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Hopeful pilgrims at Rome Synod


My dear sisters and brothers in Christ, greeting from Rome. As I write these words, the first session of the XVI Synod of Bishops still has a full week to run.

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Together with Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst, the other elected Australian bishop member of the Synod, I am staying at the Mother House of the Salvatorians, the religious order to which Bishop Karol Kulczycki from Port Pirie belongs. The place is conveniently close to Vatican City.

Walk out the front door on a Wednesday and you are immediately struck by the surging crowds heading toward the general audience with Pope Francis. Similarly on a Sunday, a great wall of humanity is heading for
St Peter’s Square for the Angelus. Each day, long lines of people can be seen snaking around the square so that they might visit St Peter’s. Pilgrims all.

In this column I’d simply like to give a few impressions of the Synod so far. To do otherwise would be like giving the final score of a game of sport at half time or predicting the end of a good novel without completing it.

One description of being at the Synod is that of being a pilgrim. A pilgrim comes from afar, carrying many people in their hearts; carrying all manner of hopes, expressed or unexpressed, seeking as did the pilgrims on the road to Emmaus, to meet the living God. A pilgrim always comes home. A pilgrim always comes home changed, transformed in some way. The encounter with the living God always does this.

This Synod is operating in a different key from previous synods. First, its composition is expanded to include people other than bishops which brings other voices and experiences of being Catholic and other aspects of the Christian family. Second, it began with a three-day retreat 40km outside of Rome. Third, we were not sitting crowded together in rows but rather we were sitting at 35 tables with 12 people at each. Fourth, there was much listening and discussing about what it means to live the Christian faith, what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus in our world today. Fifth, it is being held in the Paul VI auditorium.

We are blessed that there are 19 people from Oceania at the Synod. One of the graces, of which there have been many, of the Synod is that those from Oceania have developed deeper bonds. We are pilgrims together on the journey.

I have been very conscious that the Synod has been meeting in the context of a world in crisis. This has extra nuance because present among us are people who live in these conflict zones. It has also sharpened our prayer. Solidarity in prayer has also been expressed for migrants and refugees.

Doing things for the first time always has teething problems. While it is true that the language of the Church is love, gathering over 350 members together with facilitators, theologians and other fraternal delegates from other Christian faiths from around the world in the XVI Synod of bishops presents its challenges. There are five main languages and many cultures; there is a variety of ancient and established churches as well as new and vibrant young churches; there are members present from war-torn countries and those who are persecuted for being Christian, as well as those who live among indifference to any faith.

Both the impulse, directed by the Holy Spirit, of the recent Fifth Plenary Council in Australia, which had its genesis some time ago in 2005, (which incidentally had a lot of encouragement by our late Archbishop Philip Wilson) as well our own local efforts of our two diocesan assemblies and currently our regional assemblies, all have given the Australian delegates some taste of what to expect during the Synod.

Some have found it difficult, most have grown into it. There have been some robust conversations. The nature of the discussions is to describe the experience of the Church at this time, not as it should or could be, but rather as it is, with its successes and failures, its joys and hopes.

It is impossible to get to know everyone. The tables are organised by language group. The English groups are the most diverse in that they represent countries from nearly every continent. We have moved tables four times, thus getting to know, and better understand, the experience of others. This is always enriching.

Our reflections have always been grounded in prayer and the Word of God. We feel as if God has been sowing seeds that need time for germination and will help guide our reflections over the next 11 months.

We have been helped by constant input by theologians, by spiritual guides and from hearing from the experiences of what synodality looks like in various parts of the world. Pope Francis comes to the general sessions to hear the feedback.

Yes, some are fearful, most are hopeful. All are pilgrims, or as Mary MacKillop would say: ‘We are but travellers here.’ Some knew not what to expect, most have been surprised at how well both the process and logistics have worked.

The Synod has a week to go for its first session (at the time of writing) and will soon produce a message to the whole People of God as well as a substantial document to guide our work to the second session in October 2024.

There is a real sense of being part of Vatican II’s description of the Church, namely the pilgrim People of God, journeying together, pilgrims all. Please continue to pray for the continuing work of the Synod.

God is good, good indeed.

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