A synod on synodality may seem like an oxymoron but that is what is beginning this month. Pope Francis wants to rethink how the Church is run, and a synod – an assembly of the Church – is one way he hopes to address the issue of greater lay involvement in decision-making. The synod was originally planned for October next year, but the Pope has asked every diocese to begin the first phase of consulting with the laity on 17 October. Each local church is being sent details for a consultation and listening process that lasts until next April, when the diocese will have to submit proposals to their bishops’ conference. The overall theme is “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission”.
After listening to the churches, the bishops will then meet to “listen to what the Spirit has inspired in the churches entrusted to them” and their meeting will be followed by a “continental phase” of discernment.
From September 2022 until March 2023, bishops from various parts of the world will meet and draft a document to be sent to the synod office in Rome. The final phase of the synod will take place in the Vatican in October of that year.
This is a lengthy process and something like a Church version of Chinese whispers may happen, whereby the sentiments of ordinary parishioners get lost in the process of being filtered through the diocesan, national and international layers. At a recent mini-synod in Bristol, feminist participants urged their supporters to make their feelings known directly to Rome rather than entrusting their views to the bishops. This move identifies one of the obvious problems about the synodal exercise; at a time when many people can communicate directly with each other or with institutions online, the painstaking business of collating views to be transmitted through various layers of the hierarchy will strike some participants as bafflingly opaque.
But that is how the Church works. It does not function like a social media platform; it seeks to discern the truth in curious ways – the Acts of the Apostles, for instance, records the search for a replacement apostle by lot. Neither is the Church a democracy, as, in some ways, is the General Synod of the Church of England. This Synod works through the bishops, and the hierarchy, though it is starting from the grassroots, the parishes. In fact, the Pope has said he wants to include “the baptised”, which would include non-churchgoers as well as people who attend Mass.
The Synod faces a number of challenges. The first is that the objectives are unclear. The best known synod in English history, the Synod of Whitby, had a straightforward job to do: to decide how to calculate the date of Easter, and it did so, with a minor remit to decide whether to favour the Celtic or the Roman tonsure. The more concrete the aims of a synod, the better its chances of success. In the case of this Synod, the objectives of “communion, participation and mission” are intangible, though at least we should be agreed on what mission is about – conveying the good news of the Gospel to an increasingly secular society. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot function; the Second Vatican Council had results that were not obvious at the outset.
Another reality is that the laity is not a cohesive body; people disagree about a great many issues, from the character and tone of the liturgy to the ordination of women to compulsory clerical celibacy to matters of discipline such as whether divorced and remarried people may receive Communion and whether priests may bless civil partnerships of gay couples. There are divisions on all these things within individual churches and parishes, still more between churches in European and Anglophone countries and those in Africa and in Latin America. It is easy to talk about consulting with the laity, as Cardinal Newman did; less easy to hear a single voice back.
Diversity is, of course, an inherent feature of the Church, and Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominican Order, has pointed out that differences are not something to be feared. He wants us to listen respectfully to those who differ from us, and to express our own views in humility. We should.
So, when it comes to the parish consultation that is the start of this Synod, we urge our readers to take part. If we don’t communicate with the bishops, the Synod will lack its most fundamental element – us.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund