The Synod’s missing associative dimension

When Saint (Pope) John XXIII called Vatican II in 1959, he looked upon it in a traditional sense as a council of bishops. Even when he set up the Preparatory Commissions, including a commission on lay apostolate that he established of his own initiative, he did not include a single lay person among its members.

It was a similar story with the Conciliar Commission established during the First Session of the Council from October to December 1962. In fact, only one lay auditor was appointed for that first session, namely the French philosopher and writer, Jean Guitton.

The role of Paul VI

Matters only began to change with the election of Saint (Pope) Paul VI (Giovanni-Battista Montini), on 21 June 1963. Paul immediately changed policy and began to appoint lay auditors (including nuns), who were able to join the Second Session, and take part in the work of several commissions (including the lay apostolate commission and the “Schema 13” commission working on the future Gaudium et Spes).

From the beginning, many of these auditors were either from or had a strong background in one or another of the proliferating lay movements, including the various forms of Catholic Action, particularly the Italian model and the “specialised” or Belgian-French model pioneered by Cardijn and the YCW.

Moreover, these lay auditors came from a wide range of backgrounds, including trade unionists, youth leaders, representatives of family movements, rural areas, and the like. They also came from a wide variety of “International Catholic Organisations” (ICOs) and movements, ranging from the more spiritual (Legion of Mary) to the more action-oriented, including the YCW and other Specialised Catholic Action movements.

This was not surprising since Montini himself had worked closely with these lay movements and ICOs since he was a chaplain himself to the Italian Catholic university student movement known by its initials as FUCI. He had known Cardijn since the 1930s.

After World War II, while working at the Holy See Secretariat of State under Pius XII, he had facilitated the official establishment and the “International Catholic Organisations Conference” and the canonical recognition of its members. He had played a key role in facilitating the organisation of the First World Congress on Lay Apostolate in 1951, and much more besides before Pius XII appointed him as archbishop of Milan in December 1954.

It is no surprise then that as Pope Paul VI, he facilitated the participation of so many “lay auditors” at the Council, particularly from the ICOs and other lay movements.

And, as we have seen previously on this site, this tradition continued with the post-conciliar establishment of the Synod of Bishops with representation of lay movements and ICOs perhaps reaching its apogee, appropriately, during the 1987 Synod on Laity.

Since then, sadly, we have witnessed a continuing decline in the representation of ICOs and lay movements, particularly since the abolition in 2008 of the ICO Conference – one of the great pre-existing synodal institutions of the Church.

Lay movements at the Synod on Synodality

As a result, as I have also written previously, we find that only three movements are actually “represented” at the current Synod on Synodality. All this despite a proliferation of lay movements and associations since the Council, including those which have become known as “new ecclesial movements.”

Despite the Contribution to the First Assembly signed by lay leaders from many movements and countries, which called for greater representation of the movements, as far as I know, nothing has changed to indicate that the situation will be any different for the Second Assembly.

What’s more, looking at the preparation process for the Second Assembly, lay movements and organisations, often with their own internal organisational structures ranging from local to international, do not appear to have been included in any way.

Instead, the entire preparatory process revolves around the hierarchical organisation of the Church from parish, to diocesan, national and international level.

International Catholic associations and organisations, as such, have been left completely out of, not just the Second Assembly, but also the preparatory loop. Leaders are simply advised to join in the parish and diocesan processes, such as they exist in various parts of the world.

There is no mechanism to facilitate the involvements of the leaders of those associations at any level or any recognition of the need to do so.

Of course, it’s certainly possible for an international leader of a Church movement or an association to participate in the Synodal preparation of their own parish or diocese. However, this completely ignores the often extremely heavy demands of their movement leadership roles, which are often or even mostly taken on in a voluntary capacity.

It also ignores the unreality of expecting a parish and diocesan-oriented process to understand let alone tackle issues which have emerged at national or international level. Would a national government tell a CEO of a national or international enterprise that they should raise their problems and issues at a meeting at a local town hall? It makes no sense whatsoever.

One might perhaps also ask: why don’t the movements get their people involved in the parish and diocesan processes? One answer is that many have in fact done so – as the Australian Cardijn Institute has endeavoured to do with our webinar series on Lay Vocation and Mission.

But, for the reasons outlined above, the specific issues relevant to the movements and/or the points raised by them become diluted within the parish or diocesan processes to the point of invisibility.

What possible justification is there for such an exclusive process, precisely at a Synod on Synodality, meaning a Synod on Walking Together?

It’s no answer to this question to point out that there are indeed quite a number of lay people who are actually participants in the Synod. This is because most have been appointed to their roles either on the basis of their particular theological expertise, or as a result of another professional role within the structural, hierarchical Church.

In practice, this also means they work for one of the larger, better-resourced Church institutions, e.g. in the education, health or social welfare sectors, which are also often those sectors most well-funded by government.

The associative dimension of the Church

The outcome of the above is that the grassroots, associative dimension of the Church is largely if not almost completely missing from the Synodal process to date. This is genuinely astonishing.

I’m reminded of the French Revolution with its Jacobin ideology, which led to the abolition of the medieval guilds and corporations, which were often Christian-inspired lay associations of workers and traders, in favour of state-controlled initiatives.

In effect, what we’ve witnessed in the Church since Vatican II is the emergence of a kind of clerical or hierarchical Jacobinism in which the roles played by so many grassroots lay movements and organisations have become overshadowed or even overtaken by what in Australia have come to be known as “Ministerial Public Juridic Persons.”

And yet the Synod asks people to reflect on how to “enhance the differentiated co-responsibility in the mission of all the members of the People of God.”

Well, one place to start would be for the Church to again begin to recognise and involve the lay movements, whose memberships and networks number in the tens of millions around the planet, in the whole Synodal process.

I’m reminded of one of Cardijn’s famous aphorisms for the YCW, which was “by, with and for young workers.” For Cardijn, it was unthinkable to act on behalf of young workers without making them stakeholders in the process and agents acting on their own behalf.

This was precisely the reason that as a member of the Vatican II Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate, he and other lay movement leaders fought hard for representation of those movements at the Council.

I am sure he would be doing the same today. With the full support of Cardinal Montini, now St Paul VI!

More importantly, would this not already be a way of enhancing that “differentiated co-responsibility of the mission of all the members of the People of God”?

Stefan Gigacz


Where are the international organisations? (Synodal Reflections)

Walking together without lay movements and organisations (Synodal Reflections)

Dissolution or destruction of the ICO Conference? (Synodal Reflections)

From the 1987 Synod to 2023: The gentrification of the Church? (Synodal Reflections)

Three issues for the Synod’s consideration (Synodal Reflections)

An appeal to participants in the Synod on Synodality (Cardijn Reflections)

Stefan Gigacz, The apostolate proper to lay people in The Leaven in the Council: Joseph Cardijn and the Jocist Network at Vatican II