Pope Francis has often repeated that we not only live in a moment of epochal change but are undergoing a radical change of epoch with profound implications for the future of humanity and of our earthly home. His writings—including Laudato Si’, which lays out a new paradigm of ecological justice; Fratelli Tutti, which calls the great religions to work together to nurture a culture of human solidarity and social friendship; or Evangelii Gaudium, on the need for a pastoral and missionary conversion of the church—when taken together, represent a sweeping and incisive diagnosis of the many ills that confront the earth, the human community, and within it, the community we call the church. At every level we are confronted with the reality of systemic failure the extent of which threatens the very future of the planet, of the human community and of the church as we know it.
The most radical of the remedies that Francis proposes for the renewal of the church and its mission is in his invitation to rediscover how to live as a more synodal church. In a recent interview he repeated once again that the desire for a new culture of synodality is not just a personal wish, but that by leading the church in this direction, he is carrying forward a mandate entrusted to him by his brother bishops, one forged in the sometimes-raucous exchanges among the College of Cardinals preceding the conclave of election in the spring of 2013. What emerged from those encounters was an acute awareness that one of the greatest challenges facing the global Catholic Church, one sapping its strength for mission, is a crisis of governance. Decades of a centralizing and controlling culture at the center have disempowered local churches and stifled their ability to respond to new questions and pressing needs.
Writing in 2018 in response to the systemic crisis of sexual abuse and institutionalized cover-up that point to a deep-rooted culture of clericalism and impunity, Francis declared that he could not envision “a conversion of our activity as a church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s people.” Francis’s call for an international synod of bishops on the theme, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” is a massive wager. Not content to bring together a few hundred bishops from the various conferences of bishops in Rome for a few weeks of meetings, he has invited all Catholics to set out on a journey, to “walk together,” as he puts it, and relearn some of the essential habits that reflect the true nature of the church as a people called together by God.
With his distinctive flair, Francis understands a synod as a process rather than a single event.
That process will be launched on October 10, first in Rome, and then—it is hoped—in every diocese around the world. Bishops and all the baptized are to come together to pray, dialogue, discern and decide on priorities for mission, including what needs to be reformed for their communities to better serve the world. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has prioritized “initiating processes” over “possessing spaces” or “obtaining immediate results” (Evangelii Gaudium, 223-224). This synodal process in every diocese, conference of bishops and continent will culminate in a meeting of bishops in Rome in October 2023.
Nothing has really prepared the bishops, clergy or the lay faithful to embark upon such an undertaking. Little in their seminary formation and training has prepared the leaders of today’s church to listen or render an account to the people they serve. Since the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed the dignity and co-responsibility of all the baptized, structures for dialogue and participation (parish and diocesan pastoral councils, diocesan synods)—if and when they were established—have been a feint artifice of communion and participation. Too often shepherds, unwilling to be unsettled by the perspectives of the competent, the visionary, the marginalized, have surrounded themselves with the loyal and the like-minded. Many gifted lay women and men, living out their faith in the context of families, factories, farms and offices, having been ignored for so long, they will hardly know what to make of an invitation to communicate with distant bishops.
The success of this entire effort will depend largely upon the capacity, courage and ingenuity of the bishops to mobilize and engage with their people. Francis and his team can only initiate. It is no secret that many bishops openly resist his agenda. Will they to rise the occasion? Should they fail, they would be turning a deaf ear to what the Spirit, poured out upon all the baptized, is saying to the churches. They bear a message for the healing of the church and of the world.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.