Revitalizing Synodality

Pope Francis and a Vatican II church “journeying together”

By Biagio Mazza

On October 17, 2015, at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod of bishops, Pope Francis spoke briefly and prophetically, concerning the revitalization of a key teaching of the Second Vatican Council, a teaching aptly named “synodality.” The whole address is worth our attention and reflection. It can be found both in English text and Italian video formats at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/october/document....

Francis begins by stating:

From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, I sought to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. …We must continue along this path. ...I t is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.

Synodality literally means “walking” or “journeying together.” Pope Francis is very attuned to synodality and promotes it at every opportunity in order to make real the Vatican II vision of church. Synodality is not merely accomplished by periodic meetings of bishops called by the pope to discuss certain topics. Rather, synodality is a perennial and permanent process in the church; it existed from its beginnings and was retrieved by Vatican II after many centuries of neglect and suppression.

Francis emphasizes that

A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing” (Evangelii Gaudium). It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).

Having struggled with this issue both as a Jesuit and as a member of the church’s hierarchy, Francis quickly adds, “What the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word ‘synod.’ Journeying together — laity, pastors, the Bishop of Rome — is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.”

Francis has continually insisted that if we are to be a church that not only teaches but also practices and lives out synodality, then a whole new way of being church has to come into being. The Vatican II vision of church as the entire people of God gifted with sensus fidei, a sense of the faith, must be incarnated in all aspects of church life, structure and interaction with the world. The role of the papacy and the bishops, as well as the structure of the church, has to change if synodality is to ever become the integral operating principle of church life and ministry. Francis addresses these points directly by stressing:

Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself ... the pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but within it as one of the baptized ... within the Church, no one can be “raised up” higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person “lower” himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.

Turning the traditional pyramid model of the church on its head, Francis insists that:

in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid, the top is located beneath the base. Consequently, those who exercise authority are called “ministers,” because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. ... Let us not forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today, and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross.

Francis concludes with a prophetic challenge to the church, something that each of us needs to reflect on in prayer and live out in our daily activities:

A synodal Church is like a standard lifted up among the nations (cf. Isa 11:12) in a world which — while calling for participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration — often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups. As a Church which “journeys together” with men and women, sharing the travails of history, let us cherish the dream that a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of authority as service will also be able to help civil society to be built up in justice and fraternity, and thus bring about a more beautiful and humane world for coming generations.

During this Lenten season, take time to reflect carefully and prayerfully on Pope Francis’ words. The conversion process integral to the Lenten season will be greatly enhanced by examining our actions in light of the call to be a synodal church.

Biagio Mazza is an author and adult faith formation coordinator for St. Sabina Parish in Belton, MO. Contact him at biagio46@gmail.com. This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Celebration.

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