ROME – Pope Francis has decided to extend by a year a lengthy global consultation of ordinary Catholics about the future of the Catholic Church, amid limited participation by the laity and seeming resistance to his reforms from the hierarchy.
Francis announced Sunday that the planned 2023 gathering of bishops would now take place in two stages — one session in October 2023 and a second in October 2024 — to allow more time to find a way forward.
Francis in 2021 formally opened a two-year consultation process on the topic of “synodality,” or a more decentralized structure of the church with the laity having a greater role. The process is part of Francis’ long-term goal of making the church more inclusive, participatory and responsive to real-world issues facing ordinary Catholics.
As part of the process, the Vatican asked dioceses, religious orders and other Catholic groups to embark on local listening sessions so ordinary Catholics could talk about their needs and hopes for the church. Bishops conferences in August reported back the results, and an organizing committee recently met near Rome and completed a synthesis document.
But several dioceses and bishops conferences reported minimal participation. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, reported 700,000 people participated in the consultation, in a country of 66.8 million Catholics. Many European countries also reported participation rates below 10%.
In addition, many of Francis' opponents have scoffed at the entire initiative. A leading critic and former Vatican official, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller of Germany, recently warned that it represented a “hostile takeover” of the church. Others have pointed to a similar consultation process underway in Germany that has badly divided the church, amid debate on hot-button issues such as sexual morality, women in leadership roles and the church's treatment of LGBTQ Catholics.
Announcing the yearlong extension Sunday, Francis said the fruits of this first phase had been many “but in order to reach a full maturity, it’s necessary that we not rush things.” Adding in another year, he said, would allow for a “more extended discernment.”
“I trust that this decision will lead to an understanding of synodality as a constitutive dimension of the church, and to help everyone live it as a path of brothers and sisters who offer witness to the joy of the Gospel," Francis said in his noon blessing overlooking St. Peter's Square.
Already, the Vatican office organizing the meeting had extended by several months the deadline to let ordinary dioceses and bishops conferences report back. That office said Sunday the decision to extend the whole process by another year would “foster more mature reflection for the greater good of the church.”
It's not the first time that Francis has split a synod meeting up into two sessions, with a year of breathing room in between them. He did that for his synod on the family, which took place over the course of two sessions in 2014 and 2015, and resulted in his 2016 document that opened the door to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion.