There is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the term “synodality”.
November 12, 2021
By George Wilson SJ
There is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the term “synodality”. It’s a word that comes up regularly in Catholic circles now – made “famous” by Pope Francis, to express… what?
This question is the subject of many comments. My contribution to the conversation is based on years of leading several synods and many other similar church gatherings.
Of course, no dictionary will help us with this. The word is too new. Synodality does not yet have a definition. We need to use linguistic clues to find out what Pope Francis is trying to communicate by making it up. The definition will have to wait for an experience of this new type of reality. We will only learn what possibilities it contains, as well as its limits, by actually participating in it. The definition involves naming the boundaries. They will be discovered by trial and error – just as canonical synods have been defined over the centuries.
Linguistic use offers a starting point. When we add a suffix like “ity” to an adjective like “synod,” we are generally indicating that the reality we are indicating looks a bit like a canonical synod. On the other hand, it means that the mere convocation of a synod does not guarantee that there will be a synodality. Otherwise, Pope Francis would not have been forced to invent the new term.
This leaves us with an additional task: to try to find out what characteristics make synodality a synod, and what points it to something other than a synod.
Like a synod
At a minimum, we know that the development of this new phenomenon will be something positive, something to be desired. Otherwise, the Pope wouldn’t praise it so often. It also implies that Pope Francis expresses his conviction that the achievement of synodality is necessary if our Church is to respond effectively to our contemporary world.
In his effort to describe something that cannot yet be defined, Pope Francis uses an image. Synodality suggests a “walk with”. This image contains two components. It is not about describing a static reality: there is a change going on; transition from one state to another. Something new is being born. And that involves more than one person. You cannot model synodality on your own. It is an “in between” phenomenon. Achieving synodality will require new behaviors on the part of its participants.
Synodality implies structural change
The most obvious characteristic of a synod is its composition – who is invited to participate and who is not. Synods are made up of bishops and ordained clergy, whether of a diocese or of a nation or of the universal Church. One of the characteristics that differentiates the experience of synodality from that of a synod is the composition of its participants. Francis clearly wants the Church’s response to a rapidly changing world to be in the hands of a wider range of believers than the episcopate alone. At the heart of his reform is his conviction that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out throughout the Church. At this level, the distinction based on ordination becomes irrelevant. This is the same conviction that Paul VI expressed in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi 47 years ago when he shifted the focus from the power of masters to that of witnesses. He called all believers to testify of Christ by living the gospel. Synodality characterizes a gathering that actively engages all Catholics at this level.
Something more: transformation of fundamental attitudes
Much of the commentary describing what is new in the synodality envisioned by Pope Francis focuses on a structural change: participation and responsibility for decisions will involve more than the ordained. Whatever other characteristics may eventually emerge as synodality becomes normative, the participant base will include lay people and clergy. It will be based on the shared experience of the baptized, not just the limited perspectives of the ordained. The goal is shared responsibility.
But expanding the base of participants in future synods, overwhelming as it may be, does not seem to encompass the full transformation Pope Francis is seeking. The structures are inert, like empty bottles. It all depends on how they are used and what is poured into them. And it depends on the quality of the interaction from their participants. Appointment as a member does not in itself guarantee shared empowerment.
Hopes high, then dashed
Examples of structural overhaul that promised revolutionary change but turned out to be stillborn are easy to find. Groups of people previously excluded from membership in various types of boards are finally admitted. Think of women or people of color. Expectations of equality of inclusion are high. Then the new members discover, to their disappointment, that they remain powerless despite their appointment. They learn that they are just tokens created to restore the image of the institution. They are on the group’s list but they remain powerless. It all depends on whose voice is heard and taken seriously, and despite their nomination, their voice is excluded.
Reactionary models are maintained by all
At this point, it would be easy to fall into the trap of throwing all the responsibility for the failure of the structures to achieve the promised empowerment on those who are currently in power: the “old boys club”.
In fact, experience shows that new members can, quite unconsciously, contribute to their own helplessness.
The following personal experience takes stock: I once facilitated the formation of a newly established diocesan pastoral council. The new body was made up of an equal number of priests, lay ministers of the Church, and lay parishioners. The bishop was deeply involved in the sharing of responsibilities. There was a lot of anticipation in the air. After a period of group formation, the council was called upon to decide on future diocesan policy on an issue affecting each parish. The pros and cons of all the options had been discussed at length. It was time to test the waters. I have called on members of Parliament to publicly express their position on the issue. They expressed a range of responses: very favorable to one option or the other; troubled but ready to trust a clear consensus; largely satisfied with the way each member’s opinions were respected.
Finally, I came to a calm gentleman who said, “I just want us to do what the bishop wants…” The disappointment of the other members was on everyone’s faces. Where was the boy?
I tell the story, not to lay the blame on man, but to point out that cultural models – whether they are those of exclusion from the past or those encouraging ones hoped for from the adoption of new structures – are co-created. through the interaction of all players.
Using the term synodality, Pope Francis seems to point beyond structural change to embracing a new mindset, a spirituality that celebrates and actively promotes equal participation and empowerment. This will require an uprooting of long-held cultural expectations, on the part of lay participants, as well as their bishops.
It is clear from the frequency with which Pope Francis denounces the evil of clericalism that he hopes that the cultivation of a synodal spirituality will put an end to this aberration of the Gospel.
Just a few years ago, the ordained members and their lay members took to the stage with their respective scripts written for them by previous generations. The script of the laity said “Father knows best” or “Pray for me, Father; you have a direct line to God. That of the ordained was “We know Scripture and theology; lay people only know their eighth grade catechism ”or“ We are the protectors of their faith; we have to watch over them. The content of the challenge presented by the development of a synodal spirituality will be different for each group.
Bishops will be challenged to learn and practice a new way of listening as lay members describe, not only their beliefs or their theology, but how they actually live life in the Church today. . And this will inevitably include the laity’s honest perceptions of clerical behavior.
Listening at this level requires a new form of vulnerability. And confessions. Newly empowered lay members will have to unlearn the scripts developed over the years when they allowed accepted practice to reduce them to being passive recipients of whatever the clerics decided to do them good. Going from passive membership to taking active responsibility means taking the risk of speaking out. The experience can be lonely. Both will be called to embrace the new experience of mutual trust. Conclusion The culture that divided the Church into teachers and taught took centuries to develop; it will not be replaced overnight by a system that also values the experience of each member. The process will be gradual and costly for everyone. This is called shared responsibility, after all. –LCI (https://international.la-croix.com/
George Wilson SJ is a retired ecclesiologist.