April 2023

An experience of the German Synodal Way

I was privileged to experience the final Assembly of the German Synodal Way and its attempts to forge a new path for a Church undergoing challenge and change, writes Susan Sullivan.

Recently, I attended the fifth and final Assembly of the German Synodal Way (GSW) at the invitation of co-chairs of the German Synod, Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, and Dr Irme Stetter-Karp, President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).  

The invitation was an expression of solidarity between local Churches within the universal Church, to enable international exchange, and to offer witness to how lively and diverse is the German Church.

The German Synodal Path was explicitly a response to the findings of a 2018 analysis of clerical abuse in the German Church, known as the MHG study. Four themes arising from the study focused the Synod:

  1. Power and separation of powers – Joint participation and involvement in mission
  2. Priestly existence today
  3. Women in ministries and offices in the Church
  4. Living love in sexuality and partnership

Unsurprisingly, these themes are consistent with those arising from the consultations leading up to the Australian Plenary Council.

Assembly proceedings

From March 6-9 this year, approximately 210 delegates gathered in Frankfurt, with some participating virtually. The Assembly’s composition aimed to account for gender and generational justice. Nevertheless, there were perceptions that the gender balance was skewed by the presence of all the 67 bishops and not adequately compensated by the remaining 69 delegates from the Central Committee of German Catholics and the approximately 70 other representatives.

In his opening address, Bishop Bätzing acknowledged the hard work leading up to the final assembly, appealing to delegates: “the motions put forward result from an intensive struggle”, urging them to adopt the consensus method and to remain focused on being “a church that’s close to the people”. 

The formal opening emphasised the necessity for a prophetic voice which while this comes as disruptive, “take(s) us … into the reality of the world” whereby “we get touched by the Gospel and find ever new ways how to live the Gospel”. Service of mission was clearly articulated in the Assembly documents:

“The Church must find the way of the people and not determine the ways of the people. She is needed where fractures and wounds mark people’s lives. She must be of service to people”.  

As the debates unfolded, I was intrigued by the candidness of the bishops, their willingness to openly name hard issues and be honest about what is really happening in the Church. On the issue of obligatory celibacy for instance, rather than hiding behind a veil that “we have enough priests, and we can manage the challenges”, there was a refreshing honesty that the present situation is unsustainable.

The obvious engagement, activism and confidence of the non-clerical participants was also impressive. The issues around sexuality were confronted frankly and directly, and grounded in sound, thorough scientific research.

These reflect issues articulated in Australia, but yet to be met with such a compassionate, practical and inclusive response. It was astonishing and humbling to listen to the interventions of people who identify as transgender and gay addressing the assembly in a confident and unapologetic way.

The success of motions approving blessings for same-sex couples, divorced and remarried Catholics, and couples choosing to not marry, prompted a very emotional outbreak of exuberant, sustained celebration.

Throughout the Assembly, I held two key questions. How has the German Church achieved such a contemporary and cogent perspective on issues facing the Church today? And how has it reached such courageous and pastorally sensitive responses?

My observations, confirmed through conversations with delegates and others in attendance, led me to conclude that the long-established status, power and access to bishops of the Central Committee of German Catholics is a significant factor. It has been vital in nurturing an educated, confident laity experienced in the ways of the Church.

The formal engagement between the lay and clerical ‘arms’ of Church life has clearly delivered vibrant and respectful exchange on matters of human life and society and their relationship to the mission of the Church in an ever-changing world. It appears to have contributed to reducing the risk of insularity and associated irrelevance of the Church hierarchy. 

Unity or schism

The German Synod has provoked considerable controversy around concerns about the risk of schism. I returned home convinced that ‘unity in diversity’ is central to the success of synodality.

The Assembly texts recognised that Church teachings and practices must be enculturated into the realities of the local church: “this means allowing and encouraging the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel to be preached ‘in categories proper to each culture, creating a new synthesis with that particular culture’.” (Pope Francis, Querida Amazonia, #68) The purpose of a renewed theology guiding the universal Church will always be to communicate more vibrantly the vision of the Gospel.

There were a number of concrete examples of the Assembly wrestling with the art of compromise in order to preserve unity. The importance of the German Synodal Way voice being heard in the wider Church was also articulated as a factor. As one delegate commented: In a synodal Church, a balance is struck between necessary unity and legitimate diversity so that the universal Church can hear our voice”.

The text on priestly celibacy was modified to recommend the Vatican re-examine rather than rescind obligatory celibacy, a significant moderation in tone. Texts relating to women in ministry ultimately chose to advocate for diaconate rather priestly ordination. When time constraints prevented divergent views being adequately aired, the debate on joint consultation and decision-making was referred to the Synodal Committee for further consideration post-Assembly.

As the formal Assembly opening urged on Day One, synodality is not a super-human process. Striving for consensus necessarily draws on our deepest human instincts, light and shadow, and challenges us all to the spiritual discipline of letting go into a new way of seeing, and a new way of being.

Ultimately, the Church hierarchy must wrestle with the relationship between universality and the principle of subsidiarity, especially as it intersects with the necessity to proclaim the message of the Gospel in such a way that we do justice to the people in their respective life worlds” and “listen anew to the Gospel of liberation” (Assembly text).


It was a privilege to experience the German Synod, and its attempts to forge a new path for a Church undermined by scandal, in a world beset by so many crises. The Lenten Scriptures were a valuable companion, especially those featuring experiences of exile and time in the desert. These texts evoke the experience of confusion, disorientation, and loss of certainty. Exile undoubtedly captures the experience of those who feel abandoned by the Church. It also suggests the experience of those who lament the Church they love and treasure undergoing challenge and change.

Yet we are all called to be pilgrims, to embrace the horizon beyond the known. In keeping faith with the Spirit, pilgrims are always on the move, sometimes deep in exile and at others resting in a return home. From exile we can be confident we will eventually be guided home: to a renewed sense of belonging, to new ways of seeing, to deeper spiritual nourishment.

Neither exile nor homecoming is ever a final destination for those faithful to the mission and the quest for the divine. On this synodal path as we commit to the call and demands of mission, we remain pilgrims. We alternate between exile and home, yet always confident we are accompanied by fellow travellers, held and propelled by the Mystery of a loving, energising God.

The Assembly proceedings were live-streamed and are now available on the Assembly website with English translation at https://www.synodalerweg.de/english.

To view Susan Sullivan’s comprehensive report on the Assembly, click here.

Susan Sullivan

Susan Sullivan has a background in executive mission leadership roles. She has designed and implemented a range of collaborative mission-focused initiatives, including leadership formation programs for Australian health, aged care and social services organisations. She is a board member of Marymead CatholicCare in the Archdiocese of Canberra & Goulburn, a director of Campfire in the Heart, located in Alice Springs, and an active member of Canberra’s refugee support and advocacy network.

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