Synodality: What’s it all About? – by Michael McCabe SMA

Just as the concept of ‘inculturation’ suddenly appeared on the horizon of ecclesial discourse about fifty years ago, so the concept of ‘synodality’ has recently emerged into the foreground of contemporary ecclesial debate. It has become one of Pope Francis’s favourite themes and, as Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ states, the key to understanding the quiet revolution he is creating in the Church  Speaking at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod by Pope Paul VI, Pope Francis strongly endorsed the concept of synodality, stating that it was an essential dimension of the Church’s life and mission in the service of God’s reign.

In order to embed synodality in the life and mission of the Church, in October 2021, Pope Francis launched a two year journey of reflection and consultation on synodality throughout the Church. This journey, coordinated by a central secretariat in Rome, involved an unprecedented series of meetings at local, national and continental levels, culminating in the first universal assembly of bishops on synodality that took place in Rome from the 4th to the 29th October, 2023. A second universal assembly on synodality will take place in October this year (2024) to complete the journey. But what is synodality all about? In this short presentation, I will focus on the meaning, historical roots and theological foundation of synodality.

 Synodality: Meaning and Historical Roots
The word ‘Synod’ is of Greek origin and means literally ‘together on the road’. It expresses an understanding of the Church as a community of Christ’s disciples, guided and bonded by the Spirit, and journeying together on the path of Christ. While including the principle of collegiality, synodality has a much broader range of application. Collegiality refers to the relationships of collaboration and co-responsibility between the Pope and the bishops of the Church. Synodality denotes the relationships that exist between all sectors of the people of God. In the words of Pope Francis: ‘it is the way in which people in the Church learn and listen to one another and take shared responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel’’.

 The special meetings known as synods existed in the Church from the earliest centuries. Writing to the Christian community in Ephesus at the beginning of the second century, St Ignatius of Antioch stated that the members of the local Church are ‘companions on the journey’ by virtue of the dignity of baptism and their friendship with Christ. During the first millennium, the whole community took part in synods of the local Church, while the participants of Provincial synods were composed mainly of the bishops of various local churches, with priests and monks regularly invited to contribute. However, only bishops could participate in those special synods known as Ecumenical Councils.

In the Second Millennium, synods developed along different lines in the Eastern and Western Churches, especially after the East-West Schism in the 11th century. The Eastern Church developed synods as a permanent institution of the Church – an institution which continues to this day in the Orthodox Church. In the Latin Church, synodality became embedded in the life and structures of monastic and religious communities, especially the Mendicant Orders. In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent decreed that diocesan Synods should take place every year and provincial Synods every three years in order to communicate and promote the reforms of the Council to the whole Church. These synods, however, did not involve the active participation of the whole People of God.

In the nineteenth century, the emphasis of the First Vatican Council on the primacy and infallibility of the Pope tended to eclipse the principle of synodality. Nevertheless, some prophetic voices, notably those of Adam Möhler (1796-1836), Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855) and John Henry Newman (1801-1890) kept it alive. These theologians highlighted the communitarian dimension of the Church, arguing that this implied ‘an ordered synodal practice’ throughout the Church at every level, thus acknowledging the understanding of the faith (sensus fidei) among the entire people of God

In the twentieth century, the development of ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches and communities and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council led to a renewed emphasis on, and enlarged understanding of, synodality.  Synodality is clearly a core element in Pope Francis’ vision of Church and the key to his programme for its renewal. He regards it as a constitutive dimension of the whole Church, embracing the relationships between all sectors and members of the members of the people of God.

 Synodality: Theological Foundation
While the term ‘synodality’ does not appear in the documents of Vatican II, the ecclesiological vision of the Council provides a firm theological foundation for synodality. One of the major objectives of the Council was to examine and re-think the Church’s understanding of itself and its mission in the world.  This new understanding found expression especially in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) which spoke of the Church, using the biblical images of ‘the people of God’ and ‘the body of Christ’.  The people of God image underlines what all the members of the Church share in common as a consequence of their common baptism:

  • All have the same fundamental dignity as sons and daughters of God, in whose hearts the Spirit lives as in a temple (Lumen Gentium, no. 9).
  • All share in the three-fold office of Christ, their head – the priestly, prophetic and kingly offices (LG, nos. 9-13).
  • All are called to be holy and to emulate the perfect love of Christ. There is only one standard of perfection for clergy, religious and laity (LG, no. 40). Hence it is theological nonsense to speak of priest or religious being called to a ‘higher degree’ of holiness.
  • All are called to participate in the Church’s mission of bringing Christ to the world (LG, no. 9).

 In speaking of the Church as ‘The body of Christ’, the Council was echoing St. Paul’s favourite image for the Church. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12 (and also in chapter 12 of his Letter to the Romans), Paul articulates a vision of the Church using the analogy of the human body.  In the human body, all the organs are different from one another and yet work together in harmony for the good of the whole body.  If any organ is sick, the entire body is affected.  So it is also, says Paul, with the members of the Body of Christ.  When Paul refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, he is drawing our attention to both the unity-in-diversity and interdependence which ought to characterise the Christian community.  The different gifts received by the members of the community from the Holy Spirit complement one another, and, when properly used, build up the unity of the community. 

Taken together, the ‘People of God’ and ‘Body of Christ’ images depict a Church that is far more communitarian than the institutional model of pre-Vatican II times allowed for; a Church where all the baptised are recipients of the gifts of Spirit and are called to active participation in the its mission; a Church in which diversity is not regarded as an obstacle but rather as a means to unity.  While there are, of course, elements of the older institutional model of Church to be found in the documents of Vatican II, on balance, the new vision is dominant, and it provides a strong theological foundation for the creation of a synodal Church. This communitarian vision of Church calls on all the members of the Church, sharing a fundamental equality by virtue of their common baptism, to listen, discern and collaborate with one another in the service of the Church’s mission. Giving concrete expression to this vision is what synodality is all about.

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