Since Francis was elected pope, a number of words have entered the Church’s lexicon that–while not new by any means–represent the priorities and focus of his vision for renewal in the Church. Terms such as accompaniment, encounter, clericalism, throwaway culture, and periphery have become common–not only in the papal vocabulary, but in the everyday discourse of the Church. The Greek terms kerygma (proclamation of the Gospel) and parresia (speaking boldly and candidly) have also worked their way into many recent papal statements and Church documents. Synodality is one of these terms, and perhaps one of the most important, because it is essential to comprehending the way Francis sees the Church.
The term “synod,” Francis regularly points out, means “walking together.” He envisions a Church that walks together, unified with and under the Successor of Peter, but is unafraid to engage in dialogue, discuss proposed reforms, and challenge assumptions about the way things should be done. A synodal Church recognizes the diversity of regions and cultures among our people, and respects legitimate cultural approaches and adaptations in Church practices and discipline. It’s not about changing core doctrines or promoting disunity, and the key to effective and fruitful synodality is communion with the Bishop of Rome.
While the Catholic Church has always been “synodal,” the term seems to be greatly misunderstood today. Perhaps this is tied to fears that heterodox ideas will be implemented in the local Churches, or is merely another point of conflict in the ongoing resistance to everything Pope Francis does. Francis has tried to explain in numerous speeches and documents. In March 2018, the CDF, with Francis’s blessing, published a lengthy document from the International Theological Commission on the subject of synodality. In November, Pope Francis spoke to members of the Commission, telling them:
“The practice of synodality, traditional but always to be renewed, is the implementation, in the history of the People of God on their journey, of the Church as a mystery of communion, in the image of Trinitarian communion. As you know, this theme is very close to my heart: synodality is a style, it is walking together, and it is what the Lord expects of the Church in the third millennium.”
Unfortunately, a narrative has emerged in the last 7 years that has worked to instill fear in the minds of Catholics. They see references to synodality as attempts to undermine Truth and tradition. Nothing could be further from reality. Francis explained why such fears are unfounded in his 2014 closing address to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family:
“As I have dared to tell you, [as] I told you from the beginning of the Synod, it was necessary to live through all this with tranquility, and with interior peace, so that the Synod would take place cum Petro and sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter), and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.
We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops [laughing]. So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.”
Unfortunately the fears have not died down. Which is why it is quite appropriate that the topic announced yesterday for the 2022 Ordinary Synod of Bishops will be Synodality. The Church is synodal, and we need to better understand, as a Church, what that means. Let us pray that it bears great fruit.
Image: M.Mazur/episkopat.pl. Via Flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.