by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
Ordinarily speaking, the Synod Fathers, who alone have a right to address the General Assembly and to vote on Synod documents, are bishops.
At the Vatican Press Conference on Saturday, October 24, it was revealed that Pope Francis had invited a religious Brother, Hervé Janson, Prior General of the Little Brothers of Jesus ( founded by French mystic and hermit, Charles de Foucauld) to be not just a participant or auditor of the Synod, but indeed a voting member equal to the bishops.
This came as a veritable surprise to many and prompted a very sharp and insightful question from Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., former General Editor of "America" magazine, who addressed his question directly to Brother Janson. In essence, Fr. Reese asked how come the Brother had been invited to the Synod and moreover granted the privilege of being able to vote on a par with the bishops – even though he was only a religious Brother not in Holy Orders and therefore without hierarchical jurisdiction or powers. Furthermore, Fr. Reese's question expressed a strongly felt dissatisfaction with the fact that women, for example, religious Sisters, were not also afforded the distinction of being invited to act as full voting members of the Synod. Brother Janson’s response was less than satisfactory.
Fr. Reese's question is an important one! It raises serious doubts about the Synod's methodology and finality. If a religious Brother, who is for all practical purposes a consecrated layman, can vote in a Synod meant primarily for bishops, then why shouldn't all the Catholic participants in the Synod , including the male and female auditors, be allowed to vote?
Such reflection may also call forth additional questions:
Will Pope Francis' decision to allow one religious Brother to vote at this year's Synod now become the basis for including not only other Catholic religious and lay faithful as full, voting Synod members, but likewise the "Fraternal Delegations" of Orthodox and Protestants?
In his Discourse to the Synod Fathers on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops by Blessed Pope Paul VI, Pope Francis reiterated his vision for a more "decentralized" (less Rome-centered) Church and likewise his view of the Church as an "inverted pyramid" which places the Pope and the bishops at the bottom of the Church as her servants. And so, can we expect, as Fr. Reese himself hinted at in his nuanced remark, a constitutive change in the structure of future synods, so that, in the words of Brother Janson, the synod becomes not so much one of bishops but a synod of the entire People of God? Further given the Pope’s frequently vaunted desire for collegiality (that is, involvement in decision-making by the College of Bishops in communion with the Pope), can we expect that the Pope would indeed consult the College of Bishops before moving the Church into a new mode of "synodality"?