Like Vatican II, the synod is a dynamic example of the church in history
The Dominican theologian and ecclesiologist Yves Congar said in his book True and False Reform of the Church that the reform of the church is always a collective act. My research and work at the Vatican during the last few years, particularly during the ongoing synodal process as an undersecretary for the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops, has convinced me he was correct: Reform is never done alone. We should all be very aware that the best way the church can continue this journey toward a synodal conversion is all together—synodally.
I would like to begin by sharing a little bit about synodal methodologies. The scriptural story of the journey to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–32), used at the Synod on Young People in 2018 in Rome, was one that resonated with me and many participants in this current process for the Synod on Synodality. We had the experience that Jesus Christ was walking with us like he was walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
This image of the road to Emmaus is a good expression of synodal methodology based on the “see-judge-act” approach created by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn because it begins with the reality: We start from our situatedness, from the very concrete reality where we are. Then we try to interpret that reality in the light of the Gospel, to discern a course of action. Then we are called to act.
In this current synodal process, many of us had the experience that Jesus Christ was walking with us like he was walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
At the beginning of the journey of Emmaus, Jesus is just listening to the disciples as they walk along, hearing where they are on their road, their disillusionment, their questions. We do something similar when we listen to the “signs of the times,” to use that famous phrase from Pope John XXIII’s document summoning the Second Vatican Council. And we are doing that today in our synodal process, and recognizing there is a strong link between synodality and the processes of Vatican II.
The Synod of Bishops, where I am working now, reflects the spirit and method of an ecumenical council. As the Australian theologian Ormond Rush has stated, synodality is the council in a nutshell. We understand the synodal process to be not just documents but a spiritual event, in the same way that it is important to read the texts of Vatican II but also to remember that the experience and impact of Vatican II is not represented only by its documents.
We cannot understand and live synodality today without referring to the council, and our experience of this synod helps us with the ongoing reception of Vatican II. In a way, maybe we are living all together as baptized Christians in this process in the same way that the council fathers experienced collegiality in their role as bishops. But there is one major difference: This synod is not only a synod of bishops. This process was opened in October 2021 in Rome, and every diocese in the world called all the baptized to participate. We are already in synod, walking together as the people of God.
Synodality invites us to understand our personal identity as Christians and our identity as a church as dynamic.
Synodality and a pilgrim church
Another way to describe synodality is as a dynamic vision of the church in history. One of the major shifts that occurred at Vatican II was the move to integrate the historical dimension of the church into our conception of God’s revelation. Synodality invites us to understand our personal identity as Christians and our identity as a church as dynamic. Our synodal process is also an example of the church in history, as communion and mission. For this reason, we cannot speak of or live synodality without incorporating practical experience: We are not imagining the church in theory and trying to implement an idealistic, abstract vision of the church. Synodality is a way to be church that incorporates the diverse experiences of its members as we find processes that build us up as the people of God. That is why synodality unfolds step by step.
We are talking about the church of today, in this world, in this context, in these cultures. In this sense, our conversations in the synodal process should include a concrete vision of the church in history, but at the same time be truly rooted in the vision of the Trinitarian God. Those conversations should appreciate the sensusfidei of all God’s holy and faithful people, the apostolic collegiality of all the bishops and our shared unity with the successor of Peter.
Already in Scripture, we can see that synodality was the style of Jesus and the style of the early church. In Acts of the Apostles 15, we see the church’s first synod at the Council of Jerusalem over the question of circumcision for Gentile converts to Christianity. The gathered Christians find much conflict in the community. They do not agree. So what do they do? They gather together, they pray together, they listen to each other, and they try to find a consensus. And ultimately they say that through the Holy Spirit, they can agree that those who were not already Jews do not have to be circumcised to follow Christ.
Just as there is a hierarchical principle by which the church is governed, so too is there a synodal principle. There is no primacy without synodality and no synodality without primacy.
We see in such examples that synodality is a constitutive dimension of the church: Just as there is a hierarchical principle by which the church is governed, so too is there a synodal principle. There is no primacy without synodality and no synodality without primacy.
The recently released “Document for the Continental Stage” is a kind of synthesis of all the feedback coming to the Vatican from all over the world. The title of this text—“Enlarge the Space of Your Tent”—says a lot. A reference to Isaiah 54, it indicates that through listening to all these voices of the people of God, we have come to understand that the Holy Spirit is asking us to enlarge our tent to become a more welcoming and inclusive church.
The document was formed from contributions from 112 out of 114 episcopal conferences. Not only is it the first time that we have received feedback from consultations done by almost 100 percent of the bishops’ conferences, but we also have input from all the Eastern Catholic churches, from dicasteries in the Roman Curia and from religious communities around the world. We also received many contributions from lay associations and movements of the faithful, many from the United States.
This level of participation made it clear that people want to have a living experience of faith, a living experience of church, not just an abstract concept. All kinds of members of the people of God are calling the church to practice synodality as a way of being and acting, promoting the participation of all.
Learning from each other
A member of our commission on theology, the Rev. Carlos María Galli, one of the main theologians in Latin America, offered the following theological reflection:
Today synodality designates the pilgrim style of the Church of Christ as [it] journeys through history towards the Father’s house, and discerns her evangelizing mission in the communion of the Holy Spirit. It points out the path that the people of God travels with the plural unity of its local churches, members, and communities—through the convergent exercise of the charisms and ministries at the service of the common good.
Everyone is called to take part in this journey; no one should be excluded if we are to credibly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to all people. We know this is not easy. We all must accept the need both for metanoia, or change, and for kenosis, an emptying out of ourselves to follow Christ in his paschal journey, if we are truly to allow space for the other, to journey with people from different backgrounds and positions and experiences. This process requires us to be open to new spiritual experiences, to have faith in God, to be humble, to be prayerful.
For this reason, it was moving to read contributions to the synod from people in countries wracked by war or experiencing difficult crises, like Lebanon, Myanmar, Haiti and Congo. Even in the midst of so much conflict and violence, they say, “We want to participate in the synodal process”—and when they experience synodality, it brings joy and hope. We see how the synod is a transformative process already bearing fruit at the grass roots. A bishop from the United States recently told me the following:
This synod is changing my vision of evangelization. As a bishop, as a priest, I have been trained to teach, to preach, to tell the truth. Through all this experience of listening, I realize that the Spirit is already at work in all these people. This synod is really changing my vision of evangelization.
Many people feel they are not listened to, feel they are left on the margins. They want a more welcoming church, a more inclusive church, a more open and relational church.
One sentiment that came very strongly in many reports is that many Catholics don’t experience the church as being welcoming. Many people feel they are not listened to, feel they are left on the margins. They want a more welcoming church, a more inclusive church, a more open and relational church. But it is important to recognize that when you open the floor to everybody and listen to everybody, you won’t always get the answers you think you already know. Rather, you will have diverse and at times actually opposing views.
That too is part of the synod—a call to embrace the tensions present in our midst. We can’t do synodality without facing and dealing with those tensions and receiving them as generative. At times it may not be as necessary to forge agreement as it is to recognize, honor and reconcile differences. We might use the image of musical notes here: Harmony is preferable to monotony, but harmony can only be achieved via sharply different notes in combination.
This is important to remember if we are to truly listen to the marginalized and to the poor in the church. If we truly listen, we may find that maybe they do not speak in very theological or sophisticated ways. But we know that the Holy Spirit is speaking through them too. In many cases, listening to their experiences of church brings us back to the essentials of church life and mission.
These actions need to be in the context of the church community that sees each other as equals, as all participating in the same mission. But we can find the roadmap for synodality in “Laudato Si’” and “Fratelli Tutti”—both of which stress that everything is interrelated and connected.
Harmony is preferable to monotony, but harmony can only be achieved via sharply different notes in combination.
Another important outcome of our listening, and an important goal for the church moving forward, is the embrace and implementation of a greater degree of co-responsibility in the church. In the same sense that we all wish to be listened to and welcomed, we also all have a responsibility to shoulder part of the work of mission, even if it is just on the local level of our parishes, dioceses or universities. This will require work in formation, because to be a synodal church, we need to train people to pray, to listen, to discern, to dialogue, to work collaboratively. If we truly want new styles of leadership—where authority is exercised not in a personal authoritarian way as power, but in a listening, consultative, collaborative style as servant leadership —we also need to expand our sense of who holds responsibility for the church’s mission.
One thing that came through strongly from the syntheses from all over the world, in so many different contexts, was a series of questions about the role of women and the need to value co-responsibility between men and women based on equality and reciprocity. This was already a strong call coming from the Synod on Young People and the Synod on the Amazon, but with this synod, it is becoming one of the main issues—not just questions about women in the church, but questions about how men and women respect each other and share responsibility at every level.
One important task for us all if we are to embrace co-responsibility is to change our mindset away from a model of a top-down teaching church. At the risk of oversimplifying, if we look back to the First Vatican Council, we see that it reinforced the role of the pope, seen at the top of a pyramidal church with supreme power. With Vatican II, the church embraced the notion that the pope is not alone but part of a college of bishops, and emphasized the notion of collegiality. Perhaps now with synodality, based on the recognition that the Holy Spirit is working in all the baptized, we are being called through the synod to embrace a further vision where everyone in the church—regardless of status, regardless of vocation—has much to offer the rest of us.
We saw some of this in the Synod on Young People: a vision of circularity and reciprocity in our communion, and the idea that the Holy Spirit is working in everybody. We certainly hope the Holy Spirit is working through the hierarchy, but we also hope that through our relationships, dialogue and mature listening, the Holy Spirit can be heard in many other venues and voices. So the primacy of the pope and the collegiality of the bishops have to be brought together with the synodality of all the people of God.
We certainly hope the Holy Spirit is working through the hierarchy, but we also hope that the Holy Spirit can be heard in many other venues and voices.
Six elements at the heart of synodality
What are the key elements that form the basis of the synodal vision? I think there are six to keep in mind moving forward. The first is a stress on the church as “the people of God on the way.” We need to retrieve and preserve that dynamic vision of ecclesial communion as a journey together as missionary pilgrims.
The second is a deeper theology of baptism that stresses the equality of all the baptized. As Pope Francis has said, all of us—bishops, priests, brothers, sisters, laypeople—entered the church in the same way: through our baptism. If we think of this in terms of the documents of Vatican II, it means reading Chapter 3 of “Lumen Gentium”—on the hierarchy of the church—through the lens of Chapter 2, on the people of God, describing the church as all united by baptism and highlighting the common priesthood of all the baptized.
A third key element for the synodal vision is to retrieve and to integrate into the process the notion expressed by “Lumen Gentium” (No. 12) of the sensus fidei fidelium, the sense of faith possessed by all the faithful. As a church we do not have simply the authority of the magisterium, though that is important; we also do not have only the authority given to what we sometimes call “the magisterium of the theologians,” though that too is important. We also have the authority given to all the people of God together. This is what truly constitutes the sensus fidei fidelium. A synodal church is a church that acknowledges a kind of plurality of authority.
It is of course normal that in this parsing of authority, tensions arise. But we need to receive those tensions as generative and creative, not always as negative.
A fourth key element is paying closer attention to what might be the action of the Holy Spirit. We cannot talk about synodality without looking at the agency of the Spirit in the dynamic of the church. We remember what Pope Francis said when he inaugurated the synod in October 2021: It is not just a gathering of opinions but an ecclesial moment whose protagonist is always the Holy Spirit.
Along those lines, we have the fifth key element of synodality: recognizing and appreciating the diversity of charisms in the life of the church. That requires finding new ways to value, to recognize, to empower all our charisms that are gifts of God for the service of the community.
And the last key element? To embrace a vision of church based on a relational anthropology. This is a call to put human relationship at the center of our discernment and processes, and to develop new communicative dynamics to become this synodal church. That is the only way forward in this process: through relationship. A synodal church is a relational church of brothers and sisters in Christ, a church of fraternity building human fraternity.