Synodality is simple. There is nothing confusing about it. Sometimes it can take a complicated intellectual journey to understand a simple concept, however. God Himself is so simple that we, in our complexity, cannot fully grasp Him. The same is true of what comes from God, such as peace, joy, and love. They are very simple, but not always easy to understand. I think synodality is similar in this respect.
Rev. Louis J. Cameli wrote a beautiful article on his own journey in coming to understand synodality, in which he articulated the questions which are arising in response to the process of the synod on synodality:
“A synod on synodality is a process about a process. And that stuck with me. A process about a process seemed to be without content. Where would this lead us? The questions that are posed by the preparatory documents to Catholics throughout the world probe process, not content. The questions about listening attentively, speaking openly and acting boldly are good questions. At the same time, they also seem to suffer from a certain vagueness. Where is a synod on synodality leading us? We are on the road together, but where is that road taking us? What is the destination? In the end, are we bound to be disappointed?”
As he says, “I could not get a precise fix on this ‘process about a process’ until I recalled the larger context.” He then goes on to reflect on the fact that Pope Francis is our first post-conciliar pope, and about the vision of St. Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. For Rev. Cameli, it all came together when he prayerfully considered the experience and movement of the universal Church. This is “faith seeking understanding” in action, and it is this process that I wish to highlight.
I would argue that synodality, by its very nature, cannot be fully understood without this kind of openness to participating in the life of the universal Church, because synodality is about a Church that journeys together. It seems to me, however, that synodality is a profoundly simple thing once this is understood.
The following is a reflection. It is not exhaustive; I won’t be going into the details of the synodal process or the meanings of communion, participation, and mission. My statements are my own understanding and not authoritative. Also, I’m expecting my understanding of synodality to be enriched or changed as this synodal process continues.
A Synodal Church
What do synodal and synodality mean?
The words come from synod, which is of Greek origin and means “common way,” or “journeying together.” The Church has a long history of synods, in which an assembly of bishops gathers and listens to one another about a specific subject.
The word “synodal,” as it is being used now, draws from the meaning and history of synods to describe, not just a meeting of bishops, but something involving the whole People of God. As Pope Francis said in Malta, “Brothers and sisters, be a ‘synod’, in other words, ‘journey together.’”
It is not only journeying together, though. “Synodal” means there is listening and dialogue, as the pope described at the opening of the synodal process. He said, “If we want to speak of a synodal Church, we cannot remain satisfied with appearances alone; we need content, means, and structures that can facilitate dialogue…”
Above all, however, the synodal process is a journey in and with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the main protagonist, and without Him, “there will be no Synod.”
Putting this together, synodal and synodality can be understood as
- journeying together,
- listening to one another,
- in the Spirit.
These characteristics describe a synodal Church. It is a Church in which the People of God are in communion with Our Lord and one another, are participating in both the life of Christ and the lives of their neighbors, and are united in the common mission of the Spirit.
Pope Francis has been guiding the Church towards synodality even before the word was in the popular Catholic vocabulary. Back in 2017, at the opening of the 70th General Assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Pope Francis gave this clear definition of what it means for a Church to journey together:
“To walk together is the constitutive way of the Church; the figure that enables us to interpret reality with the eyes and heart of God; the condition for following the Lord Jesus and being servants of life in this wounded time.”
Let’s break down this summary given by Pope Francis:
It is a constitutive way. This means it has to do with the very purpose and establishment of the Church. The Church was founded by Christ as a pilgrim Church (as described throughout Lumen Gentium, but especially Chapter VII), which journeys through history towards Her final end. If we do not journey together as a unified body then there will be divisions and separations (as has happened so often throughout Church history). The unity of the Church and journeying together is the same thing.
It is a figure. A figure (la cifra) is like a cipher that helps us to discern. We are meant to walk together as Jesus accompanied others. This shows us what the Lord expects from the Church and from each of us individually. Focusing on the model of Christ walking with us, “enables us to interpret reality with the eyes and heart of God.”
It is a condition. Walking together is a condition for following Jesus. We cannot follow Him by taking a different road than the one He is traveling. His Incarnation itself was an act of walking together with humanity, and, in His ministry, Jesus consistently reaches out to the poor, the outcast, and the suffering. He is patient with the disciples and hardest on those who despise others (cf. Lk 18:9). He is the model for what Pope Francis calls, “servants of life in this wounded time.”
“Synodality” is simply a new way of expressing what is integral to the life of the Church.
Synodality understood as listening complements the vision of synodality seen as a Church that journeys together. If listening were not part of it, synodality would become a form of control rather than an exercise in freedom. Far from suppressing or excluding those who don’t conform, synodality means we open our ears to each other. It is not about who gets to control the Church, or who makes the decisions, or even what makes it into the final documents of the synodal process. Synodality is not about the laity getting this one shot at being heard by the hierarchy.
It is about all of us learning to listen to one another, especially to those fellow Christians who are right in front of us. It is important for the clergy to listen to the laity, but synodality is not limited to that. This is why the parish-level meetings are so important. They are not meant to be merely meetings about the synod, but experiences of synodality.
Pope Francis spoke about this attitude to the Italian Bishops, saying:
“The first of these gifts is already present in the convenire in unum [in one place, being together], the willingness to share time, listening, creativity and consolation. I hope these days will be characterized by open, humble and frank exchange.”
Describing this humble and frank exchange is an experience. As Pope Francis said, “let us experience this moment of encounter, listening and reflection as a season of grace…” This is an experience of dialoguing with other Catholics, face to face. This has already begun in the parish meetings. They begin with an invocation of the Holy Spirit, and then the participants listen to one another. Such interaction is vastly different from online exchanges. This is true dialogue; looking at one another, listening, and being honest.
From my own experience and anecdotal knowledge of the parish meetings, it seems that some people are opening up for the first time about the joys and the suffering they experience as members of the Church. This can be both very surprising and fruitful. On the other hand, these meetings can be soured if one person uses it as a chance to unleash their frustrations in a way that drowns out all the other voices. A frank exchange can also be hindered by those who only listen with an ear to quickly find a solution or make a to-do list.
Pope Francis gave us a wonderful insight into the purpose of this exchange, when he said, “Do not fear moments of opposition: entrust yourselves to the Spirit, Who opens to diversity and reconciles difference in fraternal charity.” I find in these words a reflection of the Beatitudes. The “pure of heart” are those who have achieved interior reconciliation, and the “peacemakers” are those who reconcile the divisions outside of themselves.
In the Spirit
Synodality is necessarily in the Spirit. This is why the Adsumus prayer (“We stand before You, Holy Spirit…”) is so prominent in this synodal process. In his opening reflection at the beginning of this synodal process, Pope Francis said:
I am certain the Spirit will guide us and give us the 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. I want to say again that the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is not present, there will be no Synod.
The Holy Spirit is the Soul of the Church. He animates and gives life to the Church, and He guides and animates this journey and empowers us to listen to one another along the way.
Synodality is an ecclesial characteristic of journeying together and listening to one another in the Spirit. The whole Church is discerning what it means to be synodal, so there is nothing negative or revealing about being confused. Rather, in the process of “faith seeking understanding,” such confusion is to be expected. Syndality is simple in itself, but it also demands a choice. Are we willing to follow the Spirit and convert from anything that keeps us from journeying in unity and listening to one another? If not, what does that say about our relationship with the Church?
Image: Ivory carving of the Road to Emmaus, ninth-century Carolingian. From Wikimedia Commons, image uploaded by sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0
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Patrick is a layman who lives in North Carolina with his wife and children. He holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from Belmont Abbey College and a master’s degree in theology and Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville.