“The Middle of the Journey: Building a Synodal Foundation for the Global Church”

The following is the text of the address Cardinal Robert W. McElroy delivered to the Religious Education Congress on Feb. 16, 2024, in Anaheim.

Three years ago, Pope Francis initiated a renewal which seeks to build a synodal culture for the Church in every land and at every level.   This renewal is rooted in the proclamation that the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ constitute the most important reality of our life on this earth.  It challenges every believer to conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to a deep personal relationship with the Lord.  The call to synodal renewal emphasizes the identity of the Church as the pilgrim People of God, and as a sacrament of God’s saving presence in the world.

The Pope stated that it is vital to construct a truly synodal culture in the church throughout the world.  He pointed to eight elements of such a culture:

  1. A synodal church sees itself as the pilgrim People of God, constantly on journey toward the Kingdom.
  1. Synodality demands a profound stance of authentic listening from every believer.
  1. Synodality seeks a church rooted in word and sacrament.
  1. A synodal church constantly looks outward to the transformation of the world in light of the Gospel.
  1. A synodal church is a humble and honest church.
  1. A synodal church is inclusive, embracing all: “Todos, todos, todos.”
  1. A synodal church is a participative church, where active involvement in the church is nurtured.
  1. A synodal church is a co-responsible church, where all members are welcomed to service and leadership in the light of their baptism.

As the synodal process began, Pope Francis called for a dialogue on these themes in every part of the world.  Thus in 2021 the Catholic community in the United States undertook the largest process of interpersonal dialogue and consultation ever held in our nation’s history.  More than 500,000 men and women gathered together in prayer and discernment in their parishes, schools, cultural communities and service organizations to share their joys and their sorrows, their hopes and their fears touching upon the life of the church.

One of the most striking realities reflected in our national dialogues was the commonality of the perceptions and questions of the People of God across dioceses, regions and cultures within our country.  While sometimes framed in different languages or with different emphases, the joys, the hopes, the sorrows and the fears of God’s People were remarkably similar.  For this reason, it is truly possible to see in the results of the dialogue a composite picture of the Catholic community in the United States today and a picture of where we must move in the years to come.

The synodal dialogues gave deep witness to the beautiful forms of community that flourish at all levels in the life of the church.  So many participants spoke of the profound relationships that they have formed in their parish, their school, their ministries to the poor and the suffering.  The Diocese of Reno noted, “clearly people find their faith and experience of God through a community that welcomes, sustains and challenges them.”

People spoke lovingly of the webs of faith, friendship, searching, love, compassion, justice and hope which have enriched their lives in the communities of the church.  These include a vast array of prayer and formation groups, liturgical ministries, outreach to the sick and the marginalized, schools, and diverse cultural communities.  The Catholic community is journeying together because, in its vibrant and disparate communities, families rejoice together, mourn together, question together, grow together and find a home, all within the framework of faith.

The synodal dialogues testified overwhelmingly to the power of the Eucharist in the lives of believers.  As the Diocese of San Diego noted in its synthesis, “The principal joy that emerged in the synodal sessions was participation in the sacramental life of the church.  The declaration of one participant that ‘experiencing the beauty of Mass with our families is what brings us hope’ was emblematic of comments in virtually every small group sharing.”

The vast majority of synod participants pointed to the sacramental life of the church as the richest source for sustenance and growth in their spiritual lives.  They expressed great gratitude to their priests for the sacrificial, prayerful and caring love that they bring to the sacramental life of the church as celebrants of the Eucharist and in bringing the sacraments to those in desperate need.

In pointing to the centrality of the Eucharist, the synodal witness made clear that there is a tremendous need for enhanced formation in all stages of their life.  “Participants of every age and demographic group spoke of the need for lifelong formation.  They would like to see more opportunities for Bible study, in-person and online courses, lectures, small-group discussions and convocations … Members of the dioceses also wish the church to do more to support their spiritual growth by exposing them to the rich aspects of the heritage of Catholic spirituality.”

One of the recurring themes of the synodal dialogues throughout the country was anger at the way in which bishops knowingly reassigned priests whom they knew to have sexually abused minors in their past.  The dialogues did point to the positive role that bishops play in the general life of the church. But the strength and starkness of the anger against our nation’s bishops over reassignment is revealed in the comments of the national synthesis of the local dialogues: “Trust in the hierarchy is weak and needs to be strengthened.  The sex abuse scandals and the way the church leadership handled the situation are seen as one of the strongest causes of a lack of trust and credibility on the part of the faithful.”

If trust in the leadership of the church has been enormously undermined by our history of covering up the sexual abuse of minors and adults, wider issues of trust also surfaced repeatedly in the local dialogues.

The People of God repeatedly called for a transformation in the secrecy with which so many elements of church life have been handled, especially regarding finances.  The Diocese of Monterey stated: “In listening to God’s People it is apparent that there is still mistrust within our church.  Many shared a desire for more transparency in leadership, decision-making and financial matters.  They called for more accountable leadership among the clergy and parish staff.”

Regarding inclusion, the synod synthesis from the Diocese of Bridgeport reported that:  “The call to the church to foster an inclusive community was one of the most predominant themes throughout the listening sessions.   All must be welcomed to our Catholic faith with love, as Jesus taught. That includes infants, the elderly, people of all races and cultures, the LGBT+ community, married, divorced, widowed, young adults, disabled, marginalized and children. One Bridgeport parish commented: ‘There is a sense that the future of the church may be hindered if leaders don’t address the lack of acceptance of these groups, their gifts and values.’”

The searing question of the church’s treatment of LGBT+ persons was an immensely prominent facet of the synodal dialogues.  Anguished voices within the LGBT+ communities in unison with their families cried out against the perception that they are condemned by the church and individual Catholics in a devastating way. Faith-filled parents of LGBT+ children were especially vocal in their call for greater inclusion from the church, as were young adults.

In addition, the dialogues pointed to patterns of racism, prejudice and discrimination that still deform the Body of Christ.  The Church of the Northwest spoke powerfully to this imperative: “Catholic people of color spoke of routine encounters with racism, both inside and outside the church.  Indigenous Catholics spoke of the generational trauma caused by racism and abuse in boarding schools.”

The issue of women constituted a central focus of critique in the national dialogues.  The Diocese of Las Vegas concluded that, “as regards the role of women, a small minority of respondents voiced the opinion that women should be excluded from any liturgical or ministerial roles … the vast majority of respondents, however, strongly opposed this attitude and urged church leaders to recognize the ‘unique charisms’ and ‘pastoral gifts’ women bring to the church.  Broad support for ordaining women was voiced by those participating in the synodal process, as were calls to include women in leadership positions, discussions and decisions on all levels in the church.”

Many dialogue participants linked the exclusion of women to the wider exclusion of lay Catholics as a whole from real co-responsibility in the church.  The people of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska spoke directly to this reality: “Many want to see church leadership take more seriously the talents and knowledge of the laity.  Some expressed the need to use more effective parish councils and diocesan pastoral councils.  Others want their pastors and bishops to explore more deeply with the laity how best to participate in understanding the mission of the church and its efforts to evangelize its members and the world.”

This question of co-responsibility in the church was linked in many dialogues to the issue of clericalism in Catholic life. The synodal witness continually expressed profound gratitude to priests for their devoted service to the church and the sacrifices that they make.  Yet the corrosive elements of clerical culture surfaced in comments about priests or bishops who do not see in their own limits the invitation to more collaborative relationships, not less.

The Church in the Northwest requested greater “formation for seminarians and those already ordained to better understand human and pastoral needs, cultural sensitivity and awareness, greater emphasis on social justice, sharing resources with the needy, balancing the adherence to the dogmatic teachings of the faith with care for the emotional needs of the parishioners; how to include the laity in decision-making and learning to speak the truth with empathy, creativity and honesty.”

Practically all synodal consultations shared a deep ache in the wake of the departure of young people and viewed this as integrally connected to becoming a more welcoming church.   The Church in New Jersey and Pennsylvania said: “Youth who participated in synodal sessions… stressed that they should not be seen and spoken of mostly as the future of the church but should be recognized for their importance now and given a significant voice in the present.  They want to be both seen and heard and included more in church life, especially by participating meaningfully in parish and diocesan councils and ministries.”

Young adults often spoke of feeling as foreigners in the church in which they grew up.  There were many calls for the church to speak out about issues of particular interest to young adults, such as justice, race and climate change.

Thus, the first stage of Pope Francis’ process for synodal renewal revealed common and concrete conclusions in the U.S.  It pointed to an ecclesial community which experiences the church as spiritually nourishing in the most profound way, a community in which wonderful relationships of friendship, service, conversation and moral and spiritual growth take place.  But the dialogues also called for enormous changes on issues of formation, inclusion, accompaniment, co-responsibility and the effective proclamation of both the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrinal tradition of the church.

To an amazing degree, these same themes characterized dialogues in most of the other regions of the global church.  Weaving together the fruits of these many dialogues, the synod leadership team in Rome composed a set of questions and observations that needed to be addressed by the synodal process as it moved forward.  As a consequence, when the second stage of the synodal process began in Rome  this past October, Pope  Francis and the synod delegates began with a genuinely universal and comprehensive framework for undertaking the renewal of a synodal church.


The Roman Assembly

The very nature of the synodal assembly in Rome testified to the identity of the church as the entire People of God in a piercing manner.  Bishops, laywomen and men, religious, priests and deacons all sitting around common tables together in union with the Pope dialoging in deep faith and insight and voting equally upon the interim report that would be the basis for future action.  These dimensions of the assembly experience point to the reality that we were truly all journeying together on this pilgrimage on earth in the name of Jesus Christ. It was a stark contrast with past synods, where bishops alone voted, and the bulk of the sessions were spent listening to a seemingly endless series of speeches that left participants passive and disengaged.

The method of dialogue in Rome was conversation in the Spirit, a process of deep discernment which truly opened up the hearts of the synod participants.  Beginning with the Word of God and prayer, the participants at each table would share their initial reflections on the question at hand, each listening to the to other, with substantial pauses between contributions for prayer and reflection.  Then, building upon a series of such rounds, each table moved toward more directly addressing the issue for that session.

This method diminished frictions and magnified commonalities, precisely because all came to see with a greater understanding the faith of the other.

The synod was a profound experience of the universality of the church.  Because we switched tables five times during the course of the synod, each of us came into contact with the face of the People of God in every continent and across a multitude of cultures.  It was fascinating, transformative and powerfully transcendent to witness God’s diverse tapestry of grace at work throughout the world.

There were enormous issue-areas on which there was broad consensus – the centrality of the kerygma; the missionary identity of the church; the importance of placing the Eucharist of the center of every element of ecclesial life; the need to expand and invigorate ministries open to the laity; the church’s imperative to go out of itself to embrace and advocate for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed and the hopeless; the importance of a paradigm shift in the church’s invitation to and treatment of women; the need for a global rather than a national or mono-cultural perspective.

But there were also areas of deep divide: on how to meaningfully include the laity in the church while maintaining the integrity of its hierarchical nature; on how deeply inculturation and decentralization should proceed in the Catholic community; on questions of the diaconate and inclusion for LGBT+ communities.

In the wake of the first Roman synodal assembly, seven overarching questions, in my opinion, remain the most important for the next stages of the synodal process.


  1. The Nature of Discernment.

Synodality points to the reality that the whole of the People of God are journeying together in the life of the church and in synodal action. This means that we cannot operate from a mindset of complacency or one that accentuates the differences among the baptized.  Rather, we must view ourselves as the people of Israel were called to do in the desert, united in their faith and in their understanding that God was calling them to an ever-new way of life. As we were reminded at the Roman assembly, our individualistic perspectives on issues needed to be replaced by a communal understanding rooted in our common identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Listening was the requisite for authentic synodal progress.

The synthesis of the synodal assembly characterized synodality in these words: “In its broadest sense, synodality can be understood as Christians walking in communion with Christ toward the Kingdom along with the whole of humanity.  Its orientation is towards mission, and its practice involves gathering in assembly at each level of ecclesial life.  It involves reciprocal listening, dialogue, community discernment and creation of consensus as an expression that renders Christ present in the Holy Spirit, each taking decisions in accordance with their responsibility.”

But how can we bring this experience and culture effectively to our local parish and diocesan life?  The process of discernment used in Rome is far too time consuming to use with regularity in parish and diocesan life and decision-making.  How can we develop and implement analogical methods of discernment which authentically emphasize listening to the Spirit and to others, yet do so in a form that will be practical for general use?


  1. The Issue of Change and Continuity in the Life of the Church.

It is essential to safeguard the deposit of faith.  But how do the doctrinal tradition and history of the church restrict the church’s ability to refine its teaching when confronted with a world where life itself is evolving in critical ways, and it is becoming clear that on some issues the understanding of human nature and moral reality upon which previous declarations of doctrine were made were in fact limited or defective?

After the conclusion of the October assembly, Pope Francis pointed to a pathway for answering this question with his Motu ProprioAd Theologiam Promovendam.”  In it, he calls for a transformation of Catholic theology so that it moves away from abstraction and ideology and towards “mercifully addressing the open wounds of humanity and creation and within the folds of human history, to which it prophesies the hope of an ultimate fulfillment.”

Such a theology is inherently pastoral, with theological reflection starting from “the different contexts and concrete situations in which people find themselves.” Placing itself at the service of evangelization, it seeks “engagement and dialogue in every sphere of knowledge, in order to reach and involve the whole People of God in theological research, so that the life of the people may become theological life.”

Such a pathway for theology must be continually nourished by the doctrinal tradition of the church.  In fact, the theological pathway outlined by Pope Francis can itself foster greater authentic fidelity to the deposit of faith, not less, since it is embedded firmly in the real world where our earthly pilgrimage takes place.


  1. The Conflict between Prophetic Speech and Consensus.

As the synodal meeting proceeded, the willingness to speak forthrightly grew significantly.  It contributed tremendously to efforts to recognize and bridge our differences.  But when it came time to write the final synthesis, the desire to reflect consensus at times weighed against forthrightness.  This tension is inherent in the nature of a gathering such as this which treasures unity as an essential dimension of ecclesial life.  But as synodality develops in the church, this tension between forthrightness and unity will have to be explored further.


  1. The Question of Clericalism.

The nature, presence and implications of clericalism surfaced throughout the assembly in Rome.  The synod synthesis states, “clericalism stems from a misunderstanding of the divine call, viewing it more as a privilege than a service and manifesting itself in the exercise of power in a worldly manner that refuses to allow itself to be accountable.  This distortion of the priestly vocation needs to be challenged from the earliest stages of formation by ensuring close contact with the People of God…”

One of the most significant contributions that lay members made to the synodal assembly was to press deeply and continually for transparency rather than secrecy in the life of the church.  On issues ranging from finances to processes for assessing allegations against leaders in the church to questions of episcopal appointments and the evaluation of clergy, the lay participants in the synodal assembly made clear that rejecting clericalism demands a major transformation of the manner in which the church approaches secrecy and accountability.


  1. Decentralization in the Life of the Church.

One of the central topics of discussion at the Roman assembly flowed from the diversity of cultures in the global Catholic community.  The interplay between unity and diversity is especially pronounced in the effort to understand the proper relationship between particular cultures and histories and the need for adaptation on local levels.

The synodal synthesis states: “The cultural, historical and continental contexts in which the church is present reveal different spiritual and material needs.  This shapes the culture of the local churches, their missionary priorities, the concerns and gifts that each of them brings to the synodal dialogue, and the languages with which they express themselves.  During the days of the assembly, we were able to experience directly, and most joyfully, the diverse expressions of being church.”

In my own view, this issue of culture and decentralization is reflected in current diverging pastoral approaches across continents to the application of the declaration Fiducia Supplicans.  It is crucial to emphasize that Fiducia clarified questions about the permissibility of a priest pastorally blessing those in irregular or gay unions in a non-liturgical setting and manner.  No change in doctrine was made.

We have witnessed the reality that bishops in various parts of the world have made radically divergent decisions about the acceptability of such blessings in their countries, based substantially on cultural as well as pastoral realities.   This is decentralization in the global church.

But this decentralization must not obscure in any manner the rigorous obligation of every local church in justice and solidarity to protect LGBT+ persons in their lives and equal dignity.   And it cannot obscure the obligation of the church in every land to offer genuine accompaniment to LGBT+ men and women in their lives of faith and pilgrimage.

It is wholly legitimate for a priest to decline to perform the blessings outlined in Fiducia because he believes that to do so would undermine the strength of marriage.  But it is particularly distressing that the opposition to Fiducia in our own country focuses overwhelmingly on blessing those in same sex relationships rather than those many more men and women who are in heterosexual relationships that are not ecclesially valid.  If the reason for opposing such blessings is really that this practice will blur and undermine the commitment to marriage, then the opposition should, one thinks, be focusing at least equally on blessings for heterosexual relationships. We all know why it is not:  An enduring animus toward LGBT+ persons.


  1. What Does it Mean to be a Participative and Co-Responsible Church?

The synodal synthesis frames this question in these words: “Before any discussion of charisms and ministries, we were all baptized by the one Spirit into one body. Therefore, among all the baptized, there is a genuine equality of dignity and a common responsibility for mission, according to the vocation of each.”

Much of the time of the synodal assembly was spent in understanding the implications of these words for the life of the church at this moment in its history.

A critically important fruit of the discussion was to refine the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about the role of the laity in the internal life of the church.  The synthesis states: “Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teaching present the distinctive mission of the laity in terms of the sanctification of temporal or secular realities.  However, the reality is that pastoral practice, at the parish, diocesan and recently even the universal levels, increasingly entrusts lay people with tasks and ministries within the life of the church itself.”  Vatican II had proclaimed that the laity had a privileged place in the transformation of the world. The synodal assembly was stating that lay women and men also have a privileged place in the transformation of the church.

The synthesis points to Praedicate Evangelium, Pope Francis’ apostolic constitution on the reform of the Roman Curia, as a pivotal pathway for understanding this new reality.  Many of the participants at the synod shared their frustration about the inability of local churches to invite lay leaders into important positions in the life of dioceses and parishes because of impediments in canon law.   Praedicate affirms a notion of authority and power that distinguishes between those positions that truly require orders and those that can be empowered in the Roman Curia by the Pope.   They are not coextensive.

This teaching can be a foundation for opening new pathways to lay leadership in critically important areas of church life at diocesan and parochial levels.

If the desire to open ecclesial life more fully to lay leadership and participation resonated widely in the assembly, the desire to bring women more fully into leadership and decision-making roles provided the most inspiring moments of the meeting in Rome.    Repeatedly during the spiritual and theological reflections which took place during the assembly, the point had been made that Jesus, in his invitation to women as disciples and witnesses to the resurrection, produced a paradigm shift for the treatment of women in the culture of his time.  Most in the synodal assembly felt that time has come for just such a shift in the life of the church.

The assembly synthesis states, “Churches all over the world have expressed a clear request that the active contribution of women should be recognized and valued, and their pastoral leadership increase in all areas of the church’s life and mission…It is urgent to ensure that  women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry.”  There were more than 80 proposals for action contained in the synthesis.  This was the only one that was labeled urgent.


  1. The Meaning of Inclusion in the Church.

The synthesis approved by the Roman assembly forthrightly proclaims the need to make men and women effective protagonists of their life in society and the church, despite barriers of poverty, education, race or gender. It condemns all of these barriers as sinful.  It recognizes and condemns powerfully the structures in society and the church that grind people down with unceasing exclusion.  It calls for a deepening of the church’s preferential option for the poor and the elimination of all forms of violence and exploitation in the Catholic community.  Moreover, it condemns all of these evils with the humble recognition that they have existed within the life of the church and are a repudiation of Jesus Christ.

But regarding the exclusion of the divorced and the remarried and LGBT+ Catholics, the synthesis is far more muted.

I believe that the nature of inclusion in the church is most authentically reflected in the assembly synthesis’ discussion of the pastoral embrace of the Lord himself:  “Several Gospel passages reveal that Jesus meets people in the uniqueness of their personal story and situation.  He never begins from the perspective of prejudices or labels, but from the authenticity of relationship to which he commits himself wholeheartedly, even at the cost of experiencing rejection. Jesus always listens to the cry for help of those in need, even in situations in which it remains unexpressed. He engages in gestures that communicate love and restore confidence; He makes new life possible with His presence; those who meet him come away transformed.  This happens because the truth of which Jesus is the bearer is not an idea, but the very presence of God in our midst.  And the love with which He acts is not just a feeling, but the justice of the Kingdom that changes history.”

Let us pray that in the coming year this beautiful vision of Jesus’ pastoral ministry may light the way for the church’s ministry to all those who are marginalized in the church we love so deeply.

We stand now in the middle of the synodal journey that Pope Francis has summoned us to in the renewal of the church.  The voices of the People of God across every continent shared their joys, sorrows, and hopes in the church, thereby creating a foundation for global synodal discernment.  The first synodal assembly met in Rome and discerned in God’s grace the outlines of what a synodal renewal could look like.  Now, consultations are taking place across the world to reflect on the work of the assembly and provide input for the next assembly meeting this October.  In union with the Holy Father, the next assembly will complete the work they have begun and then the Pope will finalize and proclaim the steps we will be taking as a church to renew our ecclesial culture and transform the world.  We stand at the middle of the journey, a journey which promises to produce immense blessings for the church we love.  As pilgrims in this earthly city, let us rejoice as where we have come and where we are going on this synodal pathway.