A major conference at Boston College earlier this month, co-hosted by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, is believed to be the largest gathering of Catholic leadership at a college campus in the nation's history.

“The Way Forward: Pope Francis, Vatican II, and Synodality,” which took place March 3-4, brought together 80 participants—including cardinals, bishops, and other Catholic Church leaders, as well as theologians, historians, and journalists—to discuss synodality, the call by Pope Francis for the universal Church to “walk together,” to continue the reception of Vatican II, and to embrace the ecclesiological challenges facing the Church.

Boisi Center Director Mark Massa, S.J.

“It was a great two days for the Church we love.”: Mark Massa, S.J., director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

The event—co-sponsored by the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago (LUC) and the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture—was a follow-up to the inaugural “Way Forward” conference last spring at LUC.

Future assemblies are anticipated at Fordham and on the West Coast, according to Boisi Center Director Mark Massa, S.J.

“It was a great two days for the Church we love,” he said.  “It was moving watching theologians listening attentively to bishops, and vice versa. It was the kind of ‘respectful encounter’ that Pope Francis is calling for in asking the entire church to engage in the synodal process.  It was an honor to sponsor the gathering.”

Attendees at the conference seated at round tables

The conference at Boston College was the largest gathering of Catholic leadership at a college campus in U.S. history.

Opening keynote speaker Rafael Luciani, an associate professor of the practice in the BC School of Theology and Ministry, and author of Synodality: A New Way of Proceeding in the Church, described synodality—a process of fraternal collaboration and discernment—as expressing “a new way of being and proceeding in the Church that has as its point of departure but also its point of arrival in the people of God.”  

Luciani declared that a “synodal ecclesiality” is emerging, and that Catholics worldwide are facing a common challenge to build a “synodal Church for the third millennium,” noted National Catholic Reporter.

“It is not enough simply to maintain and adapt what has existed until now. It is necessary to create something new.”

Rafael Luciani

Rafael Luciani of BC's School of Theology and Ministry delivered the event's opening keynote address.

Luciani cited synodality as “a new phase in the Church’s response to Vatican II”—also known as the 1962 Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, opened by Pope John XXIII in response to the need for Church renewal to better connect with 20th-century Catholics in an increasingly secularized world. Today, as Luciani notes in his book, Pope Francis describes synodality as the new model of Church, representing a deepening of the ecclesiology of the People of God, that opens a new phase in the reception of the Council.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., and Jaisy A. Joseph, assistant professor of systematic/constructive theology at Villanova University, provided the response to Luciani’s remarks.

In her keynote, “Synodality in the Early Church,” Catholic University of America Associate Professor of Church History Robin Darling Young noted that the Church had already experienced more than 200 regional synods by the fourth century, and that the first Christians adopted secular customs such as convening councils to govern their communities.

“This is deeply rooted in early Christianity,” she said, according to National Catholic Reporter.

Cathleen Kaveny

Boston College Libby Professor Cathleen Kaveny makes a point during the panel on challenges to synodality. (Lee Pellegrini)

Panelists responding to Darling Young’s remarks included Maria Clara Bingemer of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro; historian John T. McGreevy of the University of Notre Dame; and Fordham University Professor of Theology Aristotle Papanikolaou.

The panel on the “Challenges to Synodality,” moderated by Anne Thompson, an NBC News correspondent who covers the Catholic Church, included BC’s Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Law and Theology M. Cathleen Kaveny; Villanova University Professor of Theology and Religious Studies Massimo Faggioli; and Kathleen Sprows Cummings, professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Hosffman Ospino at the podium

In his keynote on day two of the conference, Hosffman Ospino of BC's School of Theology and Ministry spoke on practical and pastoral theology. (Lee Pellegrini)

School of Theology and Ministry Associate Professor of Hispanic Ministry and Religious Education Hosffman Ospino, chair of the Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry Department, delivered the second day’s opening keynote, “Practical and Pastoral Theology.”  

Concluding the event was Bishop Daniel Flores, Diocese of Brownsville, Tex., and chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Doctrine Committee, who focused on “Collegiality, Synodality, and the Pastoral Vision of Pope Francis.”

Fr. Flores, National Catholic Reporter noted, said that while synodality is rooted in the Church’s tradition, it was interrupted over the centuries by political dynamics, racial and linguistic divisions, and other challenges that “made it difficult to sit down and just be happy with the fact that we all in some way” are connected to the Church.

“If we’re going to take synodality seriously,” he said, “then we have some serious work to do.”  

The convening was made possible by generous gifts from the Oswell Brown II Foundation, and the GHR Foundation, as well as the sponsoring academic centers.

Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | March 2023