Synod on Synodality
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen/Shrine of the Sacred Heart
October 17, 2021
Synodality: Not Yet a Household Word
Almost as soon as Pope Francis called for “a synod on synodality”, I began to receive questions – “What is a synod?” “What is synodality?” And, “Doesn’t this sound like a lot meetings to talk about meetings?” Admittedly, “synod” and “synodality” are not yet household names, like Ford or Chevy! Clearly, however, Pope Francis intends not only to familiarize us with these words, but he also wants us to embrace them and put them into practice in the Church’s life.
Let’s begin with the word “synod”, perhaps a word you have heard from time to time. We understand it to be a consequential church meeting, like the II Vatican Council, or the Synod of Bishops periodically held in Rome since 1971. The Church in various countries has convoked synods such as the three Plenary Councils of Baltimore held in the 19th century. Various dioceses have also held synods and issued synodal decrees. But the word “synod” means more than “an important church meeting”.
“Synod” comes from an ancient Greek word and in its roots it means not only an assembly but indeed a journey that we take together – not a journey from one physical destination to another, but rather a journey of mind, heart, and spirit that brings us together as one. The first such synod was the Council of Jerusalem, described in the Acts of the Apostles, in which the Apostles and their co-workers gathered to discuss what the influx of Gentile converts would mean for the Church and her mission. How would the Church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles, travel together into the future? Despite the tensions surrounding this uncharted territory, the Holy Spirit brought the assembly together, and even now its decisions shape the Church’s mission to peoples of every race and nation. Likewise, the word “synodality” refers to those “habits of the heart” that we need to participate fruitfully in discussions in the Church, both formal and informal . . . discussions guided by the Spirit that bring about that oneness of mind and heart so necessary for the advancement of the Church’s mission. At various times, I have been a part of intense discussions that led to wise outcomes, outcomes which none of the participants foresaw and which exceeded the personal wisdom of each participant . . . that’s synodality!
In a nutshell, Pope Francis is leading us to rediscover a reality that has been at the heart of the Church’s life from the very beginning. Echoing both Scripture and ancient Christian writers, he speaks of synodality not as a recent innovation but rather as a constitutive part of the Church’s life. It goes to the heart of being “the Body of Christ” and “the People of God”. It’s at the core of the Church as a “communion” of believers, united to one another eucharistically, in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Synodality touches the essence of a diverse Church that is rooted in and manifests the unity of the distinct persons of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Synodality emerges from all these ways of looking at the Church, and it means that we participate in the faith, not as isolated individuals, nor as ideological factions, but rather as fellow believers united by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). Synodality requires us to build a “culture of encounter” in the grace of the Holy Spirit. It means creating an atmosphere of hospitality and welcome wherein we learn how to live our faith together, in patience and charity. Synodality means a deep respect and openness to our fellow Catholics coupled with a willingness to listen, dialogue, and discern with fellow believers . . . including those with whom we disagree, theologically, philosophically, and politically. True to form, Pope Francis does not want synodality to remain just an idea, but rather he wants us to learn how to put it into practice and to make it habit. It’s as if he’s saying to us, “To learn how to swim, you’ve got to jump into the water!” This is the essential point of the many meetings that will be held in the Archdiocese among priests and deacons, religious and laity, among people of all ages and cultures, among those close to the Church and among those who are absent or alienated . . . listening and dialoguing that will take place in parishes, schools, religious communities, regionally and across the Archdiocese . . . . It is not a project but a re-tooling, re-learning, as it were, how to be united with the Lord and one another in the Church.
“Habits of the Heart” Needed to Put Synodality into Practice
Today’s Scripture readings were chosen because they shed light on the “habits of the heart” we must possess to put synodality into practice – i.e., to come together in a respectful listening and dialogue that is open to the Spirit, ready to heal wounds of sin and division, equipped to bear witness to the Good News. Let us revisit those readings, so that you and I may learn from the Word of God the qualities, the virtues we must either acquire or deepen if we would “journey together” with fellow Catholics into “a future full of hope”.
The first and most important synodal “habit of the heart” is prayer. Frankly, without prayer, there is no synodality, no discernment worthy of the name. In today’s Gospel, the Apostles returned to Jesus after having been on mission. They were eager to tell him how it went and he listened to them intently and lovingly. Having done so, he invited them, “Come away to a deserted place”– for rest and prayer. Prayer, my friends, connects us with the Lord and with one another in faith and love. Only when we withdraw from the rough and tumble of life in order to pray, do we hear the voice of Christ communicated by the Holy Spirit. Only when we are “with Jesus” in prayer are our hearts opened to the Good News and thus more open to the people around us, to their aspirations, needs, and experiences. This is why every meeting that flies under the banner of synodality must be prayerful, not merely the recitation of the Synod Prayer but imbued with prayerful listening to the living Word of God, time for quiet reflection, for adoration and praise. Some may think prayer is a waste of time, that we need to get on with business – but unless we pray, we will only deepen our divisions and thwart God’s will.
A second synodal “habit of the heart” is fidelity to the authentic faith of the Church through which we encounter the Person of Christ in a real and a living way. This lesson is reinforced in today’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy where we are told that God’s truth is not inaccessible – ‘up in the sky or across the sea but rather in our hearts and on our lips.’ It’s the one faith we already profess, the faith we already strive to understand and live. It’s the faith of which we, as a holy people, have a supernatural sense, when we are guided by the Holy Spirit and attentive to the magisterium. Within the household of the faith, there have always been differences of opinion, and there will always be such, until the Lord comes again in the glory. Yet, no one of us, from the best educated to the newest inquirer, is ‘above’ the faith. Rather, all of us must accept it with childlike simplicity of heart, while remaining alert to the signs of the times, to pastoral challenges and opportunities. Fidelity to the Church’s faith does not throw cold water on listening and dialogue, but rather brings us together around something larger, richer, and more beautiful than all that limits and divides us . . . leading the II Vatican Council to teach us that, “Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (UR, 6).
Leave it to St. Paul, however, to list concretely the “habits of the heart” that you and I must possess to participate fruitfully in the synodal process, and to live in a synodal way long after this present process concludes. Writing to the Philippians, Paul commended them, as I make bold to commend you, for acquiring qualities or virtues so necessary for a true Christian synodality, viz., “encouragement in Christ, solace in love, …participation in the Spirit”. To journey together, we must help one another along the way, console one another, and participate together in the wisdom and love of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls us to compassion and mercy for each other, while urging us to be “of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing . . .” Here, St. Paul is not signaling lockstep uniformity of thought, but rather deep unity in faith and love that helps us to listen to and understand one another, as we journey outward on mission, implanting the faith as a leaven in secular culture. St. Paul adds one other quality of mind and heart vital for the practice of synodality, viz., selflessness, humility, regarding the other as more important than oneself, looking out not for one’s own interests or agendas, but rather for the good of others.
The Church as the Great Sacrament of Salvation
The path of synodality, journeying together in faith and on mission, is not easy. As this process unfolds, we may become more aware of what divides us. Yet, if we are open to the Holy Spirit, who reminds us of all that Christ taught us, we will find new paths to understanding, to harmony, cooperation, and unity, to co-responsibility for the Church’s mission, coupled with renewed apostolic vigor.
Responding to Pope Francis’ summons with openness and love, we will strengthen the Church’s communion, participate in God’s life more profoundly, and advance the Church’s mission beyond the walls of our churches. Aided by the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Star of Evangelization, the Church will shine as “a light brightly visible” in our polarized culture, as a sure sign of hope and as the great sacrament of salvation in Christ, to the praise and glory of God the Father. Amen!