ROME — Although the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. hockey team’s improbable win over the mighty Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, is routinely ranked as one of the greatest sports moments of all time, the irony is that no one in America actually saw it happen in real time.

ABC, which had the rights to the Olympics that year, opted for a tape delay in order to broadcast the game during prime time. Thus, when 36 million American households heard Al Michaels exclaim as the seconds ticked down, “Do you believe in miracles?!,” the outcome had already been decided hours before.

While it’s not yet clear if Pope Francis’ keenly anticipated Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which opens Oct. 4, will produce any such miracles, it does seem it will resemble that fabled 1980 hockey game in one important respect — to a great extent, we’re not going to be watching the synod live either.

Reports suggest that Francis is considering imposing pontifical secrecy on synod deliberations, effectively barring participants from talking about what’s happening. Even without such a decree, it’s abundantly clear from speaking with synod participants they’ve gotten the message that engaging with the press during the course of the assembly isn’t exactly being encouraged, on the grounds that too much exposure could risk politicizing the conversations.

As a result, it’s difficult to offer a viewer’s guide for the synod because, honestly, it’s hard to say what there will be to view. What we may get is a hodge-podge of anodyne official verbiage, coupled with well-timed leaks from people with axes to grind, meaning confusion could well hold the upper hand.

With that warning, here nevertheless are four storylines likely to help shape the drama of the impending synod — whether or not, that is, it’s a drama anyone actually has the chance to watch.

‘The Rhine Flows into the Tiber’ … and meets the Congo

A well-known history of the Second Vatican Council was entitled “The Rhine Flows into the Tiber,” reflecting the influence of German prelates and theologians. In this synod too, there’s likely to be a strong German imprint, since the controversial “synodal path” in Germany blazed a progressive trail through several issues expected to surface in Rome too, including married priests, women clergy, and the blessing of same-sex unions.

One difference between 1965 and 2023, however, is the presence of a much stronger and more vocal African contingent in this synod, which likely will represent an alternative on many of those contested issues.

For instance, Archbishop Martin Kivuva Musonde of Mombasa in Kenya is set to take part in the synod, having recently blasted his country’s Supreme Court for authorizing the registration of an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, saying, “If you legalize something, it means you are promoting it.”

Kivuva will be joined by Bishop Sanctus Lino Wanok of Lira in Uganda, who used his Ash Wednesday homily this year to denounce pressures for blessing same-sex relationships.

“They are mocking the Church by saying we want blessings for our union,” he said. “That mockery should stop, otherwise, it is offensive to God as our creator.”

One might say that to the extent there are progressive tributaries flowing into the synod’s waters from Germany, they may well run into more conservative currents from Africa — the Rhine colliding with the Congo, as it were.

Of course, that’s a generalized picture to which there will be multiple exceptions. German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s former doctrinal chief and a papal appointee to the synod, certainly won’t be echoing the conclusions of his country’s synodal path, and doubtless there will be Africans striking different notes too.

Nevertheless, how the delicate balance between universality on doctrinal questions but flexibility on pastoral practice is struck in the synod may well pivot, at least in part, on the dynamics unleashed by the collision between these two great rivers of thought and energy.

Context is king

Although synod organizers have produced a lengthy document, technically known as the “Instrumentum laboris” (“working instrument”) to guide discussions among participants, the assembly won’t be taking place in a vacuum. Other things will be going on in and around Rome at the same time, and depending on how they play out, they could seep into synod conversations too.

For one thing, the Vatican’s “trial of the century” resumes in late September with summations from civil parties to the sprawling financial fraud case, and then throughout the month of October, at the same time the synod’s going on, we’ll be hearing from defense attorneys, including the lawyers representing Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

Those lawyers will be attempting to make the case that not only are their clients innocent, but the entire process has been flawed from the beginning by an inadequate separation between executive and judicial powers, violating basic modern standards of due process. If that argument gains momentum during October, the question of the protection of rights in the Church could emerge as a synod talking point too.

The synod also will unfold against the backdrop of the ongoing fallout from the clerical sexual abuse scandals, most recently focused on the case of Father Marko Rupnik, who was expelled from the Jesuit order in July over charges that he abused at least 20 women over a 30-year span, but whose Roman base of operations, the Centro Aletti, recently drew a clean bill of health from the Diocese of Rome.

The apparent incongruities in the Rupnik case, and others, make it likely that the abuse crisis will surface during synod conversations — ironically enough, that means people probably will be discussing the importance of transparency behind closed doors and barred from revealing their contributions.

Not so little women

For the first time, pundits and commentators will be able to use the phrase “Synod Mothers” in October, alongside traditional references to the “Synod Fathers,” since a robust total of 54 women will be full voting members of the assembly.

Not only is the cohort of women taking part perhaps the single most striking novelty about this synod, but in terms of topics likely to surface, the question of women’s roles and ministries in the Church also is expected to loom large. The same issues will figure even more vocally in parallel events being staged in Rome during October, including a prayer vigil and a walk through Rome being organized by Women’s Ordination Worldwide.

Given that most of the men in the synod doubtless will be conscious of the optics of the situation, it’s probable there will be a natural tendency to defer to the women in the hall when talk turns to women’s issues.

Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the synod, responds to a question during a news conference at the Vatican Sept. 8, 2023. (CNS/Justin McLellan)

That likelihood makes the role of those 54 women, especially those who occupy the most visible and influential positions, very critical. Two figures to keep an eye on in that regard are Sister Maria De Los Dolores Palencia, CSJ, of Mexico and Momoko Nishimura, a consecrated laywoman from Japan, who are among the delegates tapped by Francis to guide the daily discussions in the synod hall. French Sister Nathalie Becquart, XMCJ, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, is another key female player from whom many participants may well take their cues.

Listening, but to whom?

The Synod of Bishops on Synodality has been touted as the “biggest consultation exercise in human history,” but statistics on actual participation tell a somewhat different story.

In the United States, a report from the bishops’ conference indicates that roughly 700,000 people participated in the diocesan phase of consultations, out of a total Catholic population close to 70 million, thus representing about 1%. Data from other parts of the world are roughly similar, indicating that only a tiny share of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics actually contributed to the process.

As a result, people disappointed with the synod’s results, whatever they may turn out to be, might be tempted to suggest that the outcome reflects the agenda of a narrow cadre of activists rather than true majority sentiment.

One question that will figure prominently, especially as the synod nears its end, is how to manage the process between now and next October to ensure that whatever is eventually decided, at least in some rough sense, represents a genuine consensus.

In ecclesiological argot, the term for this process is “reception.” Medieval theologians and canonists established as a basic principle that for a law to be effective in the Church, it had to be “received,” i.e., accepted, by the faithful. The corollary is that if a law clearly isn’t received, then de facto it can be abrogated.

Participants in this synod, therefore, will face the challenge of coming up with ways of promoting such a process as a reception, even if they’re not necessarily proposing new law. Otherwise, there’s a risk that the results of the next synod could be effectively abrogated before they’re even reached.