Synodality: Context, Challenge and Chance
Fr David Ranson
Vicar General of the Diocese of Broken Bay
We are now on the ‘eve’ of the XVI Ordinary General Synod of Bishops to be opened in Rome in October 2023 but extending through to October 2024. When the theme for this Synod was first announced by Pope Francis, I recognised that the Church stood at a moment as significant as the convocation of the Second Vatican II. While the forthcoming Synod is not a Council and, therefore, does not possess the same legislative capability of an Ecumenical Council, nonetheless, it presents as one of the most defining events to shape ecclesiology since 1965. The ecclesiology of synodality will certainly feature as characteristic of the pontificate of Pope Francis; it will also endure beyond him and shape the Church’s self-understanding in the term ahead.
As we approach the month of October, this pastoral reflection is offered to place this milestone in its context and to suggest some lines of reflection on its application, both in terms of challenges and opportunities.
Synodality (literally, “walking together”) may present with novelty. Yet, it is a natural progression from the ecclesiology of Communion shaped by St Pope John Paul II. Towards the end of the 20th century, St Pope John Paul II led us into a sustained reflection on the central mystery of the Christian life: the Trinity. In those years, he proposed an extraordinary definition of the Trinity as “the divine community-in-missionary tension.”[i] He understood that ‘communion’ and ‘mission’ belong to the very nature of God. God exists as an eternal communion of Persons but with openness to yet further inclusion. The Communion is the Mission and the Mission is the Communion.[ii] How beautifully is this depicted in the 15th century icon of Andrei Rublev. Here we see Father, Son and Spirit depicted in a circle of life, each oriented towards the others. However, the Divine Circle has an openness of invitation for all of us to become part of the Communion. This is the Mission that is an essential feature of God’s very life. Our destiny is to take our place in this Circle of Communion. If this is the nature of God in whose image we are made, then St Pope John Paul II indicated that every Christian vocation must also reflect this tension of Communion and Mission. As each community lives this tension, we become a living icon of God.
As the new Millennium dawned St Pope John Paul II affirmed that the greatest challenge facing us a Church was to develop a spirituality of communion. In his letter to the Church bringing to an end the 2000 Year of Jubilee, the pope wrote:
To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium, which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God's plan and respond to the world's deepest yearnings.
But what does this mean in practice? Here too, our thoughts could run immediately to the action to be undertaken, but that would not be the right impulse to follow. Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up. A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart's contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us. A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as "those who are a part of me". This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a "gift for me". A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to "make room" for our brothers and sisters, bearing "each other's burdens" (Gal6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, "masks" of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.
Consequently, the new century will have to see us more than ever intent on valuing and developing the forums and structures which, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council's major directives, serve to ensure and safeguard communion.[iii]
Subsequently, on the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis noted that that “it is precisely the path of synodality that God expects of the Church of the Third Milllennium.”[iv]
In more recent times, Pope Francis has provided us with, as it were, the practice to realise the aspiration of his predecessor. This is ‘Participation’ which acts, as it were, as the bridge between ‘communion’ and ‘mission.’ It is the call for
the involvement of all who belong to the People of God – laity, consecrated and ordained – to engage in the exercise of deep and respectful listening to one another. This listening creates space for us to hear the Holy Spirit together and guides our aspirations for the Church of the Third Millennium. Participation is based on the fact that all the faithful are qualified and are called to serve one another through the gifts they have each received from the Holy Spirit. In a synodal Church the whole community, in the free and rich diversity of its members, is called together to pray, listen, analyse, dialogue, discern and offer advice on making pastoral decisions which correspond as closely as possible to God's will.”[v]
It is an exercise that affirms and exercises our co-responsibility for mission based “on the recognition of a common dignity deriving from Baptism, which makes all who receive it sons and daughters of God, members of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters in Christ, inhabited by the one Spirit, and sent to fulfil a common mission.”[vi]
In the activation of this co-responsibility there are three key words for Pope Francis: encounter, listening, and discernment.[vii] We encounter one another, we listen to each other, we experience the bond of communion with one another through a shared participation, and we allow ourselves to be formed with a sense of common mission. Encounter, listening, and discernment join to create conversation: a conversation in the Spirit which does not simply represent an exchange of ideas but a “dynamic in which the word spoken and heard generates familiarity, enabling us to draw close to one another.”[viii] We listen to the voice of the Spirit together, we hear together.” It promotes the “passage from ‘I’ to ‘we’.” This is to experience the Gospel account of Luke 24. The disciples are walking together to a town. A stranger joins them. He asks a question; the disciples respond with a question, and a conversation begins. Yet, through the conversation and the way in which it begins to bring them new hope they come to the recognition of the presence of the Risen Lord, most fully in the breaking of bread together.
From the initial preparatory document for the Synod, we read then,
In this sense, it is clear that 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 (PD, 32). Thus the objective of this Synodal Process is not only a series of exercises that start and stop, but rather a journey of growing authentically towards the communion and mission that God calls the Church to live out in the third millennium.”[ix]
Importantly, synodality is a conversation not only with those present, but with those who have gone before. As Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy (1908), “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” This is the service of Authority: to ensure the conversation retains integrity. Synodality, therefore, cannot be exercised without the exercise of the episcopal and Petrine ministries. Synodality does not replace the service of authority, of the Magisterium, but requires it for its agency. Otherwise, it would dissolve into a kind of Quaker quietism or a congregationalism which does not respect the essential character of the Church. This is well articulated in a very early account of synodality in the third chapter of the 6th century Rule of St Benedict, “Summoning the Brothers for Counsel”:
As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges the wiser course. The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger. The brothers, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend their own views obstinately. The decision is rather the abbot’s to make, so that when he has determined what is more prudent, all may obey. Nevertheless, just as it is proper for disciples to obey their master, so it is becoming for the master on his part to settle everything with foresight and fairness.
Thus, synodality is not a way to create a Church in our own image. In fact, it demands we let go of what we want of the Church as we submit our own ideas and opinions to something much larger – the question before us to which we are committed learning its resolution through shared discernment. Nor can it address, on its own, every pressing pastoral question. The methodology of Fifth Plenary Council of Australia taught us that where there is on over reliance on the processes of synodality the acute pastoral and governance issues cannot be addressed effectively, let alone legislated.
Is synodality too bold an ecclesial methodology? Does it require too much spiritual maturity of the interlocutors? Experience and time will tell. However, I do believe its principles are possible, especially on a local level.
In the Parish of Chatswood in the Diocese of Broken Bay, we have now moved away from simply having a parish pastoral Council in which but few can participate to being a Parish-in-Council. Having previously developed our Parish Mission through a process involving over 1400 submissions, Bringing the Light of Christ to the City: We love, we grow, we serve, being a Parish-in-Council is an opportunity for everyone in our parish to come together to reflect prayerfully on our mission and to begin the journey of shaping our vision: where we wish to go, and how we might achieve this. Four times each year the entire Parish is invited to gather for counsel.
Being a Parish-in-Council is not simply about having regular community forums; it’s not a town-hall meeting; it’s not a local parliament; it’s not the place for the exchange of our own ideas. It is a very particular way of community discernment which is not democratic. The service of authority remains present and active to be able to listen deeply to the community as a whole and to take those decisions that are discerned to be in the best interest of the community in communion with the whole Church.
The first session of being Parish-in-Council took place on 26 August 2023. Even children were welcome, for a Kids-in-Council enabled them, too, to contribute to the future shaping of our parish. The key pillars of our sessions are to be fellowship, prayer, formation, and strategy. The afternoon begins with lunch and then opens solemnly with a liturgy. There is a period on our personal Christian formation; we then reflect together on how to shape our vision of the future. For this to occur we require a very particular methodology of table conversation, around particular questions, by which each person has the opportunity to have their voice heard. Together the participants listen to what the ‘table’ is saying through such individual contributions. It is the common discernment that is then fed back into the larger group in such a way that leads us to outcomes that can be actioned. Thus, our sessions of being Parish-in-Council are supported with a range of conversations, invite us to listen to one another, and hopefully lead us to new vision. Our facilitators serve a vital role on the day enabling the process of table conversation to have its potential and discipline.
It is our hope that such a framework is genuinely synodal at the service of mission, and as the parish community engages very significant questions about its future development.
Synodality represents not only a significant moment in ecclesiology; it also represents the occasion for a redemptive moment for a wounded Church. How might this be understood? In the mid 1990s, Arthur W. Frank published a landmark and fascinating study on people’s response to illness, entitled, The Wounded Storyteller. As a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, Frank considered the various ways we respond to our illness, particularly the illnesses that are chronic in their character. He identified a number of responses that we make to our experience of such illness ranging from denial through to resignation – none of which were especially helpful in learning how to live in the fullest way in the face of our illness. What he suggested as the most redemptive or transformative pathway he termed being the wounded storyteller: arriving at a position of acceptance in our illness that could allow it to become something shared with others. As we learn to tell the narrative of our illness in a way that includes others, joins with others, allows possibility for others, then we discover the seeds of a new sense of courage and meaning in what we experience. Through the sharing of stories, we gain a new sense of community, and the solidarity of community generates renewed hope. This holds to us as a Church an unmistakable opportunity through synodal processes.
As for the Synod of Bishops, so for our own parish community we turn to the prayer ascribed to the 7th century St Isidore of Seville and used at church synods since:
We stand before You, Holy Spirit, as we gather together in Your name. With You alone to guide us, make Yourself at home in our hearts; Teach us the way we must go and how we are to pursue it. We are weak and sinful; do not let us promote disorder. Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path nor partiality influence our actions. Let us find in You our unity so that we may journey together to eternal life and not stray from the way of truth and what is right. All this we ask of You, who are at work in every place and time, in the communion of the Father and the Son, forever and ever. Amen.
[i] Pope John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day, (10 March 1992), n.12.
[ii] Pope John Paul II, Christifidelis laici, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, (30 December 1988), n.32.
[iii] Pope John Paul II Novo Millennio Ineunte, Apostolic Letter at the Close of the Great Jubilee 2000 (6 January 2021), nn. 43-44.
[iv] Pope Francis, Address commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, 17 October 2015.
[v] Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality Official Handbook for Listening and Discernment in Local Churches. Conclusion to Section 1.4. Accessed: https://www.cccb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/EN-Vademecum-with-Appendices-A-B-CD.pdf
[vi] XVI Ordinary General Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum Laboris for First Session October 2023, (29 May 2023) n. 20.
[vii] Pope Francis, Homily for the Opening of the Synodal Path (10 October 2021), see https://www.exaudi.org/pope-opens-synod-encounter-listen-discern/
[viii] XVI Ordinary General Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum Laboris for First Session October 2023, (29 May 2023),n. 23.
[ix] Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality Official Handbook for Listening and Discernment in Local Churches. Conclusion to Section 1.3 Accessed: https://www.cccb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/EN-Vademecum-with-Appendices-A-B-CD.pdf