any triumphalism or presumption of superiority by the Church.
We must not approach others with the pride and arrogance of the owners of truth. Truth is a book that none of us has yet read to the end. We are not owners of truth, but lovers of truth and lovers of the only One who is allowed to say: ‘I am the Truth.’
When the assembly ended on the fourth day, the prevailing emotion was one of relief. Despite the tensions, cultural differences and potential for division, delegates from across Europe had managed to listen respectfully to each other. Perhaps the methodology of spiritual conversation had worked after all and allowed the Holy Spirit work in the hearts of delegates.
There was some disappointment that only an initial, extremely vague draft of priorities was produced to reflect the themes and voices of the assembly.
However, there was also a recognition that something important had happened too. By bringing people together the Synodal Process was changing relationships and the culture of the Church. It was creating a space for new ideas and relationships to grow. People were talking to people they would never have talked to before. Slowly, barriers were coming down, trust was building up, wounds were beginning to heal.
It is too early to know if Pope Francis’s Synodal Path is the future for the Catholic Church. The two synods on synodality to be held in Rome in October this year and next, will reveal more.
For now, the cardinal organising the Synodal Process, Cardinal Mario Grech, is placing his hope in the virtue of ‘humility’. Speaking at the end of the second part of the Prague Assembly, the meeting of bishops that was held in private, he said he was really touched by the humility of the European Churches: ‘Those taking part were humble enough to admit that they don’t know everything.’ He concluded by noting that such humility is ‘very promising indeed, because only a humble Church will be in a position to make a step forward in the right direction at the right time.’ [Vatican News. ‘Cardinal Grech: European Synod Assembly showed face of a ‘humble Church’ by Joseph Tulloch. 10 February, 2023.]
Ursula Halligan is the former political editor of TV3 in Ireland, writer. She is the Joint Coordinator of We Are Church Ireland, a voluntary group that works for justice in the Roman Catholic Church. She is also a member of the Inter-Religious Advisory Board for the UK-based Ozanne Foundation.
In 2015, she came out publicly in the national media, just ahead of the marriage-equality referendum, which many believe helped influence the vote.
She was Journalist in Residence at Dublin City University for four years until December 2021.
Last year she graduated with an MPhil in Theology from Trinity College, Dublin. Ursula facilitated the Synod LGBT+ Focus Group for the Diocese of Elphin in April 2022. She represented We Are Church Ireland at the Athlone Synodal meeting (18 June 2022). She is embarking upon doctoral studies in theology in Trinity College.