The synodal focus of Pope Francis is best understood in light of his call for an evangelizing Church; it is a practical extension of this plea for the Church to embrace a style of ecclesial life that opts for mission over maintenance and outward extension over inwardly turned complacency. Evangelii gaudium is the charter, so to speak, framing this prioritization of the mission.
In EG 23, Pope Francis says:
The Church’s closeness (intimidad) to Jesus is part of a common journey (intimidad itinerante); “communion and mission are profoundly interconnected.” In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance (asco) or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.
The evangelical impulse is rooted in the closeness (intimidad) of the Church to Christ and implies conforming ourselves to his example. Jesus’ style is the model of the Church’s activity. Thus it is an “itinerant intimacy” (intimidad itinerante). The universality of the mission is a going out “to all”; and within the Church it is the responsibility of all the baptized: “no one can be excluded.” Already in Evangelii gaudium we see clearly expressed the three principal elements governing the synodality of the Church: communion, mission, and participation.
To understand synodality, it is important to begin with the source of the mission. The impulse to synodal enactment is the same impulse that animates the mission of the Church. And the source is Christ. In EG 264, Pope Francis says: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him.” The experience that gives birth to the Church is the experience of being saved (ser salvados). Christ’s work is an act of saving, and it is this saving work that also urges us (nos mueve) to respond through a missionary movement outward.
This experience defies complete analysis from outside the grace of faith experienced. And even within the faith experience of the Church and of each of the baptized, we can only speak of it more or less descriptively. What is essential here is our faith in a love that acts to save while in some way pulling us into the experience of and participation in that very love. The experience of that love initiates in us a move (nos mueve) to love him “always more” (siempre más).
This way of expressing the move of love to Christ is both profoundly Johannine and eminently Pauline: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10); “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Here Thomas Aquinas can help us appreciate the depth of this dynamic. In the treatise on the life of Christ (ST III, 46, 3, c.), Thomas provides a simple and comprehensive theological account of what Pope Francis describes. It appears as the first of five reasons Thomas offers to shed light on the theological convenience of the Passion of Christ.
Given that God could choose any number of ways to save us, Thomas asks, “Why the Cross?” To respond, he searches the scriptures to locate the convenience, or fittingness, of the salvífic work. Thomas articulates how it is suitable to God’s aim and purpose to remedy our needs, that Christ should suffer the Cross. Thomas gives the following as the first reason:
In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred (provocatur) to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says in Romans 5:8: “God commends His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners…Christ died for us.”
The work of Christ is a provocative action, the preeminent example of God taking the first step in our direction. This is what Pope Francis refers to when he invents the word “primerear” to describe the total primacy of God’s initiative toward us.
The Passion and death of the Lord is a great showing that is designed to begin a movement of intelligible recognition and response. The Cross of Christ insinuates into our minds something we did not really know before—namely, just how much God loves us. The citation of Romans is telling because the Vulgate says commendat caritatem suam in nobis, which Thomas takes to imply a movement of God’s love in our direction. We are confronted with it as something coming to us from outside ourselves but which, by our grasping it as love, insinuates itself within us.