By Maria Wiering
WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Surprising punctuation caught Patrick Schmadeke’s attention when he read the Synod on Synodality’s recently released working document: an abundance of question marks — around 300.
For the director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport those questions signal a willingness for the Church to “live in the tension of the inquiry.”
The document’s “fundamental power is in its questions,” said Schmadeke, who helped to lead the synod’s local-level preparation phase in the Diocese of Davenport. “You can’t arrive at a new insight without asking a question first.”
The Holy See released the “Instrumentum Laboris” June 20 to guide preparation for the upcoming “2021-2024 Synod: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” also known as the Synod on Synodality.
The 60-page working document includes a reflection on the synodal preparation process and the synod’s three main “priority issues”: communion, participation and mission. It also includes 15 worksheets to help readers reflect on those themes, with five worksheets for each priority issue.
An “Instrumentum Laboris” — “working document” in Latin — is created primarily for delegates who will attend a synod assembly, but this document has broader appeal, said Julia McStravog, a theologian and co-coordinator of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ team for the continental phase of the synod along with Richard Coll, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
The document, drafted by experts from five continents, invites the people of God into “the radical nature of Christianity,” McStravog said, quoting from paragraph No. 26. “In this document, I think the Church is more boldly articulating what the Church is also supposed to be like.”
Coll praised the document’s beauty and hopefulness, noting he also was struck by the document’s “courage,” with the willingness to touch on topics Catholics may find difficult to discuss, or have historically been considered without wide consultation.
“It did not shy away from articulating some of the key topics that had come up through the conversations around the world,” he said, “topics like outreach to marginalized communities, including LGBTQ communities, including remarried Catholics — Catholics who remarry outside of the Church — the elderly, the young (and) interreligious dialogue, the importance of that.”
The working document’s sheer number of questions separates it from its predecessors. The “Instrumentum Laboris” for the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment contains 17 questions in its text, and the document for the 2015-2016 Synod on the Family contained three. Most of the Synod on Synodality working document’s questions are in its worksheets, which were not components of working documents for previous synods.
While the questions address some of the most controversial topics in the global Church, “God is not afraid of questions,” McStravog said. The synod, she added, is “not about answering those questions; it’s about figuring out how to answer those questions together.”
The preparation process for the upcoming Synod on Synodality began with diocesan-level listening sessions in 2021-2022, whose summaries informed the continental phase’s discussions and discernment in 2022-2023. A synthesis from each continental discussion was submitted earlier this year to the Holy See.
Coll, McStravog and their colleague Alexandra Carroll were among 18 delegates — including eight bishops (one being Bishop Thomas Zinkula), three priests, two religious sisters and two other laypeople — from the U.S. and Canada tasked with creating the North American continental document.
In October, 370 delegates will convene at the Vatican for the Synod General Assembly, the first of two global meetings for the Synod on Synodality, with the second planned for October 2024. Among them will be laypeople with, for the first time, voting rights on the final document. The U.S. delegates are expected to be announced within a month, McStravog said.
Carroll, the communications manager for social mission in the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, said she sees clear connections between the working document and the continental documents submitted to aid its discernment.
The document says “a synodal Church is this place that addresses tensions with love,” she said. “It confronts the tensions that exist in a way that builds unity.”
“This is an invitation to say, just like in a family, how do we grow together?” Carroll said. “How do we walk along in these situations of tension, in these situations of disagreement, and find a resolution that doesn’t sacrifice our beliefs or our teachings, but that really allows the Spirit to reveal the signs of the times?”
In the Davenport Diocese, Catholics prepared for the global synod with 470 listening sessions and an initiative called “58,000 Cups of Coffee,” where its 19,400 Catholics “in the pews” were encouraged to talk with three others: another who is regularly attending Mass, someone who hadn’t returned to Church following the COVID-19 pandemic, and someone who left the Church a while ago or never practiced a faith. The question for all of those conversations: “Based on your personal experience, what fills your heart and what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church?”
Schmadeke said that the Church’s openness to listening makes him hopeful for its future, and that it will be a place where his two young children will find a home as adults.
“Pope Francis has made the observation that we’re living in a change of epochs, or a change of eras. And in the context of that shifting landscape, we can’t always assume that what we’ve always done will always work,” he said.
Quick answers to questions are likely to lead to old solutions, some of which may still work, and some of which may not, Schmadeke said, but the query is key to helping the local and universal Church “arrive at the insights that the Spirit is trying to lead us to today.”