Synodality: the vision and the call

In the spring of 2018, the International Theological Commission released a document on the topic of “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church.” This document begins with the strong words of Pope Francis: “The path of synodality is the path that God expects from the Church of the third millennium” (No. 1). The document then traces the path of synodality through Scriptures, Tradition, synods and formation for synodal events.

Synodality refers to members of the Church moving forward in communion with (‘syn’) Christ and one another along a path (‘odos’) under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. This movement, likened to a pilgrimage, occurs when members of the Church, at whatever level, come together according to their particular vocation to pray, to discuss and to discern the next step on their pathway (Nos. 48-49).

The first part of the document on synodality (Chapters 1 and 2) offers examples of early experiences of synodality recorded in Scripture and Tradition. The evangelist Luke, in the account of the disciples of Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35) offers a living icon of the Church as the people of God, guided along the way by the Risen Lord (No. 16).

The progressive revelations provided by various moments of synodality each illustrate the co-responsibility of disciples journeying together. These can be found in Acts, the letters of St. Paul and other testimonies from early Tradition and all the way up to and including documents of the First and Second Vatican Councils.

For example, Lumen Gentium radiates inspired principles of synodality: All members of the Church are to be free and active participants. Companions on the journey, according to the charism of each vocation, they are called to be in mutual service to one another while dynamically being formed into a single community as the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

In dioceses and parishes there are various permanent synodal structures to be distinguished from synodal events or synods, which have a beginning and an end. These structures include the parish pastoral council, the finance council and a diocesan pastoral council.

As the Synod of Bishops gathers in Rome in October for an assembly dedicated to young people, the synod process is once again in focus in the life of the Church. And with Pope Francis’ announcement of a gathering of bishops to address abuse slated for next February, we see the synodal structure and function tackling major issues in the life of the Church.

Spirited exchanges

A synod or synodal event considers questions pertaining to the Church’s activity in the world and its mission to evangelize. It occurs in a particular church, diocese or region, or in the universal Church in collegial and hierarchical communion with the bishop of Rome. As part of the Body of Christ on pilgrimage with the Risen Lord, a synod calls upon the action of the Holy Spirit in discussions among those participating. While a synod involves the co-responsibility of all the participants, it is not a democracy. A bishop begins the synodal event, identifies and nurtures movements of the Holy Spirit within the discussions and discerns the path forward that springs from the Gospel of Jesus in the hearts of the participants in a particular time and place (Nos. 76-77).

What happens if there is conflict among the members in the discussions? A goal of synodality is willingness to have intense public discussions, especially in areas of disagreement, and not to avoid or dominate them. The document on synodality (Nos. 20-22) offers the example of an intense disagreement that took place in the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10. The question of the conflict is submitted to the whole Church of Jerusalem, which is present throughout its course and is involved in the final decision.

The decision is made by James, the leader of the Church of Jerusalem, by virtue of the action of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church’s path assuring its fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus. James then states publicly: “We have decided, the Holy Spirit and us” (Acts 15:28). It is received and endorsed by the whole assembly of Jerusalem (Acts 15:22) and then by that of Antioch (Acts 15:30-31). The initial diversity of opinions and the liveliness of the debate are addressed, in the mutual listening of the Holy Spirit through the witness of the action of God and the exchange of one’s own judgment, to foster consensus and unanimity. It is the fruit of community discernment at the service of the Church’s mission (Nos. 20-21).

Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the family in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in October 2015. CNS photo via Paul Haring

Deeper membership

The second part of the document on synodality (Chapters 3 and 4) focuses on actual processes involved when men and women communally seek the synodality that is requested of them by the Church today. Describing the synodal vocation of the people of God (No. 72), the document asks that each person live his or her baptismal dignity together in co-responsible fidelity to the deposit of the faith (depositum fidei) while listening to the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the Church’s mission. This involves learning how to think with the Church by growing in a sense of the faithful, or sensus fidei (No. 100).

All of us live in the sin condition of this world. This may inhibit or even block our capacity for the genuine collaborative effort of participating in a synod or the broader opportunity to practice synodality in a parish or diocese. In paragraph 89 of a 2014 document from the International Theological Commission on “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” certain fundamental dispositions for mature participation in the life of the Church are identified: constant prayer; active participation in the liturgy, especially the Eucharist; regular confession; discernment and exercise of gifts and charisms received from the Holy Spirit; active engagement in the Church’s mission and in her service; an acceptance of the Church’s teaching on matters of faith and morals; a willingness to follow the commands of God; and courage to correct one’s brothers and sisters and to accept correction oneself.

New growth areas

An obvious question that follows these descriptions is: How can a person become formed to participate in Christ for a renewed synodality? In addition to a communal revitalization of the synodal structures already described, the Church is asking for something more from each faithful woman and man.

It seeks a generous response to the gratuitous call of God to live as his people walking in history toward the fulfillment of the kingdom. More specifically it calls for a formation in the spirituality of communion and the practice of listening, dialogue and community discernment (No. 103). These may be new areas for growth and confidence for all members of the Church according to one’s specific vocation — clerical, lay, consecrated or religious.

In a journey of dialogue in which we learn how to recognize the presence of Christ walking beside us, we can also learn how to experience it as a leaven of unity in diversity and of communion in freedom. Walking together with Christ in a new boldness of speech with humility of heart, members of the Catholic communion can discover the fundamental contribution that the life which synodal conversion of the people of God can offer to the promotion of a culture of encounter and solidarity, respect and dialogue, inclusion and integration, gratitude and gratuity (No. 118).

Sister Mary Prudence Allen, RSM, Ph.D., is one of five women appointed to the International Theological Commission — an advisory body to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — by Pope Francis in 2014.