Catholic delegates have praised the conciliatory atmosphere of debates on the church's future direction at a continental assembly preparing Europe's recommendations for October's Rome Synod on Synodality.
“With so many cultural and liturgical differences, particularly between East and West, we won't achieve a complete consensus -- but this very diversity gives Europe its distinctive voice within the universal church," Father Jan Nowotnik, mission director for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, told OSV News.
"If we wanted to, we could settle some of the hot questions facing the church -- over the abuse crisis, the role of women, same-sex unions or clerical celibacy. But that wouldn't settle them in the whole Body of Christ or necessarily bring the best solutions. So instead we've presented the issues, asking how we can be faithful to God while holding these things in tension."
The priest spoke to OSV News after presenting a 22-page draft report to the assembly in Prague, attended in person or online Feb. 5-9 by 590 delegates representing 39 bishops' conferences across the continent and including 44 guests from church organizations and non-Catholic denominations.
He said Europe's Catholic dioceses had been given little time, following the coronavirus pandemic, to provide a "national synthesis" of concerns for the upcoming Synod, while also reaching agreement about the priorities of synodality.
Meanwhile, a bishop from the Netherlands said assembly participants had clearly enjoyed "coming together and sharing the richness of faith," despite contrasting backgrounds and circumstances.
"The natural law was addressed, as well as the existence of sin, while some groups talked about morality and changes in doctrine -- but this was a sharing of opinions, not a clash of views," Bishop Johannes van den Hende of Rotterdam, who headed the Dutch delegation, told OSV News.
"When bishops' synods were instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1965, they were seen as events, whereas they're now viewed as a process,” he said.
The assembly continued Feb. 10 with a meeting of conference presidents, who will consider the draft report and also prepare their own document. Presentation and approval of the commentary on the Final Document will conclude on Feb. 11.
In an opening homily Feb. 5, the Czech bishops' president, Archbishop Jan Graubner, urged participants to "find courage to overcome the narrow European mentality" and reach out to the world's poorest, including those suffering in Ukraine and across Africa.
Meanwhile, Czech theologian Father Tomas Halik told the opening session Feb. 6 the October Synod's task would be to "revive and deepen the dynamic character of Christianity," ensuring the Catholic church remained "a living organism, always open, transforming and evolving."
"The turn of Christianity towards synodality, the transformation of the church into a dynamic community of pilgrims can have an impact on the destiny of the whole human family," Halik said.
Preaching Feb. 7 in Prague cathedral, the Synod's Maltese secretary-general, Cardinal Mario Grech, urged Catholics not to view current debates as "a battle of conservatives against liberals" or "an opposition between West and East, North and South."
"The Synod is not there to destroy distinctions, to destroy the Catholic identity," Cardinal Grech added.
"The church's unity can only be understood in relation to diversity, its holiness in relation to what is unholy, its universality in relation to what is particular. This is never a static relationship, but a dynamic one."
In his OSV News interview, Bishop van den Hende said lay Catholics in countries like the Netherlands had welcomed the chance to be involved in the October Synod, but added that it was important bishops' conference presidents would be able to discuss the assembly's final document before its release.
"The church is a community embracing different tasks and responsibilities, and it's important the bishops, as contemporary apostles, can play a specific role," the Rotterdam-based bishop told OSV News.
"The synodal process still only involves a part of our faithful -- it isn't a mass event yet. But we must get used to more synodal activities."
Meanwhile, Father Nowotnik said he was heartened that delegates from across Europe had "listened respectfully," despite the "potential for division," and said there had been "no bust-ups, heckling, snide remarks or boycotting of sessions."
He added that Catholics from Russia and Ukraine had sat together during debates, sharing "pain and agony" over current events, and said any "political tensions" had been overshadowed by the church's "peacemaking capacity" on behalf of those suffering on both sides.
The Europe assembly is mirrored by parallel continental assemblies during February and March for Oceania, the Middle East, North America, Asia, Africa and Latin America, which will also submit final documents for incorporation in the Synod's working programme, or instrumentum laboris.
In Europe, church leaders have voiced apprehension about the wide divergence of Catholic views from Portugal to Finland, as well as possible dominance of Germany's Catholic Church, which launched its own Synodal Way discussions in December 2019.
However, in his OSV News interview, Father Nowotnik said differences over issues such as doctrinal consistency and the place of women in the church had been "listened to respectfully" with "no battling in the room."
"But the church in Europe seeks to be very clear about its mission in Christ. It's been said many times that unity can best be rediscovered by returning to the dignity conferred on us all by baptism," Bishop van den Hende told OSV News.
Each delegation presented a "national synthesis" of concerns to the assembly Feb. 6 with Spain, headed by Cardinal Juan José Omella of Barcelona, prioritizing challenges from secularization, poverty, social exclusion, immigration and "different family, affective or sexual situations."
The French delegation, headed by Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, urged a purification of "all forms of deformation in spiritual life," and steps in include "the young, poor and excluded, people with disabilities, homosexuals, divorced and remarried."
It also warned of "strong remaining tensions" around the Catholic liturgy, and called for a "symphonic articulation of the different vocations within the church."
The president of the Polish bishops' conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, told his church's Catholic information agency, KAI, assembly speakers had highlighted the "weak spiritual condition" of contemporary people, and said he counted on the church to "listen genuinely to the Holy Spirit" rather than "to its own voices and the voices of the world."
However, Germany's conference president, Bishop Georg Batzing of Limburg, said he regretted the Prague assembly had not included some of the "hundreds of thousands of victims" of sexual abuse by clergy, while other German participants criticised a lack of focus of radical reform issues, including the ordination of women, and greater inclusion of LGBT people and remarried divorcees in church life.
The head of Latvia's Catholic church, Archbishop Zbignevs Stankevics, told journalists some church representatives had raised LGBT and women's issues "repeatedly like a mantra," but said there had been "less antagonism" at the Prague assembly that at previous bishops' synods on the family and youth in 2015 and 2018.
Father Novotnik told OSV News that in the assembly's final report "we're not looking for uniformity but unity, so there can be differences of approach in discourses and ways of thinking."