A publication of Sacred Heart University
Of Angels and Demons
En Route to the Synod: Some Underlying Issues

Synod: Together on the Way in the One Church of Christ

On September 30, an ecumenical prayer vigil will be held in St. Peter’s Square under the banner, “Together: Gathering the People of God,” opening a three-day spiritual retreat in preparation for the first session of the XVIth ordinary General Assembly of the Synod. Some may wonder what it matters to other Christians that Catholics gather to reflect on the ecclesial structures and practices best suited to accomplish its mission today. Yet Pope Francis claims “the path to Christian unity and the path of synodal conversion of the church are linked.”

To be sure, Catholics would not likely be seeking to become a more synodal church were it not for sixty years of sustained dialogue with other Christian communions. Those dialogues were made possible by the Second Vatican Council, a synodal gathering which sought not only to update and renew the life of the Catholic Church, but to create the conditions for a more meaningful advance toward reconciliation and the restoration of full visible unity among the separated churches. The council’s Decree on Ecumenism characterizes ecumenical dialogue as a process requiring a humble self-examination where Catholics “make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself” and undertake necessary reforms so that their teachings and institutions better reflect the Gospel (UR 4). A long and careful shared study of the church—not to mention a host of internal scandals and crises—has shone a bright light on the imbalances and inadequacies of existing cultures, structures, practices of ministry and church governance.

Few have attended to the ecumenical horizon of Pope Francis’ concern for synodality. To my knowledge, he first mentioned it during the precedent-setting and freewheeling interview with Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor of the Jesuit review Civilta Cattolica, published in September 2013, just six months after his election. (For the English language translation, see “A Big Heart Open to God,” in America.) After Francis remarked on the need for a Roman Curia that better respects the local churches, Spadaro asked, “How can we reconcile in harmony Petrine primacy and collegiality? Which roads are feasible also from an ecumenical perspective?” From his first days in office, Francis signalled an acute awareness of the need for a more consequential reform of the papacy.

His immediate reply was a prelude, intoning what would become an oft-repeated refrain of his pontificate: “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality should be lived at various levels.” Then he went on to muse about how restoring the balance of primacy and collegiality might affect the international synod of bishops, pointing to the ecumenical motive for undertaking such a renewal.

“Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops because it seems that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality. The joint effort at reflection, looking at how the church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup between East and West, will bear fruit in due time. In ecumenical relations it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”

Francis acknowledged the importance of the 2007 Ravenna document of the Joint International Commission for Orthodox Catholic Theological Dialogue, which drew attention to the role of synodal structures for discerning the sense of the faithful, or what Orthodox theology describes as the “conscience of the church.” These remarks foreshadowed similar comments that appeared several months later in his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, where he reflected on the ecumenical exchange of gifts (EG 246).

A fuller appreciation of the ecumenical origins of a renewed awareness of the constitutive character of synodality for the life of the church might help us to better comprehend all that is in the balance in the global Catholic community’s engagement in the present synodal process. Its aim is to arrive at concrete proposals for a radical shift in the culture and practices of governance within the Catholic Church so that the gifts and insights of all the baptized might be taken more seriously and better serve the proclamation of God’s reconciling love in the world. The outcomes of the synod, however bold or halting they might be, will not only shape the future of the Catholic Communion but have profound consequences for the future of Christian unity. Other Christians look on and join us in prayer, knowing that the path to ecclesial renewal is one that we travel together, learning from one another on the way.  As Francis sums it up: “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”


Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

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