“The Way is Open”: Synodality, Ecumenism, and the Future of a Church in Process.

By Nathalie Becquart, XMCJ, and Aaron Hollander

Sr. Nathalie Becquart, XMCJ, is the Undersecretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod at the Vatican. As a Xavière sister from France, her mission has largely focused on youth and synodality. Prior to her current appointment, she served as National Director of the Service for the Evangelization of Young People and Vocations in France and did research in ecclesiology at the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. She has also studied management and entrepreneurship at HEC, philosophy and theology at Centre Sèvres (Facultés Loyola), as well as sociology at the EHESS in Paris.

Dr. Aaron T. Hollander is Editor of Ecumenical Trends, Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, and Adjunct Faculty in Theology at Fordham University. In 2022, he was elected President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists; he also serves on the steering committee of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network and on the faculty of the Summer Course in Ecumenism at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. He is a scholar of ecumenical theology and lived religion, with his PhD from the University of Chicago (2018). His first book, forthcoming from Fordham University Press (2025), is entitled Saint George Liberator: Hagiography and Resistance on the Island of Saints.

Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: It is an honor to speak with you, Sr. Nathalie, on the processes and priorities of the Synod for a Synodal Church, as we are now into the final year of the process – ongoing since October 2021 – of discerning at every level and across the globe how the Roman Catholic Church can move toward a more participatory, more mission-oriented, more communal and communion-grounded reality.

We can speak in more granular terms about the goals and the methods of the Synod shortly, but it would be fitting to begin by asking about you: your role in the Synod and how that position has been shaped over these past couple of years. What is your background that has equipped you for this major role you now play, as one of only two Undersecretaries for the Vatican’s General Secretariat of the Synod?

Nathalie Becquart, XMCJ: I have been working in this office since I was appointed by Pope Francis in February 2021. My background is somewhat eclectic, I suppose: my first postgraduate studies were in a business school, where I specialized in entrepreneurship before spending one year in Lebanon as a volunteer in 1992-1993. It was in Lebanon that I discovered the diversity of the Oriental Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. And that was also the year when I began more seriously to discern my vocation and to think about religious life. I came back to Paris after that, spending two years in a very interesting ecumenical experience: I joined a marketing and communications agency, specializing in NGO or nonprofit organizations, which was founded by a Protestant evangelical. It was a small agency, and the staff was half-Protestant and half-Catholic. I was the second Catholic. And the whole two years I worked there as a consultant, I had the chance to live ecumenism: as we had many discussions on religious and moral topics, but also simply while we went about our daily work together, we found had much in common and much to learn from one another. During that time I continued to discern, and I entered religious life shortly thereafter: I left my job and I professed with the Xavier Sisters, an Ignatian community founded in France in 1921. The charism of our community is all about working for unity, facilitating reconciliation, and making links between the Church and those who are far from the Church. As a Xavier sister, I pursued university studies in philosophy and theology, alongside sociology, and I began working in youth ministry in a variety of ways.

It was on this basis that I was appointed by the French Episcopal Conference as Director of the National Service for the Evangelization of Youth and Vocations (one of ten national offices at the French Episcopal Conference). So, when Pope Francis decided to convoke a Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, that was exactly the topic of our national office. I became very involved in preparations for helping all the French dioceses and youth organizations to be part of the consultation, and I was also asked to come to Rome for different steps of preparation at an international level. And with this experience of being involved in the preparations for the Synod on Young People, I was appointed as an observer at that Synod in October 2018.

At that time, after the Synod on Young People, I had also just finished my ten-year term at the French Episcopal Conference. It had been a wonderful experience, but I asked for sabbatical time because I had been traveling constantly through all those years working with young people and with the Conference. I needed to have time to reflect, and I was sent to the Xavier Sisters’ community in Toronto. It was through that period of discernment that my superiors and I agreed that, after all these years of pastoral experience, ministry, and serving young people (including my experience of the Synod), it would be good to go back to theology and to train in ecclesiology, while researching synodality in particular. In the language of spiritual discernment, I would say that I experienced much consolation whenever I was involved in what we could call a synodal style of mission among young people.

And so, I went to pursue this ecclesiological research on synodality at Boston College in 2019-2020. Just before I arrived there, I was appointed by Pope Francis as Consultor to the Synod of Bishops. It’s not a permanent position, but a kind of expert consultant as need arises – that’s how I continued to be in relationship with the General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops. I took part in that capacity in the Synod on the Amazon, and then, after completing my studies at Boston College, I was appointed in Rome as one of two Undersecretaries to Cardinal Mario Grech, who is the current General Secretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod. I never thought about it in these terms, but suppose my mission here is to be a permanent secretariat working to organize Synods and promote synodality throughout the Church, all on behalf of the Synod of Bishops, which was instituted by Paul VI at the end of the Second Vatican Council.

It may be of particular interest to the readers of Ecumenical Trends that, in this role with the Synod of Bishops, I work closely with the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. In fact, I have been more involved than I ever would have expected in the ecumenical dimension, because there is a deep affinity and practical linkage between synodality and ecumenism. Working inside the Vatican, it would come as no surprise that this is a very institutional, Roman Catholic environment, and yet I have discovered that synodality cannot be limited to dialogue inside the Roman Catholic Church, for the sake of its institutional health; it is also strongly linked with ecumenism, with the health and organic flourishing of the entire Body of Christ. Indeed, a synodal perspective is also supportive more broadly of interreligious dialogue, and dialogue with the secular world. My work in Rome entails collaboration across all of these dimensions at once.

AH: Thank you. This background provides so much texture for understanding how you got to be where you are. I want to come back to these questions about the intimate relationship between synodality and ecumenism, but it strikes me that your years of work with youth in particular positions you to be a force in this synodal movement, given how important it is to be drawing on the insights of younger generations for the synodal process. And I’m aware that young people have constituted a significant portion of the voting members of the Synod on Synodality itself.

NB: Yes. In fact, I could really say that I have learned synodality through my work with young people, because you learn that you have to really journey with them as the protagonists of their own paths, and to walk alongside them in a posture of accompaniment. Especially when I was involved in campus ministry – what we call in France “university pastoral care” – the key word is “co-responsibility.” You minister with student leaders, who themselves are the best ones to reach and work with other students; we have a good network of university chaplaincies at almost all universities in France, and they are meant not to direct students or impose pastoral care from above, but to co-lead a team with them. This was my experience also when I was in charge of organizing World Youth Day for the French delegation. And each time I have fostered this way of co-leadership between junior and senior partners, I am reminded how crucial this approach is if we want to reach young people: it is not only about training young leaders but about accompanying and empowering them, helping them make their own way.

This is a fruit of the Synod on Young People, which we have taken up into the Synod for a Synodal Church: young people want and need a synodal church. They may not use this language exactly, but they are asking clearly and compellingly to be listened to, to be protagonists in the church and not only observers, to earn opportunities for leadership that are not trivialized. They seek a relational Church with a fraternal style. If we can hear this, and respond adequately to it, we will see what an extraordinary difference synodality makes, not only in the lives of young people but also for everyone in the church. The Synod on Young People has this realization written in its final document: that synodality is a constitutive dimension of the church, even as, for many historical reasons, we have more often emphasized the hierarchical dimension. When we listen to young people, coming to join them where they are on the road, coming to know their suffering and hurt without dismissing or minimizing it, we will discover that young people have already reawakened the synodality of the church that we have had from the beginning. They are expressing that they are yearning for a fraternal church, an intimate church, an honest church. They don’t want a church that values its institutions more than its human realities; they want the church to be like a family.

So I think that young people have been, over these past several years, the driving force of synodality in the church. Now that we are in the final phase of the Synod for a Synodal Church, in fact, we see that what young people have long been asking for is what the rest of us are increasingly able to appreciate and articulate. At the most recent Assembly in October 2023, young people were very much still in the minority – but they spoke up and they were heard, and their involvement in the decision making process was indispensable.

AH: Can we speak a little more specifically about the goals of the Synod? You’ve spoken about synodality in terms of building relationships, and you’ve observed among young people especially a hunger for a church where relationships are more healthy and sustainable. Do you see the synodal process as one by which new relationships, which have not adequately existed between different segments of the church, can be established? Or is it more about transforming the relationships that already exist, assessing their infirmities and intervening where changes can be made to make these relationships healthier?

NB: Sometimes I like to say that synodality begins with a coffee, with a meal. It’s about retrieving and understanding that above all, and prior to any distinction of role and vocation in the church, we are all baptized – thus equal in dignity – and we are all human beings. More fundamentally than being a priest or a layperson, being a man or a woman, being younger or older, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are called before all else to fraternity, to brotherhood and sisterhood, and to be co-responsible for the mission of the church. Synodality means recognizing that the church – for all its administrative structures – is not ultimately shaped like a pyramid. It is not hard to imagine that the church is made up of clergy who lead and everyone else who just follows, but a synodal church is one in which the people of God all walk together where they are, each exercising their own gifts and each owed the same dignity in relationship.

Healthy relationships in the church require the understanding that we are interdependent and that everybody has something to offer, because as baptized people we are being empowered by the Spirit and we have to contribute even as we also receive. Even children have perspectives that belong in the church, insights that can teach and enlighten the church – we know this through the process of synodal consultation, listening to children speak and taking their words seriously. Sometimes children speak the words of the gospel with more authenticity than their teachers do. The synodal process entails uprooting patterns in the church in which those who know, those who teach, those who lead, are qualitatively removed from those who listen and learn and follow.

A synodal style is one of mutuality, reciprocity, and understanding that we can’t know ourselves fully without perceiving ourselves anew through others’ experience. This is indeed part and parcel with the vocation of the church – to be a sign and instrument of the unity of the human family. It’s not uncommon to say that synodality is a process that builds us as people of God, or a process that builds togetherness, but we have to remember that this togetherness is already given. It’s given through our relationship with the Triune God, and through our relationality as human beings. I would say that the first school of synodality is the family. The family is where you first learn to listen to one other, to stay in dialogue even when that dialogue isn’t easy, to stick together even when you might prefer to be apart. But that togetherness you learn in the family does not mean that differences are erased or invalidated, and it does not mean that nobody takes responsibility over the well-being of others. The parents are the parents, the kids are the kids, every individual brings their own cares and commitments into the mix – but you are family through and through. If you are planning to go on vacation with your family, and the father of the household makes all the decisions without consulting the mother or the kids – that will be a failed vacation. It’s another thing entirely if time is taken to listen to everybody’s point of view, and to make decisions based on an honest accounting of everybody’s perspective. Ultimately, a decision may still have to be made, but that decision will be made from a place of closeness and mutual respect. In a synodal church, nobody decides alone, even if at the end a bishop or the pope must still take responsibility for a decision.

            Australian theologian Ormand Rush describes synodality as “the Second Vatican Council in a nutshell.” The goals of the current Synod, then, are meant to continue implementing the Council and advancing the reception of the Council, that is, by understanding more deeply and putting into more comprehensive practice a Vatican II ecclesiology that places particular focus on the common vocation and equal dignity of all the baptized.

AH: Would you say that the current synodal process is meant to repair something which has gone awry or which hasn’t been adequately digested since the time of the Second Vatican Council? Or would it be more accurate to describe the Synod as a form of preventative care – in the sense that, in the ecclesiological paradigm emerging from Vatican II, the ongoing health of the church requires ongoing synodal reassessment rather than isolated interventions that can be completed?

NB: The way I would describe it – in fact the traditional way to express this process – is ecclesia semper reformanda. The synodal process is simply taking responsibility for the continual reform of the church, looking at the church in a dynamic way – not as a purely divine reality immune to improvement but as a mystery which is no less divine for being deeply and authentically human, bound up in its history and sometimes weak and sinful, in need of continual renewal by the Holy Spirit. The church is not a theoretical notion but a living people, walking toward the kingdom of God but always doing so embedded in history, in culture, in differing social, economic, political contexts. In this sense, you know, the church is not perfected but on the way to its fulfillment; we need to be faithful to the nature of the church as it is, which is continually unfolding in different ways through history and in every new context.

But the Synod is asking for more than our revision of a passive understanding of the church: it is inviting us onto a path of personal conversion and communal conversion to a more missionary church, a church that is better able to serve the world – because the church is not its own goal. The church exists for the world, to love and serve the people of the world. And as we see so many crises, challenges, divisions, polarization, conflicts, and wars in the world today, with such great challenges we need to be together. Nobody can walk alone. That’s why the call to synodality is always also a call to foster ecumenism; we have been called by Christ to be one, because the fruitfulness of the mission of the church depends on our capacity for communion among all who share that mission.

This is an important moment for ecumenism, because of the ever-greater awareness, both within and beyond the church, that the challenges we face need to be faced together. A fractured church and a divided world, where mistrust and violence are the norm, will never be able to hold the fullness of life that we seek. And the synodal process reflects this recognition as well – whatever political, cultural, economic, and spiritual fissures have opened within history to divide human beings from one another, we face inside the Roman Catholic Church as well. So we need each other, not only to face common challenges hand in hand, but also to learn the ways of synodality from one another. None of us can say that we have all the answers and have nothing to learn – and it’s not to say that we will just copy and paste what the Anglicans are doing or what the Orthodox are doing, but we must learn from them and discern how the ways that they are finding to walk together may illuminate our own path. This is, of course, what is known as “receptive ecumenism” – an exchange of gifts between communities and perspectives, for the sake of everyone’s growth in harmony with one another.

That’s what we see with this synod. We are learning and refining a way to be united as one church in our diversity, but without falling back on a vision of homogeneity where everybody is the same color. Maybe the main fruit of this synod is that we have learned more and more completely that we should not be afraid of diversity. Without real (and not just apparent or trivial) diversity, unity has no meaning – real unity, which is a binding together of diverse elements in a harmonious whole! Of course, there are some fundamental elements of Christian experience and witness – at the center of all our diversities, we try to follow Christ, to love God and our neighbor – but the diversities in the church are not a crisis to be overcome. After all, the greatest diversity we have navigated in the synodal process is the cultural diversity – with people from many different continents who look at ways of being church and ways of evangelizing in remarkably different ways due to the diversity of their contexts. The one church can only exist as a panoply of local churches – living their discipleship, their liturgy, their theological understanding, their inhabitation of human society, in ways that we might struggle to understand. But that struggle is not a problem. It is the way to a meaningful unity – as we have long seen to be the case, for instance, with the Eastern Rite churches that are no less Catholic for looking unlike the Latin church and Latin ways of living the faith. We need the same openness and integrity with difference for the global church.

AH: The Instrumentum Laboris for the first session of the Synod on Synodality makes much of Pope Francis’ comment that “The path of synodality, which the Catholic Church is on, is and must be ecumenical, just as the ecumenical path is synodal.”[1] Would this be a fair description of the synodal process writ large, that it is a form of ecumenism, of ecumenical engagement and reconciliation, taking place within the Catholic Church – reminding us that the unity we seek cannot be found by bridgebuilding across denominational divides if we are not also taking care for the living, diverse unity of the traditions in which we stand?

NB: In a way, yes, in the sense that Pope Francis states very clearly. There is no synodality without ecumenism and no ecumenism without synodality, because both rely on the same style of walking together into an uncertain future, learning from one another in dialogue, forging unity without diluting difference, and discerning collaboratively how to meet the challenges of our times for the common good. Ecumenism is also inextricable from synodality because this Synod has so emphasized the importance of baptism as a basis for full belonging in the church, and once we put baptism at the center rather than, say, the hierarchical organization of the church or the requirements of ordination, then we have to remember that we have baptism in common with all Christians. Baptism as a principle of synodality also constitutes an unambiguous warrant for ecumenism – it is the foundation of both.

AH: The goals would seem to be intimately aligned as well. You were speaking about conversion as a bedrock of the synodal process, and clearly this is the case for ecumenism as well. Because unity is incoherent as a goal for ecumenism without the more proximate goal of conversion – toward one another, toward the whole into which we live, toward the God out of love for whom we have insisted on our own answers and so fallen away from each other – from which unity can follow. A unity that doesn’t follow organically from conversion toward a new way of seeing one another and belonging to one another is mere administrative control. And a spiritual, ethical cultivation of this kind of undistorted seeing would seem, more than any specific fruits of ecclesiological discernment or institutional negotiation, to be where ecumenism and synodality are conjoined at the heart.

NB: We have spent much time reflecting on the spirituality of synodality, and the elements that keep coming to the center are reconciliation and pardon. What was so striking at the last Assembly was that we could feel, viscerally, the humility of so many participants in coming into contact with those whose perspectives they may have dismissed in the past. Such humility was accompanied by recognition that no one has the truth alone, and that everyone has their own wounds and vulnerabilities – to which we or our predecessors may have contributed.

So both at a personal level and at the level of our communities, we are in need of reconciliation if the work of synodality is to be sustainable.

Moreover, for reconciliation we need truth-telling, as the church has long known; the goal of all synods and councils in the history of the church has been to seek and commit the truth together. The very first Synod, in a way, was the Council of Jerusalem, of which we read in Acts 15. The apostles disagree, there is a big conflict, and what do they do? They stop, they pray, they speak, they discern, and at the end, they find a consensus. The consensus to which they came was not the truth and vision that they held at the beginning – it was only through the synodal process that the Holy Spirit made space within them for a truth and vision that they could not have imagined without the struggle to reach it together. So I like very much what Pope Francis often says about ecumenism and synodality – he says, in Italian, il cammino si fa camminando. It means that the path is made by the walking. The way of ecumenism, and indeed of synodality, is made by the experience of those who take part in it. It is a learning by doing: we can study, we can read texts, we can take courses on method, but ultimately we learn through relationships, through meeting others and building trust with them over time. That’s one reason it’s so difficult, because learning by doing means we will make mistakes and we will become tired quickly. As with walking, we need to be in shape for it – we need spiritual exercises that will prepare and sustain us for the long walk together. The Synod was designed with this in mind: to provide an experience of being together, of discerning together, of learning both the way and the goal in the course of seeking it.

AH: This is especially difficult, and of course especially important, where there are deeply-rooted disagreements either within a church or between the churches. And the most devilishly difficult disagreements to address through dialogue are those around the legitimacy of dialogue or of those engaged in it. For example, does the Synod have plans to address the mistrust of the synodal process itself among so-called traditionalist Catholics, who may reject the very notion of ecclesia semper reformanda and fear that the synodal process of listening and learning would introduce doctrinal error or moral relativism into the eternal truth of the church?

NB: Well, I’m not sure I can provide any conclusive or complete answer to this, but I can share something hopeful that I have seen at the beginning of the Synod. We began this final phase, at the Assembly in October 2023, with an ecumenical prayer vigil that included Pope Francis, the heads of many other churches, all the delegates to the Synod, and young people from a wide range of Christian denominations. After this vigil, participants in the Synod went for three days of spiritual retreat. And during the retreat, we were all together in a house outside of Rome, and we began the methodology of the Synod with what we call a Conversation in the Spirit. It’s a practice of listening to each other in a roundtable format: first we prayed together on the topic, then we discussed it aloud, and through all this we refrained from reacting immediately to what was said. We listened to everybody, and then there was silence and contemplation once more, and then there was a second round, where only now we articulated how we had been touched by what was said or what we learned in listening to others. None of this entails entering an intellectual debate, but it allows us to express our experience, our vision, without judgment.

So then, during this retreat, we encouraged everybody to reflect on and express their fears about the Synod and about the Assembly. This was crucial because, in fact, it’s very normal to be apprehensive about a process of conversion, personal and communal. Change, reform, transformation – it’s very human to fear and resist these things. But as participants we were asked to sit with these fears and to sit with the question: are we led by our fears or are we led by what we have discerned as the will of God? If synodality has indeed been discerned by the church as the will of God for the church of the third millennium, the way to be the church in the world of today, then it’s not a matter of whether I might like it or not like it, want to do it or not want to do it, fear what will happen as a result or expect outcomes that I take to be positive. The question that matters is: do we want to answer the call of God and to try to be the church that God is asking us to be in this world? The problem with this, of course, that those who have been the most critical of the synodal process are in fact those who are looking at the Synod from outside, who have refused to enter into the experience. We can’t force them to open their hearts to conversion and collaborative discovery of God’s will in the unified diversities of the church. We can only hope that – even if they are not open to listening to others or if they are convinced that the Synod will be a road to perdition – they will in the end see that it has been a joyful process and see that even those who participated in the Synod from a place of fear were nevertheless able to find it fruitful in the end.

What we try to do, then, is to invite even those who are the most reluctant or resistant to getting on board to experience this listening methodology, so they can discover that it’s not a threat. To participate is definitely not to have your dissenting vision squashed – because dissent is itself part of the process. Change is part of the process – no one is expected to enter the process having the answers already in hand. Anyone who learns the history of the church will discover (though they may look for ways to explain away) that it is a history of change – often a change to be more faithful to the Gospel, since in every new context we understand it differently. People may want to wax poetic about “the eternal mass” – but no, nothing about the tangible way to celebrate mass is eternal, for it has evolved with history. For instance, at the outset the mass was not in Latin, and we have always had different rites within the Catholic Church to celebrate the same Eucharist. We should also recall that we have four gospels to tell the same story in different ways, because these narratives are the results of different communities’ different priorities and different ways of seeing. That is what the church has always been!

AH: And as you’ve said, it requires humility and trust to enter into these processes of change without feeling like you are at risk of losing who you are and what you know to be true. Such humility and trust may in fact be in declining supply – what then? They certainly cannot be taken for granted – but cultivating them anew is no casual activity. That’s another question entirely, beyond our scope for today.

I’d like to conclude with two shorter questions, the first of which is about the risks of synodality. It’s clear that this process has been breathing so much new life into the church, but no change or growth is free of risk, particularly when it is asking so much of so many people who are used to doing things in another way. We will reach the end of the Synod for a Synodal Church this coming October, and we may hope that it will have heralded a new phase in the reception of Vatican II and a new perspective on the vitality of the church into the mid-twenty-first century. But what could go wrong in the meantime, or as a result?

NB: It’s difficult to say, because if we are genuinely guided in discernment by the Holy Spirit, we cannot know where the Synod will lead us. The life of the church after this coming October is not written in advance – it’s an open and creative path. And that’s difficult, because of course we prefer to know the path before we walk it. What we are doing now requires us to learn, in a way, how to let go and allow the Spirit to guide us, rather than seeking always to be in a position of mastery over our future. That goes both for people who are afraid of any kind of change, and for people who are frustrated by not having enough change – in each case there needs to be greater trust that the people of God will find their way, and are better off doing so together than in isolated corners of the church where people of like mind can have their way. As Yves Congar said, true reform in the church is neither a revolution, where history and the past are held to be liabilities or scapegoats, nor a way to lock in some element of tradition by exalting and idolizing it, but rather a living tradition that requires us to change in order to remain faithful. Yes, the church in its human dimension is changing all the time – if we do pastoral work in the same way that we did it fifty years ago, not only will it not work, it will be a betrayal of the dynamic identity of a living tradition. The same could be said about an individual human life: if you look back at who you were twenty years ago, you are the same person in a way, but you are also truly different because you have been transformed by your experience of life, by your journey, by so many things. It’s not only young people who are evolving and changing as they grow through life, as if they reach some plateau of maturity and stay there – I’m not the same now at fifty-five as I was years ago when I pronounced my first vows, but it’s the same vocation, the same vows, even as they unfold through time.

The risk, then, could be – as we change and grow, as is right and true to what the church has always been – either that we forget or disparage who we used to be, believing our past to be inauthentic compared with our present, or that we come to fear the future and so become stuck in a static view of our identity, believing some safe moment in the life of the church to encompass its fullness. And that would be very sad indeed, given the enormous opportunity represented by this process if we can overcome these fears and doubts.

We are trying, through this synodal process, to heal in whatever ways we can the wounds and traumas left in the church over a long history, and to let go of those ways of being church that are maladjusted because they were born of those traumas and carried with us into new generations – the clericalism, the abuses, the overreactions to the pain of the Protestant Reformation. But there is still a risk, as we try to retrieve something of the synodal and collegial style of the early church, that we remain maladjusted to the world as it is today. We cannot just copy and paste the church from the first three centuries – we have to discover its inspiration anew. How, in the circumstances of today, are we to be Christian? How are we to be the church in a digital age, to proclaim the Gospel in an age of artificial intelligence?

AH: Here again we see the essential confluence of synodality and ecumenism, because to take inspiration from the early church, risky and potentially wishful though this may be, entails cultivating a mode of Christian identity that is grounded in something other than our belief that we have kept the faith as others have fallen away, something other than the ubiquitous ways that our forms of tradition are defined by their opposition to those who have broken away. It may sound uncontroversial, to seek a church that doesn’t cultivate communal self-imagination in terms of factions and fortresses, but it is enormously difficult to do so. Ecumenical rapprochement introduces as much of a crisis of identity as ever did division – maybe more so, since communal rupture from a clear antagonist provides firmer and more secure grounds for planting a flag around which to rally than does the painstaking and uncomfortable work of reconciliation. As has regularly been noted in ecumenical conversations, the “solutions” to church-dividing problems so often fail to address the psychology of such oppositional identities.

So here we are in the final, universal phase of the Synod, moving towards the last assembly, near the end of 2024. I’d like to conclude by asking you about what is happening next? What are we going to see over these next several months? And what is your hope for what will happen as the Synod concludes?

NB: Well, there’s only so much we can say at this point, because the final Assembly itself will work out, concretely and collaboratively, how best to go forward. But the idea of a roadmap that we have at this stage is that the end of the Synod is by no means the end of the synodal process in the Roman Catholic Church. The process began at the local level, and after this October’s Assembly we will have to see it return to the local level, where each community will need to discern how to live out the fruits of the Synod. I would advise you to read the Synthesis Report document that was published this past October – it gives a broad picture of where we are now, and what are the convergences, proposals, and matters that still must be taken into consideration.

Moreover, there is no need to wait for next October to begin the local process anew – there is much that can already be implemented. For instance (and this will be of particular interest to your readers) there has been great consensus at the Synod Assemblies that we need to foster ecumenism in our communities – at a grassroots level, not only through Vatican dicasteries and commissioned dialogues. It is noteworthy that this need to support ecumenical formation and opportunities for lay Catholics was not even a matter of debate – for me it seemed more like a fruit that has grown ripe and is ready to enjoy after all these years of a formal ecumenical movement, into which the Catholic church entered after Vatican II and has held to be of great importance ever since. There was a strong consensus that ecumenism belongs at the local level no less than at the level of appointed expert representatives and national or international dialogues. This is a fruit of the synodal process that can be enjoyed now in parishes – where it’s up to each community to discern how to deepen their mutual learning and exchange of gifts with their neighbors.

AH: But this requires training and practice, not just good will (and even good will has to come from somewhere) – in seminaries, in adult formation programs, in Sunday School, in inter-communal gatherings of various kinds. Even grassroots ecumenism needs to be organized and undertaken with care and preparation. I hope that the synodal process will, when all is said and done, have demonstrated to the hierarchy the importance of investing in ecumenical education for both clergy and laity.

NB: Yes indeed. But I also take hope, thinking back to what we experienced at the ecumenical prayer vigil this past October, that when we pray together, when we commit to the spiritual ecumenism that begins simply by being among one another while centered on Christ and opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit in prayer for one another, we do not need to be experts in order to feel a profound change in perspective. Anyone can take these first steps first, whether trained or not, and the more such ecumenical prayer is available to experience, the more we will find that our path as the church in every place is a path worth traveling together, come what may.




1. Francis I, Address to His Holiness Mar Awa III Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, 19 November 2022; cited in the Instrumentum Laboris for the First Session of the Synod for a Synodal Church (2021-2024), §B.1.4.

This interview originally appeared in Ecumenical Trends 53.2 (March/April 2024), a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.


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