What is a synod? It literally means “on the way together.” Call to mind for a moment the journey of Jesus with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. During it, he taught and showed them how he wanted them to live and to love in imitation of himself. Think also of how he walks with the two disciples going to Emmaus and makes their hearts burn with the Spirit as he explains the Scriptures to them. We also hear in the Acts of the Apostles how the apostles met with all the elders of the church to resolve a major dispute concerning Gentile converts to Christianity. The decision reached was expressed as a decision not just of the apostles but also of the Holy Spirit.
These examples explain what a Synod is. Jesus himself is our Way, so it means walking together with Christ and the Spirit, listening to them in prayer, meditation and reflection, and being taught inwardly by them. Only then do our words have a real chance of being inspired by God. It’s also a listening to the circumstances of our times and, of course, to one another. On the basis of this fullness of listening and speaking, the Church then comes to a decision on how to move forward as the Spirit dictates. It is not a case of a majority decision, democratic style, with parties and lobbies and agendas: it is a careful discernment of what the Lord himself wants. The Spirit given to the Apostles laid the responsibility of the final decision at their feet, in the example mentioned, but only after listening to everyone else.
Synodality has always been present in the history of the Church, but in different ways and intensities. At Vatican II, the bishops of the world advanced the revival of synodality in the form of the Synod of Bishops. It would meet periodically to advise the Pope on matters of concern proposed by him. The sixteenth such Synod of Bishops will take place in October 2023. It has the theme: “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.” It’s a different kind of synod, for two reasons: first, its theme is synodality itself and is thus a consultation on how synods should proceed; second, Pope Francis wants it not just to be a consultation among bishops, but among the whole people of God. It’s a synod about how the Church herself can and should be more synodal in the way she lives and acts. Therefore it is essential that the whole Church be involved. The process of synodal consultation across the Church until 2023 is a call to rediscover the deeply synodal roots of the Church. It will involve a process of humbly learning together how God is calling us to be as the Church in the third millennium.
Synodality is already at work in the Church: ecumenical councils, synods of bishops, diocesan synods, parish pastoral councils, finance councils and other groups of consultation all are manifestations of synodality. But it can’t be limited to existing structures. Synodality is a way of being church all the time, the Church’s lifestyle both in her own inner life and in her mission outwards.
Pope Francis is not saying that the Synod of Bishops itself should stop but that its work should now be prepared by a synodal process that starts from parish level. This is what is being launched today, 17th October 2021, in parishes across the world. We will get more concrete directions from the Diocese in the months ahead on how this phase of consultation will take place in practice. I will inform you of these as they come in. I have already put in this weekend’s bulletin some details received last week from our Galloway Diocesan Synodal Team.
A lot of documents have been produced by the Vatican and by Pope Francis himself over the past few months to explain and prepare the synod, and they are quite dense. So, it will take time to digest the various things that the Pope wants us to consider as we work with him and with the whole Church on this matter. I think, too, since it is new to most people, we will have to be patient as we move things forward. I only ask your openness to the Pope’s request which clearly is coming from the Holy Spirit, and to allow yourself to be directed by the Lord as things unfold.
Pope Francis, on 9th October, offered a reflection at the beginning of the launch of the Synod in the Diocese of Rome. Below is a summary of what he said.
The Spirit guides us and gives grace to move forward together, to listen to one another and to embark on a discernment of the times in which we are living, in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of all humanity.
A Synod is not a parliament or opinion poll. It is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit. No Spirit, no synod!
Jesus’ prayer for unity in the Church is at the root of synodality, as the Church is a communion and fraternity arising from the love of God. All are called to maintain and uphold that unity, especially the Bishops, by virtue of their apostolic mission.
A Synod can be defined using three key words: communion, participation and mission.
Communion describes the very nature of the Church. It means order and cohesion, an interior fullness in grace, truth and collaboration. Mission describes her principal action: to proclaim and establish the kingdom of God on earth. These two words reflect the Blessed Trinity: communion is the nature of the Trinity’s inner life; mission is its activity in creation. So, the Church reflects and imitates the Trinity.
Pope St. John Paul II in his time said that if the Synod of Bishops was to be fruitful it had to be prepared well by local Churches with the participation of all.
Participation is therefore the third key word. Communion and mission will only remain ideas unless we promote practical ways and means of participation in the synod at every step. We must encourage real involvement on everyone’s part. A synod as an event will be more fruitful if we consider synod as a way of being and acting as church all the time. Participation is a requirement of the faith we received in baptism. Baptism means the equal dignity of all, even if it’s in different forms of ministry and grace. So, participation is the call of all the baptized. Without real participation by the faithful, the notion of Church as communion remains a pious wish.
Pope Francis highlights the risks associated with the Synod. One is mere formality: the Synod looks good from the outside but there’s not much really happening on the inside. The Pope insists that the Synod must be a process of authentic spiritual discernment, not to project a good image, but to cooperate more effectively with the work of God in the world. So we need content, means and structures which can facilitate dialogue and interaction with the People of God, especially between priests and laity. Among priests there can be a certain elitism which detaches them from the laity, where the priest is like a landlord rather than pastor of the whole community as it moves forward. Changes in outlook among priests and laity will be needed, with consequences for the roles of both priest and laity.
Another risk is to turn the Synod into a study group producing learned conclusions about the problems of the Church and world but with little impact on the concrete life of God’s people.
A third risk is complacency, i.e. we’ve always done it in a certain way, so that’s how it must stay. Pope Francis calls this a poison in the life of the Church. It is a failure to take seriously the times in which we are living, and is an attempt to try and apply old solutions to new problems. Instead, the process of the Synod requires us to become Church more authentically. It will be done by a process which involves the local churches, in different phases, from the bottom up in an exciting and engaging effort that can forge a style of communion and participation directed to mission.
The Pope also speaks of three opportunities. First, that we move towards being a synodal church not now and again but structurally: to become an open square where all can feel at home and participate. Second, to become a listening Church. To break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns to stop and listen, first to the Spirit in adoration and prayer. Adoration has to be rediscovered! To listen to the hopes and concerns of everyone towards a renewed pastoral life, taking in the signals we are receiving from those on the ground. Third, the Pope speaks of a Church of closeness, which is God’s own style of compassion and tender love, not only with words but with a presence which can weave greater bonds of friendship with society and the world. We need a Church that does not stand aloof from life but immerses herself in today’s problems and needs, bandaging wounds and healing broken hearts with the balm of God.
The Pope’s final words are worth quoting in full: “Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit! For we need the Spirit, the ever-new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and spreads joy. The Holy Spirit guides us where God wants us to be, not to where our own ideas and personal tastes would lead us. Father Congar, of blessed memory (Fr. Congar was a French Dominican priest), once said: ‘There is no need to create another Church, but to create a different Church’ (True and False Reform in the Church). That is the challenge. For a ‘different Church’, a Church open to the newness that God wants to suggest, let us with greater fervour and frequency invoke the Holy Spirit and humbly listen to him, journeying together as he, the source of communion and mission, desires: with docility and courage.”