This is the second blog in our series called "What is Synodality?" This series is meant to assist the US Church in understanding what is happening, why it is important and how we are to be formed in order to carry out this culture change, which the Synod delegates agreed is the WAY of the Church in the Third Millenium. Today...a look at the Synod on Synodality itself. It's still somewhat of a mystery to many...
I remember when I first heard that Pope Francis was calling for another synod. I didn't really pay much attention to what it was going to be about, since I figured it would be clear when the title was announced. And then it was: the Synod on Synodality. What? What does that mean? How do you have a synod about itself? And as quickly as I asked myself that question, others began commenting also. What caught my attention was the derision with which some comments were made, as if somehow this was a ludicrous, outrageous idea. Frankly, I didn't know what synodality was. What I did know, and still know, is that Pope Francis is not ludicrous or outrageous. So I set out to find out what he meant by calling for something called a Synod on Synodality.
The first step for me was to figure out what synodality means. Unlike synods on youth or the Amazon or the family whose titles were self-explanatory, this was an unfamiliar word to me. Soon I would learn it was an unfamiliar word to many, if not most, people. So what is synodality?
It's a way of approaching life together in community. Together is the operant word. Whatever else synodality has within it, it is something we do together on the Christian journey, with the Holy Spirit as the protagonist. You can read the etymological roots and what the word has come to mean in Church circles here. But remember it means together, in communion with the Trinitarian God and all other baptized Christians. So the Synod on Synodality is an assembly gathered together to contemplate how we journey together as Church.
It's different from what we've been doing as the Church for the last several hundred years, but Pope Francis calls it "that which God expects of the Church of the third millennium."
It needs to be learned by experiencing some of its elements in addition to studying about it. In other words, it's more than an intellectual concept. It's a way-Jesus' way.
It comes from our Tradition. The Council of Jerusalem holds its beginnings.
The International Theological Commission released a document on synodality in 2018. (Read it...it helps in understanding what synodality is.) So some have been defining it and working on its implications for a little while now, so it's not a new concept. It's just new to us.
It is one means to continue the reception of Vatican II, the specifics of which are still being articulated by theologians and Church historians and commentators alike.
With all that in mind, Pope Francis convoked the Synod on Synodality. Unlike other synods, this one began not with a pre-prepared document, but with what some are calling the largest international consultation ever undertaken. Roman Catholics, practicing and fallen away, from all nations, were invited into Conversations in the Spirit, surfacing the hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows of Catholics around the world. Efforts were made to reach the nones and dones, the poor, disenfranchised and drifted aways, along with practicing Catholics. Efforts were also made to listen to other baptized Christians. It was the fruit of these conversations, distilled at the diocesan, national, and continental phases that became the grist for the first Instrumentum laboris.
Finally, in October 2023 the delegates assembled in Rome for a synod like no other. It began with the delegates assembling and for the first time women were included as voting members. The synod then began with an ecumenical prayer service led by the young and attended by Christian leaders from many denominations. Immediately following the prayer service, the delegates boarded buses and went on retreat for three days together as one group. Finally, the work of addressing the issues raised by the global conversation began.
Two characteristics of the Synod on Synodality were immediately clear. Conversations in the Spirit would require preparation and facilitation and they would take place around circular tables on a level floor, with each delegate given the same attention. The method is the meaning, at least in part. And so this global assembly, of all ages and states of life, sat together, listened deeply to one another no matter status or vesture, and reported on their convergences, divergences and areas needing more work...for nearly a month. They prayed together and alone, liturgically as well as in silence. And together they listened for the voice of the Holy Spirit. At the conclusion, the delegates voted on the priority isssues for additional consultation, trusting in the continued wisdom of the Spirit, and a writing team synthesized all of that.
All of this was returned to the diocesan Church for an additional round of listening sessions. This round of Conversations in the Spirit is to concentrate on the question "How?" It seems as though the delegates want to be able to do more than suggest what should happen in a final report, but to also include some paths to follow and tools to use. Diocesan reports are due to Rome by May 15, 2024 so the timeline is short. Bishop Flores is providing some spiritual grounding for this in reflections on John 14. You can find the dates, times and a link to register for these here.
At the same time that these Conversations in the Spirit are happening, deepening the reflection on sections of the Synthesis Document, that same document calls for local Churches to continue to introduce this practice of deep listening to the millions of Catholics who have not yet heard of synodality, let alone had a chance to practice it. Broadening exposure to this central synodal practice is also the work of now, and for years to come. The delegates learned an important perspective in October, 2023 and that is synodality is best understood by doing it. Here's a guide to help with this broadening.
What is all this leading to? Another Instrumentum laboris will likely come from those reports. The same delegates will meet again in Rome in October, 2024 to listen again to the Spirit and to eventually provide the Holy Father the fruit if this extended, like-no-other, synod. Normally the Holy Father issues a document after a synod. This synod has been anything but "normal" or "usual" so I am not going to say that is what will happen.
So, that's what the Synod on Synodality is: an assembly of the Church learning how to listen to the Holy Spirit, to articulate the Spirit's directions and then to find the ways to lead the Church as the Spirit has directed. It is first and foremost about learning how to be Church in a way very different from the medieval fiefdom models with which many are familiar. And critically, the Church is practicing synodality while listening to perspectives on significant issues. The first Instrumentum laboris articulates those issues clearly.
And if you are reading this, you are invited to learn by doing. Host Conversations in the Spirit around the issues pertinent to your parish or small community or faith based nonprofit. Learn to listen deeply, to trust the Spirit, to discern in common and to plan accordingly. Don't wait. Get started. The Church is on the journey now, inviting us all to remain in communion by our participation. Won't you join us?