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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Papal cheerleaders and skeptics alike are interpreting Pope Francis' decision to prolong his pet project of synodality by another year as heralding Vatican III in "slow motion."
The pontiff announced immediately after Sunday's Angelus that the proposed 2023 assembly of bishops would now be convened in two phases — the first session in October 2023 and a second in October 2024, to allow for "a more relaxed period of discernment."
"The fruits of the synodal process underway are many, but so that they might come to full maturity, it is necessary not to be in a rush," Francis stated, claiming "this decision will promote the understanding of synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church."
In a press statement, the synod's general secretariat explained that the pope had extended the process so that the "theme of a synodal Church" might be the "subject of prolonged discernment, not only by the members of the synodal assembly but by the whole Church."
"The synod is not an event but a process in which the whole People of God is called to walk together toward what the Holy Spirit helps it to discern as being the Lord's will for His Church," the statement noted.
The assembly of bishops "will also take on a processual dimension, configuring itself as 'a journey within the journey' to foster more mature reflection for the good of the Church," it added, suggesting the extension was due to poor global and local lay participation.
"The latest move from Pope Francis smacks of desperation. What more can it possibly achieve to draw out this already torturous process for another twelve months?" asked Mark Lambert, co-founder of Defending the Integrity of Catholic Education.
"If it is, as suggested, because not enough people took part, is the pope going to run the whole consultation part of the process again? We all knew what the purpose was and what asking a largely uncatechized Catholic population would result in — capitulation to the zeitgeist," the British Catholic blogger told Church Militant.
"And where does this move leave papal sycophants like Mike Lewis, Austen Ivereigh, Massimo Faggioli and Christopher Lamb, who have been screaming that the participation numbers were more than enough to justify whatever changes Francis wants to introduce?" Lambert asked.
Meanwhile, the pope's apologists and critics are both applauding and slamming the synod's extension on social media, calling it the dawn of Vatican III.
"Is the new 2021–2024 synod process — local, regional and universal — like a Vatican III?" asked The Tablet's Rome correspondent, Christopher Lamb, since "holding a Third Vatican Council in the way Vatican II occurred is not possible."
"With today's announcement, the 'Synod on synodality' looks a little closer to something like a Vatican III," leftwing church historian Massimo Faggioli tweeted.
"Since this whole 'process' is evolving on a very slow track towards 'full maturity,' we may yet see even more time devoted to what seems to be morphing into something like a piecemeal Vatican III," conservative writer Robert Royal warned in The Catholic Thing.
On Thursday, the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published a column titled "Vatican Council III: An Open Question," asking whether Vatican II was "enough for us" or "has the time come to wish for a Vatican Council III?"
"The path inaugurated by Amoris Laetitia has truly given us a new hermeneutic on questions concerning sexuality and marriage," the article noted, arguing for "new evaluations and more daring choices" to be made by "a new council."
Vatican watchers note that the extension is a response to the widespread apathy and even rejection by a majority of Catholics of the process. It also displays resistance to synodal reforms in the areas of acceptance of homosexual relationships and women in holy orders.
Several dioceses have reported minimal participation. Hamilton diocese in New Zealand lamented that "the principal theme that occurred to the committee was that of apathy," which was "marked by the lack of participation."
Only 370 out of a total of 700,000 baptized Catholics participated in the process in the archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia, resulting in a participation rate of just 0.05%.
In Austria, 50,000 out of 4.83 million Catholics (1.04%) took part in the consultations, while in England and Wales, 30,000 out of 3.8 million Catholics (0.79%) participated.
In predominantly Catholic Poland, the Kalisz diocese reported participation from 0.2% of the population, while Łomża diocese said that "a large group of parishes did not undertake synodal work at all."
In the United States, a mere 700,000 of its 66.8 million Catholics participated in the consultation (1.37%).
While many countries failed to report participation statistics, one of the lowest participation rates comes from Venezuela, which reported a participation rate of 0.29% (55,000 from a population of 18,890,000 baptized Catholics).
In September, the synod's secretariat tweeted a graphic of a multiplicity of overlapping faces (see featured picture) asking, "which voices are missing from the reports" and "who are the people that have not been intercepted by the synodal process."
Faithful Catholics ridiculed the tweet, commenting that practicing Catholics who cherish tradition, orthodoxy and the apostolic Deposit of Faith were the ones missing from the consultations.
"Basically, the synod is in disarray. Virtually no responses. Bishops don't like it. Francis and the @Synod_va apparatchiks trying to buy themselves more time," Damian Thompson, associate editor of The Spectator, remarked.
Last September, Francis insisted that the synodal process "involves listening to all the baptized" and that the Church needed "to pass beyond the three or four percent that are closest to us, to broaden our range and to listen to others."
The so-called listening process should involve lapsed Catholics, Protestants, agnostics and atheists and people of other religions, the pontiff has instructed.
The papal declaration will extend Francis' ambitious global project from three to four years, ending in 2024 when the pontiff will be 88 years old. Except for Leo XIII and Pope Agatho (and Benedict XVI and Celestine V who resigned from the papacy), no pope has lived beyond the age of 87.
Faggioli believes that the protracted synodal enterprise is Francis' "insurance policy against the possibility that his pontificate will be promptly archived as a quick break before another pope returns to the status quo."