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Synodal Process Not Advocating for “democratic Church”, Kenyan Catholic Bishop Clarifies

Bishop Maurice Muhatia of Kenya's Nakuru Diocese during the webinar was organized by the Paulines Publications Africa to create awareness on the Synod on Synodality that is set to solemnly open next month in Rome. Credit: Sr. Olga Massango

The Synod on Synodality specifically stands out for including the people of God at the local level in the decision-making processes of the Church. This, according to a Kenyan Catholic Bishop, does not however translate to some form of democracy where opinions will be accepted outside the hierarchical structures of the Church.

In his presentation in a webinar that was organized by the Paulines Publications Africa to create awareness on the Synod that is set to solemnly open next month in Rome, Bishop Maurice Muhatia noted that misconceptions were already arising from the notion of involving the laity in the decision-making process of the Church.  

“Involvement of the laity in the decision making does not mean we are advocating for a democratic Church. A Synodal process for a Synodal Church is supposed to happen within an already established hierarchical structure of the Church,” Bishop Muhatia said in the Saturday, September 18 virtual event.

Bishop Maurice Muhatia. Credit: Sr. Olga Massango.

Sticking to already established Church structures during the Synodal process, the Catholic Bishop of Kenya’s Nakuru Diocese said, “is very important to avoid misconceptions.”

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“We hear some talking about a democratic Church; some are talking about a parliamentary system now in the Church,” Bishop Muhatia said, and added, “These are all foreign issues and are not intended by the Holy Father.”

The Local Ordinary of Nakuru Diocese who doubles as the Vice chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) noted that whereas the new Synodality calls for a greater involvement of the people in what is going on in the Church, misconceptions about involvement in decision-making process in the Church should always be avoided.

Credit: Sr. Olga Massango.

The Synod on Synodality, which Pope Francis announced earlier this year to solemnly open on 9–10 October 2021 in Rome has been lauded for involving people at the grassroots in the decision-making process of the Church, inviting all members of the Church to journey together as a community.

Organized under the theme, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission”, the Synod on Synodality is to solemnly open in each particular Church on October 17.

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Bishop Muhatia says that initially, this Synod of Bishops was intended to take place in Rome in October 2022 but was pushed to October 2023 to allow for wider consultation with the people of God across the globe.

“The consultation, discernment, journeying together and participation are the constant terms we’ll be hearing as we journey together in the interest of Synodality,” the Kenyan Bishop says.

Credit: Sr. Olga Massango.

He explains that through consultations among the people of God at the grassroots, the Church will learn through experience which processes can help her to live communion, to achieve participation and to be open to mission.

The KCCB Vice chairman notes that the Synod engagement will be between the Holy Father and Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Bishops and the local communities of the Christian faithful.

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The principle of Synodality and communion is now, for the first time, being extended to other Christians who are non-Catholic, he said during the September 18 virtual event.

The emphasis on interreligious dialogues proposed in the  preparatory document and handbook for the 2023 Synod released on September 7 underscores the need to journey with members of other religions, the Local Ordinary of Kenya’s Nakuru Diocese says.

Credit: Sr. Olga Massango.

“It does not stop there,” Bishop Muhatia says in reference to the Synodal process, and explains, “It encourages extending our hand to those who don’t believe in God. Then the Church exists for everybody. It exists for those who are in the body of Christ and the society at large.”

He says that the  preparatory document  and handbook for the 2023 Synod  are two important documents especially as the people approach the Diocesan phase of the Synodal process.

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“The documents will enhance better participation and consultation of the Church at the Diocesan level and especially eventually at the conference level,” the KCCB official says. 

The native of Kenya’s Kakamega Diocese explains that Bishops’ Conferences are expected to appoint teams of representatives to coordinate with the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

Credit: Sr. Olga Massango.

“Every person in the Diocese has to feel listened to in these consultations,” Bishop Muhatia says, adding that the materials from each Episcopal See will be collected and sent to the Secretariat of the Conference of Bishops who will make a synthesis of all generated views. He notes that at this stage, the Bishops will “listen to the people of God while listening to the scripture.”

Catholic Bishops will then send what they will have synthesized to the members of the General Secretariat of the Synod of the Bishops in Rome who, Bishop Muhatia, says will “meet to listen to what the Spirit will have inspired in the Churches entrusted to them.”

Upon receiving and reviewing all the materials from various conferences, the General Secretariat in Rome will draft the first working document of the Synod, which will be published and sent back to the particular Churches including the Episcopal Conferences and the Dioceses in September 2022.

The continental phase of the Synod is slated to start in September 2022 up to March 2023. Bishop Muhatia explains that the aim of this phase will be to engage in a dialogue with the first document of the Synod.

Credit: Sr. Olga Massango.

The document, the Kenyan Bishop explains, will be “richer because it has come from all corners of the world. It will have come from each and every one of us.”

Each continental group will then draft a final document, which will again be sent to Rome in March 2023. 

In Africa, the continental group of the Catholic Church is the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), which has eight regional members, including the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA), the Inter-regional Meeting of the Bishops of Southern Africa (IMBISA), the Regional Episcopal Conferences of West Africa (RECOWA), and the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa Region (ACERAC).

Other regional Conferences of SECAM are the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa (ACEAC), the Assembly of the Catholic Hierarchy of Egypt (AHCE), the Regional Episcopal Conference of North Africa (CERNA), and the Episcopal Conferences of the Indian Ocean (CEDOI).  

Based on the continental responses, the General Secretariat in Rome will be expected to draft a second document. This is expected to usher in the universal phase of the process, which will culminate in the October 2023 celebration of the General Assembly of Bishops in Rome.

Bishop Muhatia notes that with the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis is proposing something that has always been his way of life.

“He (Pope Francis) is not proposing to us something that is out of his lifestyle,” the Kenyan Bishop says in the September 18 event, and adds, “The structures we want to see in the Church, the processes we want to see in the Church is something he himself has internalized and is inviting us to the same.”

From left to right: Sr Beatrice Njau, Sr Rosemary Mwaiwa, Bishop Maurice Muhatia, Sr Olga Massango, Sr Helen Nekesa. Credit: Sr. Olga Massango.

He makes reference to the theme of the synod, and poses, “The question that arises from the theme is how can we live communion, how can we achieve participation in order for us to be open to mission.”

The Catholic Bishop calls the people of God to reflect on how they are journeying together as a Synodal Church and in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Journeying together cannot age. Journeying together regenerates itself. If we grow together today, tomorrow we will have the desire to grow together, the demand to grow together,” Bishop Muhatia says.