Lots has been said and written about the Synod on Synodality which is currently underway in the Catholic Church. Some people have expressed grave concern while others are filled with hope and anticipation. But what exactly is a Synod or what is Synodality, and what might the impact of this Synod of Bishops be on the future of the Catholic Church?
It was Saint Pope Paul VI who held the first Synod of Bishops in 1967. His goal was to continue the collaborative spirit of the Second Vatican Council by periodically gathering bishops from around the world to discuss a topic chosen by the Pope.
Since the 1967 Synod there have been 15 Ordinary Synods which tend to matters concerning the whole church, such as the 1995 Synod on Consecrated Life. There have been three Extraordinary Synods which deal with pressing issues that need rapid resolution, such as the Synod on the Family in 2014. And there have been 11 Special Synods which focus on concerns specific to a certain region, such as the Synod on Amazonia of 2019. The current Synod on Synodality is the 16th Ordinary Synod of Bishops which started in 2021 and will conclude in 2024.
The notion of a Synod is nothing new. As a matter of fact, the concept is as old as the church itself. Synods are “new as an institution but ancient in inspiration” according to Pope Francis in 2018.
The word Synod comes from the Greek σύνοδος (sunodos) which is a contraction of the words συν (sun) meaning “with” and όδός (odos) meaning “path.” The word Synod thus refers to a shared journey. For Christians it is the journey they take together, with Christ leading the way and being “the Way, the truth, and the light.” This was the very experience of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. As a result, early Christians were called “followers of the Way” and the Church itself was synodal at its core, i.e. “on a journey,” or “on the Way.”
Saint Pope Paul VI in 1965 called synodality an “essential dimension of the Church.” Pope Francis in 2021 said that “synodality is an expression of the Church’s nature, her form, style, and mission.”
When he announced the current synod on Synodality Pope Francis clarified that a “synod is not a parliament,” and that a “synod is not an inquiry into opinions.” Rather, he said a “Synod is an ecclesial moment, and the protagonist of the synod is the Holy Spirit.” About a month ago, Pope Francis on his way back from Mongolia described a synod as “a dialogue between baptized people in the name of the Church, on the life of the church, on dialogue with the world, and on the problems that affect humanity today.”
Since 1967, the make-up of these synods has evolved in terms of participants, topic, and methodology. The first Synod of Bishops had only bishops as voting members. Of the 363 voting members in the 2023 gathering of the Synod on Synodality, more than a quarter of them are not bishops and 54 of them are women. Second, the topic of the current synod is much broader than previous synods as it deals with the theme of synodality or the very Way of being Church in the world today. Finally, the method used for the Synod on Synodality is much more consultative. In the past he Instrumentum Laboris or working document to be used at the gathering of bishops was prepared by the Vatican based on input by the world’s bishops. The current Instrumentum Laboris is the result of a year-long consultation with all the faithful throughout the world. The way the participants in the current monthlong meeting in Rome interact with one another is also very different. It is striking to see women and men from around the world, ordained and non-ordained, young and old seated together at round tables, rather than in hierarchical order in an auditorium style setting.
As to the final outcome of this Synod, that is of course up to the Holy Spirit. Some people are undoubtedly hoping for major shifts or changes in the Catholic Church. Others are already warning against them. However, it is more likely that the outcome of the Synod on Synodality will be a more Synodal Church. In other words, a Church that values all; a listening Church that is open and attentive to the voices of “others” and “the Holy Other;” a church that is not afraid to engage in dialogue with an ever more secularized society; a church that values meaningful relations with other religions; and a church that is welcoming of those who have been marginalized, either by society or by the Church.
Until then, let us continue to pray “Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten our hearts and our minds!”
Johan Van Parys