Professor of the School of Theology at the University of Navarre
We refer, in their unity, to three interventions of Pope Francis in relation to the beginning of the "synod on synodality": his speech before the faithful in Rome (September 18), his reflection at the beginning of the synodal process (October 9) and the homily of the following day, at the opening celebration of the synod (October 10).
On all three occasions, he has shed light on how to "walk together" in this synod that begins now in its local phase, continues, starting in March 2022, in a national-continental phase, and closes at the meeting of the bishops in Rome, in October 2023.
1. "Taking the synod seriously" 1.
In his address to the faithful of the Diocese of Rome (18-IX-21), Francis recalled the topic of the present synod or rather of the present synodal process: For a Synodal Church: communion, participation, mission statement. And he explained that it is not a question of a survey to gather opinions, but of listening to the Holy Spirit.
He added that it is not a "chapter" added to ecclesiology, and even less a fashion or a slogan; but that "synodality expresses the nature of the Church, its form, its style, its mission statement". To speak of a "synodal Church" is to give a name to what the first Christians already lived according to the book of the Acts of the Apostles: "a journeying together" from Jerusalem to all places to bring the Word of God and the message of the Gospel. All knew themselves to be protagonists and responsible for serving others. They all supported the authority from their lives and their discernment of what was best to do, to maintain or to avoid.
Inevitably, the Pope continued, this journey entailed contrasts, and at times some tensions. But the experience of the action of the Holy Spirit and his inspiration on the apostles helped them to understand and decide: "The Holy Spirit and we have decided not to impose on you more burdens than are necessary" (Acts 15:28). This is, Francis points out, the fundamental orientation for synodality and concretely for the synodal process we are beginning. There is always the temptation to go it alone. But we have the Holy Spirit as a witness of God's love and of that "hospitable breadth," that catholicity, which means universality across time and place.
Francis then stressed the importance of the first phase, the diocesan phase of the synodal process, where the "sense of faith" of the people of God is manifested (the "sense of smell" of the sheep, which we all are), with the guide of the pastors and the faithful helping them to guide the flock of Christ (infallible "in believing", as the Second Vatican Council says); with the ability, therefore, to find new ways or to recover the lost path.
Indeed. Participation in the life of the Church is not only to know and feel oneself part of it, interiorly and spiritually, and to participate adequately in its sacraments so that each one can then, in his own place, make the world ferment with the life and light of the Gospel. This would already be very important, as a basis for the operative translation of that mystery of communion and of mission statement which is the Church. Moreover, participation in the life of the Church also leads to feeling responsible for the ecclesial institution, divine and at the same time human and social, each one according to his condition and vocation, for the good of the evangelizing mission statement .
It is a matter of counting on everyone, as the documents for orienting the synodal process (the Preparatory Document and the Vademecum) emphasize. Everyone, including the poor, the marginalized, those whom society discards, even if this may seem difficult or utopian. Welcoming the miseries of all, even those of each one of us, our own. "But - the Pope points out - if we do not include the wretched - in quotation marks - of society, those who are discarded, we will never be able to make ourselves position of our miseries. And this is important: that one's miseries may emerge in dialogue, without justification. Do not be afraid! In this way the Church will be able to be, as the Second Vatican Council wanted, a school of fraternity (cf. Enc. Fratelli tutti). Francis insists that we all take the synod seriously, leaving no one out or behind.
This, in fact, has many aspects: spiritual, sacramental, disciplinary, in the unity of the action of the Holy Spirit and in the diversity of his charisms in the Church and for the world. There is also, as we said before, the institutional path of the Church in the concert of history and in the midst of society. All of us, in "organic cooperation," have to do our part in this journey, each according to his or her specific vocation, gifts, ministries (ordained and non-ordained) and charisms. It is also a manifestation of the relationship between institution and charisms.
2. Keys, risks and opportunities
Subsequently, in his speech for the inauguration of the synodal process (October 9, 2011), Francis specified the keys (communion, participation, mission statement), risks (formalism, intellectualism, immobility) and opportunities (synodal Church, listening, closeness).
First, three keys. Communion expresses the nature of the Church. The mission statementits task of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, of which it is the seed and germ. According to St. Paul VI, "two main lines enunciated by the Council". On the fifth anniversary he pointed out that its general lines had been: "communion, that is, cohesion and interior fullness, in grace, truth and partnership [...], and mission statement, which is the apostolic commitment to the contemporary world"(Angelus, 11 October 1970).
Twenty years later, at the closing of the 1985 Synod, St. John Paul II reaffirmed the nature of the Church as "communion"(koinonia), from which arises the mission statement of being a sign of the intimate union of the human family with God. And he expressed the desirability of holding synods in the Church that were prepared by the local Churches with the participation of all (cf. speech at the closing of the Second Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, December 7, 1985).
This is so, Francis now points out, because authentic participation is a living expression of being Church, as a requirement of the baptismal faith. From baptism derives "an identical dignity as children of God, even in the difference of ministries and charisms".
What the Pope says is important. Catholic theology underlines the reality of the common priesthood of the faithful, which confers common dignity (prophetic, priestly and royal) on the baptized and impels them (with the service rendered to them by the ministerial priesthood) to all the tasks that as Christians they can and must face. Moreover, the common priesthood has the potential to dynamically assume very diverse charisms at the service of the Church's mission statement . And today we see how some of these charisms are related to the "ministries" (ordained or not) or functions that the faithful can assume.
Francis went on to say that the synod must keep in mind three risks. Formalism, which would reduce it to a beautiful façade, instead of an effective spiritual discernment pathway . For this "we need the substance, the instruments and the Structures that favor dialogue and interaction among the People of God, especially between priests and laity," avoiding clericalism.
Secondly, intellectualism: "that is, abstraction; reality goes one way and we, with our reflections, go another". This would run the risk of turning the synod into a study group that does not touch on the real problems of the Church and the evils of the world.
And there is also the temptation to immobilism . The temptation not to change, invoking the principle of "it has always been done this way" (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 33), without taking into account the action of the Holy Spirit, the times in which we live, the needs and experience of the Church even in the present. If they had clung to this principle, Peter and Paul would not have been able to discern the extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Therefore, the synod is an occasion for meeting, listening and reflection. A time of grace that can allow us to grasp at least three opportunities. The opportunity, first of all, to "move not occasionally but structurally towards a synodal Church", that is, "an open place where everyone feels at home and can participate". Indeed, and this out of fidelity to the Gospel: a fidelity that is dynamic as always when it comes to people: knowing how to change the ways of expressing oneself or of doing things when circumstances change or new needs arise.
Another opportunity is to be a Church of listening, beginning with adoration and prayer. And then "to listen to our brothers and sisters about the hopes and crises of faith in different parts of the world, the urgent need for renewal of pastoral life and the signs coming from local realities". This is also because the Gospel counts on the diversity of cultures (inculturation) to spread and enrich its expressions.
Finally, the synod is the opportunity to be a Church of closeness, of compassion and tenderness. A Church that fosters presence and friendship. "A Church that does not separate itself from life, but becomes position of the frailties and poverties of our time, healing the wounds and healing the broken hearts with the balm of God". Let us not forget, Francis asks, the style of God who is to help us: closeness, compassion and tenderness.
3. Finding, listening, discerning
Finally, in his homily at the opening of the Synod of Bishops (10-X-2021), the Pope summed up the purpose of the synodal process with three verbs: to encounter, to listen, to discern .
Taking his cue from the Gospel of the day (cf. Mk. 10:17ff.), Francis recalls how Jesus walks in history and shares the vicissitudes of humanity. He meets the rich man, listens to his questions and asks him financial aid to discern what he must do to inherit eternal life.
First, the meeting. We too should take time to be with the Lord in prayer and adoration, and then "meet face to face, allow ourselves to be touched by the questions of our sisters and brothers, help each other so that the diversity of charisms, vocations and ministries enriches us". "Without formalisms, without falsehoods, without make-up".
Second, listening. Jesus listens unhurriedly to the man's religious and existential restlessness. He does not offer him a prefabricated solution, in order to get rid of him and continue on his way. "And most importantly, Jesus is not afraid to listen to him with his heart and not only with his ears". He doesn't just answer his question, but tells him his story and speaks freely. "When we listen with the heart this happens: the other feels welcomed, not judged, free to tell his life experience and his spiritual journey."
And here the Pope asks us to see if our capacity to listen is like this, to discover with wonder the breath of the Holy Spirit, who suggests new paths and new languages. "It is a slow exercise, perhaps tiring, to learn to listen to one another - bishops, priests, religious and laity, everyone, all the baptized - avoiding artificial and superficial responses." "The Spirit asks us to listen to the questions, concerns and hopes of every Church, of every people and nation. And also to listen to the world, to the challenges and changes that it puts before us." And for all this the Pope asks us: "Let us not soundproof our hearts, let us not shield ourselves within our certainties. Certainties so often close us off. Let us listen to one another.
Finally, the discernment. In his dialogue with the rich young ruler, Jesus tells him financial aid to discern: "He proposes to him that he should look within himself, in the light of the love with which he himself, looking at him, loves him (cf. v. 21), and that with this light he should discern to what his heart is truly attached. So that he may then discover that his good is not to add other religious acts but, on the contrary, to empty himself of himself, to sell what occupies his heart in order to make room for God".
This, Francis observes, is a valuable indication also for us. "The synod is a path of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, which takes place in adoration, in prayer, at contact with the Word of God." It is not an ecclesial "convention", nor a lecture of programs of study nor a political congress . It is not a parliament, but an event of grace, a healing process guided by the Spirit.
Jesus calls us now to empty ourselves and free ourselves from what is worldly, also from our closures and habituations. To question ourselves about what God wants to say to us at this time and in what direction he wants to guide us. So that we may be open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit. And for this the Pope calls us to learn to exercise synodality by doing it in fact. This requires, in addition to prayer, a commitment to improve the training of all, little by little, taking into account the current circumstances.
The purpose of a synod is not simply the visibility of participation or the production of documents. As the Preparatory Document states poetically and quoting Francis, it is "to make dreams germinate, to raise prophecies and visions, to make hopes bloom, to stimulate trust, to bind wounds, to weave relationships, to resurrect a dawn of hope, to learn from one another, and to create a positive imaginary that enlightens minds, inflames hearts, gives strength to hands" (speech at the beginning of the synod dedicated to young people, 3-X-2018.).