orientations y brother Bishops, I convey warm greetings to you. As we know there has been much discussion recently about synodality. Accordingly, in this brief reflection, I wish to offer some pastoral about what synodality could imply in the life and mission of the local Church.
The Synod and the Church
In 2018 with the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio, the Holy Father, Pope Francis reformed the figure of the Synod of Bishops created by St. Paul VI and has also expressed the intention to listen more to the whole People of God in arriving at certain decisions. The document reaffirms the episcopal character of the synod and frames the synodal body in the “synodality” of the whole Church. Thus, the text encapsulates a double reference: the episcopal college and the entire People of God. The synodality of the whole Church requires that everyone who wishes to be heard is heard and can contribute to the discussion. This participation, however, should not be read as an extension of the unique character of episcopal collegiality to the whole People of God. Instead, it is a call to co-responsibility, unity and participation in the evangelizing mission of the Church as an institution belonging to us: Bishops, Clergy, religious and lay faithful by our shared Baptism.
Pope Francis, at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, has invited the whole Church to a Synod whose title is “For a Synodal Church: communion, participation and mission”. It began on October 9 and 10, 2021, in Rome and on October 17 in each particular Church. It will culminate in the celebration of the XVI Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. The Holy Father, in extending this invitation to the People of God, stressed the point that synodality in the present circumstances is about the nature of the Church, its form, its style, its mission (Rome, 18.IX.2021). Synodality, he states, “is an essential dimension of the Church” in the sense that “what the Lord is asking of us is already present in the word ‘synod’, which contains everything we need to understand “walking together.” “Walking together” or ‘Journeying together” towards the same destination, as a metaphor for synodality, is something proper to the mission of the pilgrim Church. Walking together necessarily includes us all (Rome, 18.IX.2021). And the Holy Father’s metaphor of walking together would suggest that the whole truth about us is grasped only in communion with the whole Church.
As indeed, with my brother bishops, we walk with the people, sometimes in front, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes behind. Pope Francis insists the good shepherd must of necessity move in this way. He walks in front to guide, in the middle to encourage and feel the needs and concerns of the flock, and behind because the people also have an “instinct” to find new ways forward or find the lost way on their own (Rome, 18.IX.2021). Let us, therefore, consider that in one way or another we are to be good shepherds of those whom God has placed at our side. We have an obligation to help them through example and prayer walk in the way of holiness and persevere in their correspondence to the graces given to them by the Good Shepherd, the One who leads us to the pastures of eternal life. To the extent that the synod is a process of journeying together towards a common goal that begins in the local Churches, the role of the diocesan bishop as a good shepherd is a most demanding one that arises out of a pastoral concern to lead his flock in ways that build up the Church. It involves a great deal of patience and much love. In today’s society, people seem to be more concerned about what they term to be the Church’s lack of understanding or empathy, its narrowness, and its slowness to act than by the sins and faults of its members. These are observations and not judgemental by any stretch of the imagination. And so, as pastors responsible for the life of the Church under the prevailing and sometimes condemnatory atmosphere, our disposition requires and should demonstrate humility, courage, ability, alertness of mind, and a great sense of responsibility. The neglect of this mission can indeed bring about serious harm to the People of God (Isiah 13 14-15).
Synodality and the Church
The synodality of the whole Church has its roots in the Catholic unity of all Christians. This symbiotic relationship of a mutual dependence in which synodality-walking together –serves unity, and unity is at the basis of synodality- is evident when we as People of God are in a position to listen to one another and to hear what God is saying to all of us. Therefore a synodal Church is a Church of listening, conscious that listening is more than hearing. In the Church we are called to listen with a loving heart. I often like to recall the statement by the ancient philosopher Zeno who used to say that it is no accident that we have been given two ears but only one mouth. The listening we are speaking of here is a reciprocal listening contextualized by faith, love, and mutual respect, where everyone has something to learn and something to offer (50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, 17.X.2015), by listening to the Word of God, and responding to the signs of the times—and trying to discern what the Spirit is saying to the
Church in their prayer and dialogue with one another (cf. Rev 2:7). The synod or the council is one of the processes the Church uses to reform itself. Historically, reform movements have been brought about by Popes undertaking a general reform of abuses or addressing moments of crisis (e.g. Pope Gregory VII). In lending their energies and authority to reform movements, the Popes have also used the opportunity to prudently exercise and explain papal authority.
More recently, the Holy Father has given a decisive impulse to synodality, framing the synod in an ecclesiology of the People of God and communion. He is asking Church leaders to continue to move in the direction of counting evermore on the contribution of the laity. Hence, the synod provides a platform for the collaboration of all the faithful in the mission of the Church. It is instructive that within this “synodality of the whole Church”, everyone is expected to play their part in the Church’s mission in unity without invading the other’s field or undervaluing the other in what is proper to them. The Church’s unity is paramount and must be cared for and transmitted to future generations in this way. Pope Francis has continuously encouraged a favourable disposition of listening to the People of God on the part of pastors and greater rigour and refinement in defining the roles and responsibilities each one has in fulfilling the Church’s mission.
Within this notion of unity and communion, the synod is, therefore, a process that begins by first gathering and consulting the People of God in the various particular Churches (who will be listened to by their pastors), then gathers and consults the many bishops in their intermediate figures (patriarchates, episcopal conferences etc.) who will listen to what the Eastern synods and episcopal conferences have gathered from the first process and, finally, in the synodal assembly the Holy Father listens to his brothers in the episcopate. The Faithful listening to the Pope’s word follows this assembly and the subsequent implementation of his decision regarding the synod. It is essential in these consultations that the moral aspects such as the willingness to listen, sincerity in speaking and harmony are common to all three levels of the synodal process. When the synodality of the Church results from consultations at these three different levels (local, intermediate and universal), it is clear that it results from the participation of all the faithful in the decisions of the future direction of the Church.
Synodality and the local Church
I wish to reiterate that the authority in the Church does not come from the result of a democratic referendum. Consultations in the Church originated from the dynamics of the interrelationship between those members who have the ministerial priesthood, for example the bishops and
priests, and those who share the common priesthood, namely, all the baptized faithful. These two forms are very different from the general functioning of the civil institutions that today we call “democracy”, whose power comes principally from public opinion. So we need to make it clear that the diocesan synod is not a parliament of Christians with their bishop and clergy, and the synod of bishops is not a parliament of bishops with the Pope. Rather, they are in a broad sense a type of council meeting, pastoral by nature, in which all the members, as I mentioned earlier, are listening to the Word of God and trying to respond accordingly to the signs of the times discerning in their prayers and mutual dialogue what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church. (cf. Rev 2:7).
The Holy Father has reminded us to try to express ourselves in this synodal journey by not forgetting this formula: “He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7) (Rome, 18.IX.2021). “ If the Spirit is not present, it will be a diocesan parliament but not a Synod” (Rome, 18.IX.2021).To have ears, to listen is the first commitment. It is a matter of listening to the voice of God, …“ of capturing His presence, of intercepting his passage and his breath of life.” We must not only listen to God’s voice in our own hearts, but we must also listen to his voice speaking through the hearts of others.
In the face of the deterioration of the perception of authority and its meaning in the Church, the Holy Father judges it fit to address this apparent uncertainty and confusion through dialogue, listening and synodality. It is normal and necessary that every human institution needs constant reform and renewal, including religious institutions like the Church. No human institution is perfect, no matter how revered; it will always need renewal because it will always be shaped by people tainted by self-interest and sin. The Lord is constantly prompting us to reform and renew our institutions to serve God’s purposes more thoroughly, rather than our purposes, so that they become more authentic signs of His presence among His people. We need to take this to heart in an ongoing way and be open to the Lord’s call to repentance and renewal. This constant renewal is why we have organs such as Church Councils and Synods. We must always remind ourselves that the real Temple, the actual dwelling place of God, is his people, is each one of us. “You are the temple of the Spirit,” says St. Paul. That the Church moves forward, walks together, is synodal. But it is always the Spirit who is the great protagonist of the Church (Rome, 18.IX.2021).
As the People of God, we often ponder what we need to do and how to make our individual lives speak more clearly of God. We should also ask ourselves how our local Churches
become evermore “temples” pleasing to God. We must concentrate on what we need to do to ensure that our parishes, our Church communities as a whole, more clearly point to God, so that people will be drawn to Him and come to discover his love, mercy, and solicitude for our salvation? The local Church’s mission is to carry out pastoral work continuing in a concrete way Jesus Christ’s work on earth. As members of the local Church, each of us needs a good shepherd to direct or guide our souls since no one can map out their course without exceptional help from God. The role of the local Church in missions is multi-faceted, covering many different aspects, including training, sending, and supporting missionaries and supporting mission work all over the world in line with the commandment to “make disciples of all nations”. The Church and those in it, must of necessity share the Word of God, help those in need, live as examples to all, be united in moving forward together, and be aware of their differences, which is an integral part of the synodal way.
Preparation of Participants
The outcome of a synod, no matter how well it is carefully organized, depends fundamentally on the preparation and good will of its participants. An adequate spiritual disposition is needed on the part of all. In practical terms, this preparation means the fruit of study, of faith experience, of one’s own life and that of others. This preparation will also refer to the personal conscience of each participant in the synod meeting: to be responsible for the mission entrusted, to speak, and not to take a passive attitude. In this formative process of the laity, the clergy are expected to play an essential role in their teaching functions and their spiritual accompaniment. If the synod members are well versed in the topics and possess wisdom, they will enrich the vision of all and contribute to practical and workable solutions to the many challenges we together face in an increasingly connected and global reality. Suppose, however, the clergy and laity are poorly prepared in this sense of faith. In that case, there is the likelihood that the presbyteral, pastoral, and parish councils will contribute very little in any conciliar reform gathering.
The basis for the listening of the whole People of God in any synod lies in the sense of faith: a gift of the Holy Spirit proper to all the faithful, and received at Baptism (cf. LG, n. 12 ). It is not just enough to listen to people for the fruit of the synod to be better; active participation by all is needed. Given this reality, the quality of disposition that synod members should have must necessarily include openness of mind that helps one listen to others, respect for the views of others, a capacity for dialogue, inner freedom to say what one thinks and the intent to foster and encourage the proposals of others.
Today, we live in a cultural environment that does not always make it easy to have an astute critical capacity. This at times has led to a lack of interest in the ideas and reasons of others. Synodality encourages us to avoid these limitations. Accordingly, we cannot be limited to listening only to those who share our opinions, but we must have the courage and desire to respectfully listen to differences while attempting to place ourselves in the situation of others. In order to try to solve this problem of cultural blocks to initiative and creativity, in a practical way, the Pope suggests that the intra-diocesan synodal bodies remain connected with the “basics” and start from the people, from the daily problems. It is a concrete way of listening to others, at the intra-ecclesial level, which he considers fundamental for the Church to begin to take on an authentic synodal form.
In conclusion, the liturgy, personal and common prayers are indispensable for all the faithful to be open to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit through the synod. Fundamental to this common prayer is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the “source and model of the spirituality of communion”. In this regard, it has been indicated that “synodality is neither the mechanical law of the majority nor the unanimity imposed by the leader, but a dialogue that strives to bring everyone together towards unity “. Overall, a good or excellent spiritual disposition by all is the sine qua non for the synodal meeting to transform in some way all the participants to be a valuable help to our Holy Father and contribute to the service of the universal Church.
Pretoria Archbishop Peter Wells,