Pope Francis’ Vision of a Synodal Church

Below is the third in a series of reflections written by Fr Micheal McCabe SMA on synodality.  Links to the previous two at given at the end of this article, 

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis undertook to implement the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), particularly its vision of Church. This endeavour is best viewed through the lens of synodality, the key theme of his papacy. The seeds of synodality are to be found in the Council’s theology of the Church as the pilgrim people of God, sharing a common identity and vocation by virtue of their Baptism, and where all members are the recipients of God’s Word. In this brief reflection I will highlight three features of the Pope’s Francis’ vision of a Synodal Church: (1) The Priority of Baptism; (2) Missionary Focus (3) Pastoral Style.

  1. The Priority of Baptism
    The sacrament of baptism establishes the fundamental identity and equality of the members of the Church. Hence it has priority over all the other sacraments. For Pope Francis all ecclesial relationships must be configured to accord with this priority.  A vision of Church built around a rigid lay–clergy blurs the priority of baptism and fails to reflect the true nature of the Church as a communion of equals.  The distinction between the clerical and lay members of the Church is secondary and oriented, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, towards ‘the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians’. Ordination does not signify admission to a higher rank or indicate special status in the Church.

Sadly, the present structures of the Church, as well as the mind-set of some members of the clergy obscures the priority of baptism and compromises the fundamental lay character of the Church. Pope Francis is convinced that it is the failure to acknowledge and embrace the implications of our common baptism that lies at the root of what he calls ‘the virus of clericalism’. In an address delivered at the Synod on Young People in 2016, he stated that ‘Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church’.  When will bishops and priests begin to celebrate the significant anniversaries of their baptism more than the day of ordination?  To do that would be a step in the right direction! 

Throughout his pontificate Pope Francis has attempted to break down the lay–clergy divide and promote a more expansive and relational understanding of ministry in the Church, and give it structural expression. Here are some examples to the steps he has taken:

  • In 2021, he opened the ministries of Lector and Acolyte to both men and women and created a new, instituted ministry of Catechist.
  • He has permitted non-ordained religious brothers to be appointed to positions of leadership, including superior general, in communities that include priests.
  • He has called for more lay participation in Episcopal Synods;
  • In his efforts to reform the Roman Curia, he has appointed several lay men and women to key leadership positions within it.
  • More recently he has chosen a significant number of lay men and women to participate in the October 2023 Synod on Synodality, and accorded them the right to vote in the Assembly.

In these ways Francis is nudging the church away from its almost exclusive identification of public ministry with ordination. However, there is still has a long way to go.

  1. Missionary Focus
    Pope Francis’s commitment to synodality has a thoroughly ad extra, missionary focus. While striving to reform the internal functioning of the Church, making it more egalitarian and participatory, Francis remains true to the Council’s emphasis on the Church’s missionary engagement with the world – an engagement involving all its members. In the words of the Pope, all are ‘missionary disciples’ called to take responsibility for the evangelisation of the world. At the close of his Speech on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, (2015), he clearly extended the horizon of synodality to the world.  He wants ‘a church that moves from the centre to the peripheries, a church that reaches out to those on the margins, where it can bring a healing touch to the wounded of this world.’

At the heart of Pope Francis’ understanding of mission is what he terms ‘a culture of encounter’. By this he means more than just meeting people where they are.  A culture of encounter requires a critical engagement with the complex sociopolitical forces that shape human society. It involves reading the signs of the times, discerning what God’s Spirit is saying to us through them, and taking appropriate action (the see, judge, act methodology). This engagement is clearly evident in Francis’s 2015 encyclical on our common home, Laudato Si’ and his 2020 encyclical on social friendship, Fratelli Tutti. In these ground-breaking encyclicals we see the breath and depth of his missionary perspective on the  world of our times.

For Pope Francis, the Church is called to be an agent of healing and reconciliation in a broken and deeply divided world. Francis decries the contemporary world’s cult of borders and walls and exhorts us to engage with the other, not in a spirit of fear and defensiveness, but of trust and openness to what the stranger can reveal to us – a trust and openness that the Church must model as well as promote.

Pastoral and Focused on the Essentials of the Faith
For Pope Francis a synodal church is, above all, a church that privileges the concrete life of discipleship and gives priority to pastoral formation. While he never rejects Church doctrine, as some of his critics have claimed, Francis deplored the obsession with doctrinal purity he discerns in some of his colleagues. For him, doctrines are not ends in themselves. They are meant to draw us into a life-giving relationship with Christ. He fears that some of the clergy fall into the temptation of preaching, not the Gospel, ‘but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 39). The Gospel, he points out, need not ‘always be communicated by fixed formulations learned by heart’, which runs the risk of God’s word ‘losing its freshness’ and  ceasing to convey ‘the fragrance of the Gospel’.

Pope Francis underlines the importance of the Council’s teaching on ‘the hierarchy of truths’  which seeks to relate all church doctrines to something more basic: the Christian kerygma or core message of God’s boundless love and mercy. The Gospel message, he argues, can be simplified without losing any of its depth and truth, and thus become all the more forceful and convincing. For him the life-giving message of Christ is to be found in the simple expressions of faith of ordinary believers – what Catholic tradition has referred to as the sensus fidelium. This sensus fidelium is best discerned, not in the debates of the educated elites but in the simple faith expression of the poor and marginalized.

The first task of a synodal church, Pope Francis insists, is sympathetic listening, and he readily admits that Church teaching has too often failed to take into account of the concrete concerns of believers.   He criticises clergy who insist on the rules of the Church, while failing to provide practical support for people facing concrete struggles of one kind or another. He states that some pastors do not ‘make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them’ (The Joy of Love, 37).

Francis is convinced that, for some Catholics living in ‘irregular situations’, a return to the Eucharistic table may be pastorally justified. Pastors must reach out to everyone, he states, and ‘help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel’ (The Joy of Love, 297). This is not a capitulation to moral relativism, nor a ‘watering down’ of church teaching.  It is simply an expression of pastoral sensitivity, which involves accompaniment and discernment, avoiding dogmatic moralism and putting the Gospel in the service of the life of ordinary believers. An it is at the heart of Pope Francis’ vision of a synodal Church.

by Michael McCabe SMA

Links to previous articles   Towards a Synodal Church in Mission  Synodality what’s it all about





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