A Eucharistic Church is a Synodal Church
On February 3, 2023, unbeknownst to most Catholics, a leading ecumenist of our era died at the age of 92. Greek Orthodox Metropolitan John Zizioulas contributed to numerous formal and informal ecumenical dialogues, taught systematics and patristics in Greece and the United Kingdom, influenced the Ecumenical Patriarchate as it developed its ecological theology and presented Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ in 2015. But Zizioulas’ influence on ecumenical thinking on the Eucharist, the episcopacy and synodality is most notable.
In the current Catholic conversations about synodality and the future of the Church, Zizioulas’ legacy should be an important touchstone. Paul McPartlan summarizes in The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology:
What characterizes Zizioulas’ writings on communion or koinōnia is threefold: first, his anchoring of the idea in a theology of the Trinity drawn principally from the Cappadocian fathers; second, his proposal that it is through the celebration of the Eucharist most of all that the church participates in the communion life of God; and third, his conviction that the structure of the church must correspond to and reflect the mystery of that divine communion.
Church life, synodality, is not an expression of democratic principles or enlightened leadership. Rather, synodality flows from the Eucharistic celebration and reflects the mystery of the Holy Trinity. If we follow Zizioulas’ understanding of the early Church traditions, both Eucharistic celebrations and the life of the Church (which necessarily includes synodality) should reflect the Triune God: united in diversity. The Church is fully Church when it gathers at the Eucharistic celebration around the bishop—the visible expression of the unity of the Universal Church. But that Church in its fullness lives practically in its synodal life, making room for multiple voices so that the gifts of the Spirit may be recognized by and within the community—gifts that are inherently revealed when the community recognizes the transformative nature of the Eucharistic event. It is not only the bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ; during the Eucharistic epiclesis we pray: “Send down your Holy Spirit upon us and these gifts” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). The Eucharistic assembly is transformed and cannot but live synodally, because it now lives the Trinitarian life—we become the Body of Christ.
Zizioulas challenges us to recognize the nature of synodality as more than a process of consultation. Synodality is about being Church—being Eucharistic. Synodality must begin in thanksgiving (eucharistia)—not a conversation about “what we want,” but a recognition of what we have received. I’m not suggesting (the too common) “sharing” but (an ever new) attending to and gratefulness for our giftedness as a faithful yet diverse community whose diversity derives from the reality of humanity coming together as people of faith. Synodality is valuing—even cherishing—the gifts of each. Synodality is acknowledging the invitation of the other and embracing our common journey, sinners as we be, to see and celebrate “God with us.” In gratitude, we learn to listen to each other, not because we agree, but because we learn that the Spirit speaks to us through one another.
Thus, I was struck by the echoes of Zizioulas’ insights in last week’s blog by Tina Beattie concerning The International Survey of Catholic Women. The respondents overwhelmingly affirmed their Catholic identity which absolutely entails an “ongoing commitment to the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist.” However, this commitment also involves a yearning for a Church more open to diversity, that validates female leadership in ministry and is more sensitive to the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ Catholics, divorced Catholics and single parent Catholics. In other words, a Eucharistic Church that calls together its diverse members into a communion mirroring the Most Holy Trinity. A Church unafraid to see itself as it is: broken, sinful and, at times, all too self-righteous. The survey not only calls the Church to “enact immediate reforms and produce guidelines to eliminate sexual, spiritual, physical and emotional abuse in church contexts,” but also expresses concern over church leadership’s faithfulness to the Gospel when it aligns itself with partisan political positions and fails to proclaim Catholic social teaching in the face of “poverty, climate change, homelessness, war and economic injustice.” The survey is not a declaration of political opposition; rather it echoes the Gospel call to repentance, the prelude to the Eucharistic celebration.
The voices heard in the survey hearken back to a Church whose vibrancy stems from a courageous humility to admit its inadequacies, listen for the Spirit and respond in thanksgiving to the Son who manifested the divine love that conquers death. God is triune: a community of being, an ever-dynamic outpouring of love. A Eucharistic Church is trinitarian. A trinitarian community (a community of Divine Love) necessarily encompasses otherness; it cannot remain static and retain its integrity, its essence. Zizioulas reminds us that the Spirit of synodality is the breath of the Church. If we don’t strive for a polyphony of all voices, what are we really?
Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.