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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: What Synodality is, and is not

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Participants pray in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall at the beginning of a working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops 10 October, 2023. Photo: CNS photo/Lola Gomez
Participants pray in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall at the beginning of a working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops 10 October, 2023. Photo: CNS photo/Lola Gomez

This is an edited excerpt from Unity in Christ: Bishops, Synodality, and Communion (Catholic University of America Press, 2023)

What Synodality Is

Although we might think it a novel concept in the pontificate of Pope Francis, the noun σύνοδος (synod) has a long history in Catholic thought and practice,[1] especially in Eastern Christianity. And the Holy Father has broached the subject of synods and the underlying ‘synodality’ in addresses for the Synods on the Family, Youth, Amazonia and Synodality, and in other places.[2] He has also used new verbal, adjectival and adverbial progeny, ‘synoding’, ‘synodal’ and ‘synodally’, in various contexts.

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Synodality is said to be “an expression of the Church’s nature, form, style and mission”.[3]  It is “the whole Church”, “one great people… Fratelli tutti”, “an open square where all can feel at home and participate”.[4]   It imagines a Church aware of people’s needs and aspirations, formally gathered to reflect upon a common theme, and led in that process by the Holy Spirit.  Here Pope Francis emphasizes the elements of journeying and togetherness—what he calls a pilgrim hermeneutic.[5]  It has a levelling effect: on this journey, all are heard and their opinions valued, the ordinary faithful no less than the prelates, and even social outcasts.  A synod is a “point of convergence” where the ideal of ‘a listening Church’ is actualized: not just a consultation among the lay faithful, followed by a talkfest of bishops, followed by a document from the Pope, but an evolving process, now being refashioned as “a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God”.[6]

As a verb synoding captures certain ways of being and acting as a Church: stopping, listening “with the ear of the heart” [7], encountering, discussing, discerning, praying together; in the process, coming closer to each other, encountering Christ, evolving and handing on the Tradition, and serving the People of God. Synoding is ecclesial living, marked “by praying and opening our eyes to everything around us; by practicing a life of fidelity to the Gospel; by seeking answers in God’s revelation”.[8]  It is “an exciting and engaging effort that can forge a style of communion and participation directed to mission.”[9]

The adjective synodal and adverb synodally qualify the Church or ecclesial activities as welcoming, accommodating, hearing, in “sincere, open and fraternal discussion”;[10] “avoiding artificial, shallow and pre-packaged responses”;[11] accepting and involving diverse people; and oriented not just to more talk but to active service of others. A ‘synodal process’ is one whereby the whole Church, under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, moves from one place or way of thinking or acting to another and is united rather than fractured in the process.

What Synodality Is Not

While having concrete expression in ecclesiastical structures, such as synods and episcopal conferences, synodality might best be understood as an ecclesial sensibility. It is not a fifth mark of the Church alongside being One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, but rather an attitude reflecting the ecclesiology that emerged as the master-narrative from the Second Vatican Council’s reflections on the  Church as sacrament, communio and collegiality—a matter to which I will return. Rather than a flattening of ecclesial hierarchy or secularizing of governance structures, it is above all an affirmation of the gifts and potential contributions of all Christians to the Church’s mission.[12]

Pope Francis has in fact repeatedly critiqued liberal democratic or secular political readings of synodality. “The Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll”,[13] “neither a convention, nor a parlour… nor a senate, where people make deals and reach a consensus”,[14] nor a slogan to be bandied about at meetings so some group can get its way, nor a reduction of God’s will to the flavour of the month.[15]  No, a synod is an ecclesial reality, an expression of the Church’s nature and mission, a journey by which the Church seeks “to understand reality with the eyes of faith and the heart of God”, with the deposit of faith as the “living spring from which the Church drinks”.[16]  Rather than achieving consensus and making deals, a synodal Church seeks to proclaim the truth and save souls.[17]

Another misconception of synodality into which we can easily slip is a bureaucratic one. Here synodality is a tick-a-box exercise of conducting the asked-for consultations, writing up the reports, submitting them on time to the national collators or the international synod office, or parallel behaviour in other consultations. Years ago, Hans Urs von Balthasar called for a theology devised on our knees in worship rather than one formulated on our asses at a desk; and Joseph Ratzinger warned us about a paper-dominated episcopacy, inundated with administrivia and distracted from spreading of the Gospel, with bishops and priests who produce more committee minutes than pastoral fruits.[18]

What insulates synodality from a politicised, bureaucratic or corporate exercise, Pope Francis insists, is its principal protagonist, the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, we can hold an ecclesial U.N. meeting or diocesan parliament, “examining this or that question”, but it will not be a true synod, which is “the faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what He ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).”[19]

Synodality as Prayer and Sacrament

We have a name for this type of communication with God, and attuning ourselves to His will, and inspiring us to carry out His mission for the Church: Prayer. Pope Francis has called the Synod a “process of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, that unfolds in adoration, in prayer, and in dialogue with the word of God.”[20] Synods will only be a space for the action of the Holy Spirit if participants engage in “trusting prayer… that is the action of the heart when it opens to the divine, when our humours are silenced in order to listen to the still quiet voice of God.”[21] Without this, our words become empty, our decisions, whatever they may be, merely decorative.

Another helpful way to think about synodality as a sensibility that doesn’t descend into corporate or parliamentary misconceptions is to recover Vatican II’s teaching on the Church as a sacrament of Christ, a communion in and of the Holy Spirit, led collegially by the bishops with their collaborators the clergy.[22] If the story of the road to Emmaus is the ultimate example of σύνοδος ‘journeying together’, we must acknowledge that amidst the listening and talking the two climactic moments were Christ breaking open the Word and then Breaking the Bread. Synodality then is both prayerful and sacramental; it is about communicating with God in the context of His Church and participating in the mystery of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Synodality, understood as a prayerful, sacramental sensibility stretches beyond its application in the episcopal context and radiates as a model of hierarchical communion in the local Church, in our governing and advisory bodies and meetings, internationally, nationally, in dioceses and in parishes. Locally it should be an impetus to listen to new voices, views, pastoral strategies, ways of service, all faithful to the tradition, while eschewing politicized or bureaucratized misconceptions of the Church and her mission.


[1] the International Theological Commission outlines the history of the idea in Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (2018), 31.

[2] Pope Francis, Address to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, 4 October 2014; Address at the Conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, 18 October 2014; Introductory Remarks for the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, 5 October 2015; Address to Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, 17 October 2015; Address at the Conclusion of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, 24 October 2015; Episcopalis Communio: Apostolic Constitution on the Synod of Bishops, 15 September 2018; Address at the Opening of the Synod of Bishops on Youth, 3 October 2018; Homily at Mass for the Conclusion of the Synod of Bishops on Youth, 28 October 2018; Address at the Opening of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, 7 October 2019; Address at the Conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, 26 October 2019; Address to the Faithful of the Diocese of Rome in Preparation for the Synod on Synodality, 18 September 2021; Address for the Opening of the Path to the Synod on Synodality, 9 October 2021; Homily for Mass Opening the Synodal Path to the Synod on Synodality, 10 October 2021; Address to the Roman Curia, 23 December 2021.

[3] Pope Francis, Address to the Faithful of Rome.

[4] Pope Francis, Address for the Opening of the Synodal Path. Likewise in his Address to the Roman Curia (2021) the Pope said, “The Synod wants to be an experience of feeling ourselves all members of a larger people, the holy and faithful People of God.”

[5] Pope Francis, Address to the Faithful of Rome: “The word synod says it all: it means ‘journeying together’… [a synodal Church is one] seeking answers in God’s revelation through a pilgrim hermeneutic capable of persevering in the journey begun in the Acts of the Apostles. This is important: the way to understand and interpret is through a pilgrim hermeneutic, one that is always journeying. The journey that began after the Council? No. The journey that began with the first Apostles and has continued ever since. Once the Church stops, she is no longer Church, but a lovely pious association, for she keeps the Holy Spirit in a cage. A pilgrim hermeneutic capable of persevering in the journey begun in the Acts of the Apostles. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit would be demeaned.”

[6] Pope Francis, Address for 50th Anniversary of Synod of Bishops; Episcopalis Communio, 6. See also ITC, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, 36.

[7]Pope Francis, Homily for Mass Opening the Synodal Path. See also Listening with the Ear of the Heart: Message for the 56th World Day of Communications, 24 January 2022

[8] Pope Francis, Address to the Faithful of Rome.

[9] Pope Francis, Address for the Opening of the Synodal Path.

[10] Pope Francis, Address to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.

[11] Pope Francis, Homily for Mass Opening the Synodal Path

[12] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (2013), 3 &130; Address for 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops.

[13]Pope Francis, Address for the Opening of the Path to the Synod on Synodality, 9 October 2021.

[14] Pope Francis, Introductory Remarks for the Synod on the Family 2015

[15] Pope Francis, Address for the Opening of the Synodal Path; Introductory Remarks for the Synod on the Family 2015; Address to the Faithful of Rome; Address to the Catholic Action France, 13 January 2022.

[16] Pope Francis, Address to the Faithful of Rome

[17] Pope Francis, Introductory Remarks for the Synod on the Family 2015.

[18]

[19]

[20] Pope Francis, Homily for Mass at the Opening of the Synodal Path.

[21] Pope Francis, Introduction to the Synod on the Family, 2015.

[22]Michael Czerny, “Towards a Synodal Church” in La Civiltà Cattolica POPE FRANCIS, Address to the Faithful of the Diocese of Rome, 18 Sept 2021.

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