Pope Francis has launched the most ambitious Catholic renewal project for 60 years with a listening exercise that aims to give every member of the 1.3 billion Church a stake in its future. Through a "synodal" process, the Pope is asking Catholics to help reimagine the future of the Church and grapple with questions such as the role of women, evangelisation, priesthood, serving the marginalised and global governance. It is likely to reshape the Church forever.
After the Vatican synod: what happens now?
21:42The 2023 synod summit in the Vatican ended with a series of openings for reform, including on the role of women, training of priests and a re-think of the church’s sexual teaching. For those in the hall, a vast majority agreed that the synod process and style — which saw cardinals and lay people gathered around tables listening to each other — is how church business should be done in the future. But what happens next? Synod 2023 is the first of two assemblies, with another due in October 2024. In this episode, I talk again to Myriam Wijlens, who took part in the synod as an expert adviser. Professor Wijlens, a theologian and canon lawyer who has been closely involved in the synod process, stressed a general agreement that women need an enlarged role in the church but a “struggle” over how this should happen in practice. The question of women deacons is to be further studied, and Wijlens said a “conclusion” to the discussion over the possibility of women deacons could take place at the synod next year. Professor Wijlens teaches at the University of Erfurt in Germany. She said that the new synod process marks a “tremendous shift”, which gave everyone the same amount of time to speak, whether they were an Asian woman or a European cardinal. “There was a general agreement: we have to attend to this question [of women]”, she said. “And there was a great agreement that women do make up the larger portion of active participants in the life of the Church. And then there comes a struggle because we all come from different cultures and from different backgrounds. How does that unfold in real life, on the ground?” Professor Wijlens points out that a critical challenge is implementing synodality at the local level. But it can no longer be a question of waiting for the authorities in Rome about what to do. “How can Rome say what you have to do in the inner city of London and in the inner city of Manila or the countryside of Alaska at the same time,” she said. It is up to bishops and local leaders to “take up your own responsibility” and implement synodal reforms in their local areas. The Church’s Radical Reform podcast is sponsored by the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham in partnership with The Tablet. Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
A conversation with the “spiritual father” of the synod: Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP
22:00The reflections of Fr Timothy Radcliffe have been one of the highlights of the October 2023 synod assembly in the Vatican. The English Dominican friar led the synod participants on a retreat before the synod gathering and offered wise reflections and spiritual guidance. Some have called him the “spiritual father” of the synod. In this episode, I sat down with Fr Timothy to discuss the synod process and how to navigate disagreement in an increasingly polarised world and church. Fr Timothy led the worldwide Dominican Order from 1992-2001, the first English friar to do so. He knows the universal Church and the workings of the Vatican and has attended several synods. “I think to see Roman Curial cardinals sitting with young women from Latin America and Asia and listening, really listening. I think that’s what is most transformative,” he told me. The process of listening, he says, is the “foundation for any subsequent things to happen” and that both individuals and the Church collectively need to be “changed” before they know which changes need to be made. On one occasion in the synod, he referred to a story that had been told to participants about a bisexual woman who had taken her own life as she did not feel welcomed by the Church. “The question always put is: is the Church’s teaching going to change? That’s not the issue. The issue is, will we love and welcome our fellow human beings?” he says. “If we love them, and listen to them and make them part of our lives, if there are evolutions to happen, they will happen. But you don’t start by asking what changes have to be made.” He stressed that the synod is counter-cultural because it demands people listen to those with whom they disagree. “We inherit a tradition, Catholicism, which does actually believe in reason,” he pointed out. “We see a lot of irrationality in our society because people don’t believe in reason anymore, but the Church does, and this should act in a healthy way to open not just our hearts but our minds, so we listen attentively with all our intelligence to what the other person is saying, and try to see how even if we disagree it bears some tiny seed of truth that we need. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t turn out, when we look back, that one of the great roles of the Church will be to carry on believing in reason.” Talking about indifference or scepticism of the synod among the clergy, Fr Timothy said there needs to be a “positive, affirmative vision of the priesthood” to ensure more priests get on board with the synod process. Finally, he talked about his recent health struggles and how Pope Francis took him by surprise and phoned him while he was in hospital. The Church’s Radical Reform podcast is sponsored by the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham in partnership with The Tablet. Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
How does the new synod process work? An interview with Austen Ivereigh
26:18The October 2023 synod assembly in the Vatican is adopting a very different process to the one used by previous gatherings, which is demonstrated by the arrangement of round tables in the Pope Paul VI audience hall. The sight of bishops and cardinals seated around tables with lay delegates is deliberate and designed to foster what Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod co-ordinator, described as “genuine sharing and authentic discernment”. Significantly, the seating is not “hierarchical”, symbolising the vision of the Church as primarily the “People of God”, which is at the heart of the synod process. So, how does it all work? Austen Ivereigh, the journalist and papal biographer, is one of the expert theologians working inside the hall and in this episode he talks about the nuts and bolts of the process. We spoke as the synod was getting underway. Previous synods, he explained, took place in a theatre-style assembly where some of the work was done in small groups of 10-12 people. The participants were primarily bishops, and they sat according to hierarchal rank. The “big shift”, Dr Ivereigh says, is that most of the work for this synod is being done in small groups in a method called “conversations in the spirit”, which he pointed out is not about having a small-group debate but instead listening and responding to points that are raised. Each group gathered around a table seeks to respond to questions raised by the working document for the synod with the end goal of producing a document that brings together all the reflections. The new process adopted by the Vatican synod assembly also reflects the methods adopted by local synod gatherings that have taken place during the process, which began in October 2021. Dr Ivereigh points out that everyone can speak within their small group and to the whole assembly; they can also submit written submissions on any given topic to the synod secretariat. “The object of this whole exercise is synodality itself,” he says. “It’s a new way of proceeding, of operating, of thinking within the Church which centres on communion, participation and mission, that is to say the involvement of people in processes of discernment prior to decision taking in the Church.” While the synod is likely to raise major points of disagreement, Dr Ivereigh points out that the synod aims to find a way to “contain those tensions” rather than fall into “sterile polarisations” and to find harmony or “reconciled diversity” between people with different positions. The “synthesis document” produced by the October synod assembly, he said, will aim to “capture the result of these deliberations”, and then the whole Church will be asked to reflect on that text ahead of the October 2024 synod. “It [the synthesis document] may say, ‘these are the questions that need answering’, ‘these are the things that need further exploration’, ‘here there is great agreement, or here there is great disagreement’, it's literally capturing what’s happened,” Dr Ivereigh explains. He added that there will likely be “various commissions set up to study the proposals”, including “canonical commissions, theological commissions, pastoral commissions,” following the synod assembly's conclusion. Dr Ivereigh said that while the synod assembly will be aware of opposition to the process, it was unlikely to affect the internal proceedings. The Church’s Radical Reform podcast is sponsored by the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham in partnership with The Tablet. Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
First Anglican to be appointed prior of Taizé talks about the synod and Christian unity
38:38The synod process has the potential to bring about greater unity among Christians, the incoming leader of Taizé has said ahead of ecumenical prayer vigil ahead of the synod meeting in Rome. Brother Matthew (Andrew Thorpe) is the first Anglican to be appointed Prior of the Ecumenical Christian monastic fraternity in France, which has been organising a prayer vigil in St Peter’s Square on 30 September. This event will be the starting point for the synod and a three-day retreat, which participants will participate in before the synod’s formal opening on 4 October. Talking to “The Church’s Radical Reform” podcast, Br Matthew spoke about how “synodality and ecumenism go hand in hand” and that while Christians have got used to walking on “parallel paths”, he hopes that the synod will find “creative ways” to bring different Christian traditions closer together. “If the Catholic Church [through the synod] can recognise and cherish the diversity that is already within itself, is there a hope as well for a greater communion with Christians who are at this moment not part of the Roman Catholic Church? Can their diversity also be welcomed?” he said. Br Matthew, 58, explained that the 30 September gathering, “Together”, was the initiative of the current prior, Brother Alois, who conceived the idea at the launch of the synod process in October 2021. The event will be attended by young people and the leaders of 20 different churches and Christian traditions, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. “It’s true that when you speak about a synod on synodality, it’s not very easy for many people, especially young people, to understand what that’s about,” he said. “That is one of the reasons we called this ecumenical prayer vigil ‘together,’ because that’s a word which is easily understandable and which also expresses something of what the synod is.” The new prior, who will take up his position on 3 December 2023, explains the history of Taizè and his journey to joining the community at the age of 21, having grown up in Yorkshire, in the north of England. Br Matthew has been involved in the synod process, taking part in the European assembly in Prague earlier this year and the importance of “conversations in the Spirit”, which is the method of listening and consensus building that the synod assembly will use in the Vatican from 4-29 October. “It wasn’t arguing with each other or trying to put across your point of view, but it was listening to the Spirit, and listening to each other, in order to find a common path,” he says. “That is something that which can also help us on our ecumenical journey towards unity.” Br Matthew said that at a time of “uncertainty, we look for clear identity”, with young people coming to Taizé sometimes attached to “traditional forms of worship,” movements associated with the climate crisis or tackling poverty. “It's a question of listening to what they are experiencing and giving them a place,” he said. But he also insisted that the Church cannot stand still, and the synod underlines that “the tradition is something constantly evolving, it’s not something locked up in a box somewhere.” Rather than “museum keepers,” he said, Christians should see themselves as “cultivators of a beautiful garden. For more details about the prayer vigil: www.together23.net Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston Image of Br Matthew: Marija Poklukar/Katoliška mladine
Pentecostal church minister speaks about synodal renewal and why Pope Francis is a leader to charismatic Christians
28:31The synod process in the Catholic Church is attracting interest from other Christian denominations, including from unexpected quarters. In this episode, I interviewed Neil Hudson, a Pentecostal pastor for 30 years. He is a senior leader at the Elim church in Salford, the northwest of England, and has worked at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Neil recently took part in a significant synod gathering of Christian thinkers and leaders at Durham University to discuss the synodal process and admits that a generation ago, a Pentecostal minister would never have participated in a Catholic-led event. Nevertheless, he says that “what is happening in the Catholic Church has to be, to my mind at least, reflective of the Gospel” and that Pope Francis has connected with Christians from the Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions. “This Pope seems to speak the language that would not be out of place in a Pentecostal setting,” he says. Neal warns that the synod process should avoid becoming a series of “committee meetings” and needs to connect with ordinary believers and build up people’s faith. He insists that the decline of the church is not inevitable and finishes our discussion with an instructive — and very synodal — story about accompanying those searching for God. Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
Archbishop Malcolm McMahon on overhauling church governance, the problems in Hexham & Newcastle and how the synod can bring about a "revolution"
32:00The Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, took charge of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle following the resignation of Bishop Robert Byrne who stepped down due to serious failures of leadership in child protection. In this podcast, the archbishop speaks for the first time about the problems in the diocese, the changes he has sought to introduce and the importance of the synod process or better church governance. Among the questions for discussion at the synod summit in the Vatican in October is how bishops can exercise their ministry in a way that includes more voices, including women. Bishop Byrne was accused of failing to listen to the advice of his (female) safeguarding adviser, along with multiple failures of governance. “I think there was a fundamental problem about governance within the diocese. The authority within the diocese was really centred on a few priests who had several roles. There was no real distribution of authority within the church structures,” the archbishop told me. The archbishop apologised to all those affected by the problems in Hexham and Newcastle — which was the subject of numerous inquiries — saying the events in the diocese had been “very hurtful and painful for people.” He stressed, however, that measures had been taken to help heal the damage, including ensuring that the charitable trust which governs the diocese as a civil entity has an equal number of lay and clergy trustees. The diocese in the north of England, home to the northern saints that converted people to Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries, is seeking to open a new chapter with the appointment of Stephen Wright as its new bishop. In a powerful and prophetic symbol, the installation ceremony saw Bishop Wright receive prayer ribbons from abuse survivors that were tied to his episcopal chair. One of them, Maggie Mathews, then spoke about abuse in the Church including the “structures” that lead to it. Archbishop McMahon said he believed the Church’s synod process points the “way forward” and spoke about the synod that had taken place in Liverpool diocese. He said it led him to introduce a new advisory council of lay people and priests, emphasising social action. He said a “revolution” in the Church would come about when the structures in the Church are populated with people who have become “synodal”, meaning they can listen, discern and encourage greater participation among Catholics. During the interview, the Dominican archbishop said the synod could open the door to the ordination of married men, female deacons and greater inclusion of same-sex couples. “We have to be open to change in the future, whether it’s in ministry or whether it’s in the way people live their lives together,” he said. “We are working out of different frameworks of morality to the ones which are current now.” The challenge, he said, is “not to keep saying ‘we are right, and we’ve got this correct’, but we need to listen and discern more deeply about so many aspects of people’s everyday lives.” He saw no “theological impediment” to changing the discipline of ordaining married men as priests, and neither are there “too many obstacles” to female deacons. On same-sex couples, he said he had “always included gay people in the life of the parish” as a priest and that “personal actions or morality” should be left to “the spiritual adviser, confessor.” The archbishop also suggested that lay people be given a stronger voice in appointing bishops, and there “should be a method of gathering together the people’s thoughts within a diocese when a vacancy becomes apparent.” The appointment of bishops, including more “participatory selection procedures”, is on the agenda for the October assembly. Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
Reform from the grassroots upwards: an interview with Myriam Wijlens
28:56Professor Myriam Wijlens is a theologian and church lawyer who is playing a pivotal role in advising the global synod process. She understands church reform: how it happens, what is possible, and what isn’t possible and was one of the first women called to be involved in the synod organising committee. In this episode, she takes me through what has happened in the synod so far, including the groundbreaking reforms Pope Francis made to allow women to vote in the forthcoming October assembly. Myriam, a Dutch theologian who teaches in Germany, explains that this change did not come about in a vacuum but is a natural next step given the involvement of women in the synod so far. The significant shifts in the synod, she says, are taking place in the way the church is making decisions and in reforms to its internal culture, moving away from a top-down model, to a bottom-up approach. A novelty of the synod, Myriam stressed, is that it started at the grassroots, of “where people live their faith.” During our discussions, she also addressed the questions of the German synod and the possibility of female deacons but emphasised that reforms had to take place in a gradual, step-by-step manner. “A change is coming about, and it’s a change in mentality,” she says. “Did anyone expect in October 2021 that 18 months later that women could vote in the next synod? It’s quite something.” Finally, addressing some of the fears and scepticism about the synod, particularly from those in the hierarchy, Myriam stressed that the “bishops who have stepped into the process, and walked with the people, now feel that this has been an enrichment for the way they exercise their episcopal ministry.” She offers some great insights throughout our discussion. Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
The synod and female leaders: an interview with Christine Allen, Director of Cafod
28:38The synod discussions, whether in Asia, Latin America or Europe, have repeatedly called for the greater involvement of women in church decision-making. Across the world, women are the bedrock of parishes and communities, but the message from the synod is that they often feel invisible. As a result, the synod assembly in the Vatican in Rome in October 2023 will include women as voting members for the first time. But what does synodal, female leadership look like in the Church? In this episode, I talk to Christine Allen, the Director of Cafod, the Catholic aid agency for the Church in England and Wales. It was founded by a group of Catholic women in 1960 and has since grown into an organisation which helps some of the most vulnerable communities worldwide. Christine is Cafod’s first female director. In this discussion, I talk to Christine about the synod process and the need to “trumpet the leadership of women” in the church that is already going on. She suggests the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales pull together a round table of women to discuss female leadership as part of the ongoing synod process. She talks about breaking down clericalism, women deacons and how Cafod is an example of synodality being put into action. Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
Leadership in uncertain times
28:56Credible leadership is a critical feature of the synodal journey with Catholics across the globe calling for lay women and men to be more involved in decision-making. The synod is pointing to a renewed model, away from the top-down, command and-control style of the past to one which includes diverse voices and charisms in forging the future mission of the Church. In this episode, I talk to Lord McDonald, who was in charge of the British Diplomatic Service from 2015-2022, about his new book Leadership: Lessons from a Life in Diplomacy. Lord McDonald, who worked closely with several British Prime Ministers, looks at what makes for a successful leader today and how to navigate the unprecedented scrutiny and pressures experienced by those in senior roles. Pope Francis has stressed that the synod listening process must “pass beyond the 3 or 4 per cent that are closest to us” and “broaden” its range. The interview with Lord McDonald took place in that spirit, with the former ambassador talking about how he grew up as a Catholic, although he is no longer an active member of the Church. Nevertheless, he offers some fascinating insights into the reform process that Francis has begun, reflecting on the complexities of reforming a historic institution and his experiences in seeking a fairer representation of women in the Foreign Office. When it comes to leading, however, some things remain the same. Lord McDondald points out that good leaders have the courage to make bold decisions, stay humble, operate with a clear authority structure and have a strong team around them. Executive Producer: Silvia Sacco Editor: Jamie Weston
A listening church?
34:54Timothy Costelloe is the Archbishop of Perth, the President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference and part of the team preparing the global synod summit. As a senior figure in the Australian Catholic Church, he has been deeply involved in synodality, and what it means for the Church. An expert listener, he is an example of a bishop who adopts and lives the synod style of the Church. In this episode, Archbishop Tim explains how the synod process can revitalise the Church globally and in Australia, but that it is not something that is going to happen overnight. In the face of a decline in religious practice in the West, Archbishop Tim wants a Church that can re-connect with a younger generation and consider adopting a “preferential option of the young.” But he also addresses the claim from the late Australian Cardinal George Pell that the synod is a “nightmare” and reflects on ten years of the Francis papacy. Archbishop Tim says that this Pope is reminding the Church that Jesus wasn’t someone who just taught the truth; he also showed the way in his interactions with the people. He pointed out that the only people Jesus strongly criticised were the religious authorities of the day — and it's the same group of people trying to undermine Francis. Executive Producer: Silvia Saccco Editor: Jamie Weston