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Synod report: where did all these references to ‘synodality’ come from?

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When Pope Francis convened the XV Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for October of 2018, he billed the gathering as an opportunity for bishops from around the world to discuss young people, the faith, and vocational discernment. Imagine the synod fathers’ surprise when, presented with the first complete draft of the final document on Wednesday, they discovered that a good deal of their consultation had been concerned with the very concept of “synodality”.

To hear Ed Pentin of the National Catholic Register tell it, virtually the entire third part of the draft document was dedicated to various aspects of synodality, among them: The Missionary Synodality of the Church, and Synodality in Everyday Life. Several synod fathers apparently objected to the prominence with which a topic hardly mentioned either on the floor or in small group session came to figure in the draft of the final document.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai – a synod father and a member of the drafting committee – told Crux neither the term, “synodality”, nor the extended discussion of it that is found in the draft document came from the members appointed to the draft committee or from the synod fathers themselves, who hardly mentioned it over their three weeks’ consultation. “There was some resistance when it was publicized,” Cardinal Gracias told Crux, “because this document has so much on synodality when we really haven’t discussed it.”

Perhaps that oughtn’t be too much of a surprise, though. The idea of a “listening Church” was present in Francis’s remarks at the opening of the current assembly. Pope Francis told the synod fathers at the outset that he wanted them to discover what it means to be a “listening Church”.

“The gift of that ability to listen, sincerely and prayerfully, as free as possible from prejudice and conditioning,” Pope Francis said in his homily at the Mass on October 4, “will help us to be part of those situations which the People of God experience.”

Many of the synod fathers were apparently surprised to learn that they would be listening carefully in order to discover just exactly what it was that they themselves had really been thinking and saying to each other over the past three weeks, but there you have it.

In any case, the signs it might go that way were there from the start.

One clue is to be found in the new Apostolic Constitution controlling the Synod of Bishops, Episcopalis communio. If it did nothing else, Episcopalis certainly made clear that Francis meant it when he told the participants in 2014’s extraordinary synod assembly that “synodality” comes to being with Peter, and “being with Peter” entails being under Peter’s authority. Said shortly: “synodality” means whatever Peter — in this case, Francis-as-Peter — says it means.

There is one peculiar thing in all this synodality business, though.

The man who would become Pope Francis made himself papabile in part by way of his speech to the cardinals ahead of the conclave that would elect him. “When the Church is self-referential, inadvertently, she believes she has her own light,” he told the cardinals gathered in general congregation. “When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelise, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick,” he also said. “The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism.”

A synod – a synod document, at least – that spends as much time as this one apparently does on talking about “synodality”, certainly sounds about as self-referential as it gets.