Is Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality doomed to disappoint – or will it renew the Church?


Pope Francis has started a multi-year process for the whole Church, what he called “a synod on synodality”.

Jan 07, 2022

Pope Francis greets people during an audience with the faithful of the Diocese of Rome at the Vatican on September 18, 2021. (Vatican Media)

By Father Louis J. Cameli
Pope Francis has started a multi-year process for the whole Church, what he called “a synod on synodality”. In his interviews and in the preparatory documents, he explained very simply the unusual term “synodality” by returning to its Greek roots.

“Synodality”, as he describes it, is to be syn-hodos, on the road together. The Holy Father wants this vision of the Church on the way or on the way together to come to life.

When I first heard of synodality, I really liked the concept. I have seen him move the Church beyond the usual and tired constructions of institution, organization and bureaucracy. I saw him highlight an experience of the Church that included a greater sense of community and connection as the story unfolds. The Second Vatican Council captured him with its striking image of the Church as the pilgrim people of God in Lumen Gentium. So far synodality has looked good, if not very good.

Where would that take us?
Then I started having questions and hesitation.

In the preparatory documents, some of the demands for a Synodal Church seem to be lofty aspirations, but also a little exposed. For example, a document suggested that a Synodal Church would help rebuild democracy in our world. In a way, I could put this to the credit of the enthusiasm of the people writing the documents. But a deeper and more fundamental question remained.

A synod on synodality is a process upon a process. And it stuck with me. A process on a process appeared to be without content. Where would that take us? The questions that the preparatory documents pose to Catholics around the world probe the process, not the content. Questions about attentive listening, open speaking, and daring are good questions. At the same time, they also seem to suffer from a certain vagueness. Where does a synod on synodality lead us? We are on the road together, but where does this road take us? What is the destination? In the end, are we doomed to be disappointed?

As I sat down to reflect and pray about it, I couldn’t get a specific solution to this “process about a process” until I remembered the larger context. Pope Francis is our first post-conciliar pope. He was ordained a priest in 1969, four years after the conclusion of Vatican II. He was formed for the renewal requested by the Council and was bathed in his hope. With this reality in mind, the Council then became my interpretive key to understanding the remarkable Synod on Synodality that it called.

On December 25, 1961, exactly 60 years ago, Pope Saint John XXIII issued an apostolic constitution, Humanae Salutis, and thus convened Vatican II. The key passage of this constitution, which sets in motion the renewal begun in the council and which has yet to be fully realized, is found near the beginning:

Today the Church is witnessing an ongoing crisis in society. As humanity stands on the threshold of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and magnitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is, in fact, a matter of putting the modern world in contact with the life-giving and lasting energies of the Gospel …

Pope Saint John XXIII saw with his own eyes the crisis of the twentieth century, with its two world wars, its multiple genocides, the development of weapons of mass destruction and the formidable injustices that have allowed some to prosper and many to languish. in abject poverty. The Church, he saw, had the urgent mission of bringing the world “in contact with the life-giving and lasting energies of the Gospel”. And the board would consider how that could be accomplished. In his opening speech of October 11, 1962, he clearly delineated the scope of the council. It was not about doctrine. He said that everything in the council was to be measured “in the forms and proportions of a magisterium of a predominantly pastoral character”. In other words, everything about the council and the renewal that followed it would depend on reclaiming the Church’s mission in the world.

Organizational institution
If we move quickly to 2021, some 56 years after the close of Vatican II, we can rightly point out many significant elements of renewal that have taken hold in the Church. At the same time, we must frankly admit our own limited and incomplete adherence to the vision of John XXIII when he called the council. Are we now the effective salt, light and leaven that brings “the modern world in contact with the life-giving and enduring energies of the gospel? To some extent we may be, but certainly not to the full extent of what the world needs. And it is this gap that I think Pope Francis wants to fill by summoning the whole Church to a synod on synodality. Let me explain.

The French patristic of Didache, Jean-Paul Audet, identified three dimensions of the Church: an organization-institution, a community-communion and a movement-mission. If we consider our current operational assumptions and general perceptions of the Catholic Church, the most important dimension is organizational-institutional. This seems to be the most obvious. At the same time, sometimes subtly, sometimes less subtle, a movement of deinstitutionalization is taking place.

Here are a few examples, drawn primarily from our context in the United States, but not limited to that country. The key force in religious institutional life in education, health care and social services has been, for many years, women religious, and they are no longer as present and available as they once were. . The sexual abuse crisis, coupled with obvious clericalism, has triggered a crisis of institutional credibility and a decline in institutional reliability. The continued decrease in the number of faithful participating in the organized life of the Church also testifies to a process of deinstitutionalization.

If deinstitutionalization is real, and if we have indeed relied heavily on our institutional life to pursue the mission of bringing “the modern world into contact with the life-giving energies of the gospel,” then we need a change of plan. . I would suggest that, in his own way, this is what Pope Francis is offering us by calling for a synod on synodality. It seems to wean us from our dependence on structures, organizations and institutions. If this is the case, then its three main words for the Synod – communion, participation, mission – take on their full meaning. If we are to bring these evangelical energies to the world in need, then we must be together, in fellowship, and be clear about our identity in Jesus Christ. Our participation or engagement with both the gospel and the world enables us to be present where we need to be. Finally, this movement frees us to more easily embrace our goal or our mission. To use the words of Jean-Paul Audet, we will be less organizational, more focused on the community, and – for that – more faithful to the movement or to the mission that we are in the world.

Reframing the core question
If we can come back to the preparations for the synod on synodality, I have a piece of advice: reformulate the basic question.

the vade mecum (or manual) for the synod says: “The fundamental question which guides this consultation of the People of God… is the following: A synodal Church, by proclaiming the Gospel,“ walks together ”: in your particular Church? What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our “journey together”?

These are good questions, but they are limited to the process. An even more fundamental question could draw us into the content of our journey together. We might ask, “As pilgrims of God traveling together, how can we more effectively bring the life-giving power of the gospel to a world in desperate need? This question would correspond more closely to the vision of Pope John XXIII and, I believe, of Pope Francis as well. –

(Reverend Louis J. Cameli, priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, is Cardinal Blase J. Cupich’s delegate for formation and mission.)


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