On Sunday, Pope Francis opened the two-year process for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The diocesan phase of the Synod is set to begin this Sunday, October 17. In his homily, he asked, “Are we prepared for the adventure of this journey? Or are we fearful of the unknown, preferring to take refuge in the usual excuses: ‘It’s useless’ or ‘We’ve always done it this way’?”
The so-called “Synod on Synodality” may not ultimately revolutionize the Church, and in many ways its outcome will depend upon the level of commitment and receptivity of the bishops and the faithful toward its success. Many Catholics, including those in the US, are not accustomed to a synodal understanding of the Church, and many Catholics have expressed skepticism and doubt about the process.
In order to help the faithful develop a better understanding of synodality, the Vatican released the “Preparatory Document” for the Synod back in September. The document is intended to serve as “a tool to facilitate the first phase of listening” in local churches around the world in preparation for the Synod in 2023. It asks what it means for the Church to “journey together,” and quotes Pope Francis, “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” But what is “synodality” and how is it different from our current understanding of the Synod of Bishops, which has met in Rome every few years since the close of the Second Vatican Council? What is it not?
This Synod will seek to implement more fully the Second Vatican Council’s call for communion and participation of all in the mission of the Church in the 21st century. The preparatory document frames this process as opening up possibilities for new ways of “listening” and “journeying together.” It is important to understand that these somewhat vague terms indicate a change in the Church’s way of acting and making decisions. Where the laity have been ignored or simply suppressed by those with harmful clericalist attitudes, listening implies incorporating the laity’s experiences into decision-making. Similarly, “journeying together” implies building bridges and ensuring no one is excluded from the life of the Church.
It bears stressing that this process is not divorced from Tradition or history—synodality is neither unprecedented nor prohibited. Indeed, synodality relies on Tradition and history to chart new paths forward for the Church in response to our unique circumstances. As the document states, “Enlightened by the Word and grounded in Tradition, the synodal path is rooted in the concrete life of the People of God.” The work of the Synod will require blending both the theological and sociological dimensions of the Church’s teaching; these two dimensions viewed together are essential to understanding synodality.
Sociologically, the document points to the unique challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing abuse crisis, and clericalism. While not mentioned in the document, the new opportunities and challenges posed by social media certainly loom large in this process. And with good reason: Catholics today are perhaps more connected across region and culture than ever before by the internet and new media. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of these connections and access to information, many members of the laity have become acutely aware of their powerlessness to effect change within the Church or to make their needs heard. Around the globe, laypeople are taking their frustrations to social media, expressing criticisms of popular leaders and Church officials, with little tangible impact. Can the Church find better ways to incorporate the views of not only the loudest Catholics but also those on the margins, those who have only a tenuous connection to the institutional Church? Synodality speaks to a way of involving the entire people of God into the Church’s life, more than a meeting of bishops ever could.
Theologically, the document also leans heavily into the Church’s Tradition and history, particularly the teaching of Vatican II. It describes the need to think about how everyone can participate in the Church’s life and how all people are invited to bring their unique gifts to bear on the mission of evangelization. The document makes a historical argument when it compares the first millennium of the Church—which was more synodal—to the second millennium—which “emphasized more strongly the hierarchical function” (11). This juxtaposition of more recent history with the life of the early Church suggests that the structures and processes of the second millennium do not adequately respond to the Church’s pastoral needs in the present day. Therefore, we must shift gears and highlight the unique role of the gifts that the Spirit has poured out upon the people of God for the benefit of the Church. The document also makes clear that any process that excludes or denigrates the contributions of the laity and consecrated religious will “quench the Spirit.”
The document proposes ten different ways that synodality might be expressed in the life of the Church at all levels. These ten themes shed more light on what “synodality” means and what it does not. For example, some have expressed concerns that in a synodal process only the most vocal and critical voices will be heard, be they progressive or conservative, filtering out those without a predetermined agenda and those who lack power and influence. But the document focuses on elevating all voices, asking explicitly what it means to relate not only to those with platforms and influence but to those on the periphery.
“To whom does our particular Church need to listen to?” the document asks. “What space is there for the voice of minorities, the discarded, and the excluded?” And also later, “How do we promote a free and authentic style of communication within the community and its organizations, without duplicity and opportunism?” This line of thinking implies a much broader understanding of synodality than many have imagined. Synodality must not be compared to a “town hall,” which very few people from the community actually attend, and where only those who are most outraged and critical speak up. Instead, “journeying together” is a dynamic process involving both hierarchical and lay elements collaborating along the way.
There is a concern—or hope—among Catholics that this synodal path will lend itself to a more “democratic” style of Church governance. For example, some critics have worried about the possibility that this will open the door to changes in some of the Church’s most countercultural teachings, such as the reservation of the priesthood to men, the prohibition of artificial birth control, or the Church’s teachings against same-sex marriage. The document, however, makes clear that these concerns misunderstand the synodal process:
The consultation of the People of God does not imply the assumption within the Church of the dynamics of democracy based on the principle of majority, because there is, at the basis of participation in every synodal process, a shared passion for the common mission of evangelization and not the representation of conflicting interests. In other words, this is an ecclesial process that can only take place “at the heart of a hierarchically structured community.
Synodality as a guiding principle for the future of the Catholic Church and her institutions will require greater participation from the laity in the life of the Church. But it is important to realize that synodality works in conjunction with the Church’s hierarchical structure and authority. When clergy and laity understand their proper roles and responsibilities, synodality in no way can be opposed to them. Instead, it should lead to a greater sense of co-responsibility in the Church for both clergy and laity.
The Church has begun a two-year plan to listen to and enter into dialogue with the faithful. If it succeeds, the entire Church will reach a clearer understanding of how synodality can be fully expressed in our age. At the end of these two years, we may see a new Apostolic Exhortation from the pope. The process may lead to revisions of canon law or even unprecedented changes to the structure of the Church itself. But the real goal of this Synodal journey is nothing less than to provide the entire Church with an opportunity to rethink what it means to be a Church, and all Catholics are called to participate:
The purpose of this Synod is not to produce more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.
This is indeed a lofty goal. Let us pray that this Synod will bear much fruit in the Church’s third millennium.