Pope Francis in an empty St. Peter's Square, March 27, 2020 (UPI/Alamy Stock Photo)

The longer Francis is pope, the clearer certain aspects of his pontificate’s program have become, even if they were evident from the beginning. Take the following example. In 2013, an editorial cartoon visualized the election of the new pope with an illustration of the planet Earth, seen from space with Pope Francis standing like a giant at one of its poles and South America most prominently visible among Earth’s geography. To achieve this visual effect, to bring South America to the fore—as the election of the new pope from Argentina had done—the cartoonist, David Horsey, made a somewhat prophetic artistic choice. Despite appearing at the top of the frame, Pope Francis is standing on the South Pole, and the world is turned upside down.

This cartoon appeared three years before the election of Donald Trump and the chaos that unleashed; five years before the latest resurgence of the Church’s abuse crisis in places like Chile and, yes, Newark; and seven years before the COVID-19 pandemic. We have learned what it is for the world to be turned upside down. But each of those events has also clarified why God would send us this shepherd from the Southern Hemisphere. In early 2013, we thought it was about institutional reform, an outsider who could whip the curial crew into shape and get the Church back on course. In 2016, as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and other demagogues strutted into power, we could see clearly that Pope Francis—a man who witnessed the horrors of Argentina’s Dirty War up close—could prophetically offer an alternative to this dark, brutalizing worldview. He could warn us that alliances of convenience with dictators have always ended in tears, death, and loss of the Gospel essence. In 2018, with the resurgence of the abuse crisis, we again saw Francis through the lens of institutional reformer, even though he very clearly saw himself as having a much deeper role than just an administrative one. And when COVID-19 brought the planet to a halt, we saw haunting images of a man in white, walking alone through an empty, rain-soaked square, begging God for mercy and deliverance. 

The longer and further we journey together, the more we encounter together, the clearer things become. Of the words that keep coming up along this journey of the bishop of Rome and the People of God together—mercy, joy, discernment, formation, dialogue—the most misunderstood is “synodality.” By now, “synodality” is a word closely associated with this papacy. Francis keeps calling for a more decentralized Church, one marked by collaboration and consultative decision-making, a functionality we generally associate more with the horizontal structures of the churches of the East than the top-down Roman hierarchy of the West.

In eight years, the pontificate of Francis has featured five synodal gatherings, including the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family, which explored the essential evangelizing role of the family and the human problems that can get in the way, all of it masterfully summarized in his beautiful exhortation, Amoris laetitia; the Synod on Young People in 2018, which sought to better integrate young people’s journeys and struggles into how we as a Church accompany them; and the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, which centered voices from the world’s peripheries and gave us a crash course in how pernicious the forces of exclusion can be toward these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Of the words that keep coming up along this journey of the bishop of Rome and the People of God together, the most misunderstood is “synodality.”

And now, on a date soon to be announced, there will be a synod on the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission.” A skeptic might ask, “A synod on synodality? Isn’t that the epitome of what Pope Francis warns us about when he knocks the Church for being too ‘self-referential’?” But I would contend that the gathering is essential for our shared growth as the Body of Christ, to be more aware and intentional in our adoption of what Pope Francis sees clearly—and advocates for openly—as the model of Church that the Lord expects from us in this millennium.

A millennium: even in Church terms, that is what we call the long game. But synodality is indeed the long game of Pope Francis. It is a process that will challenge us and will require changes in what we are as Church. What we will find is that synodality is a focus on the journey of the Body of Christ through history, a journey that fosters ongoing conversion and, ultimately, calls us to mercy.


When dealing with Pope Francis, it’s advisable to have mercy as your guide. Consider Sr. Prudence Allen, a Sister of Mercy and one of the women appointed by Pope Francis to the International Theological Commission, which advises the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The commission produced a document, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, in 2018, and in a written reflection on it Sr. Prudence used a number of evocative phrases and images: disciples journeying together...companions on the journey are to be in mutual service to one another...people walking in history towards the fulfillment of the Kingdom.... Walking together with Christ in a new boldness of speech with humility of heart...a ‘journey of dialogue’ in which we learn how to recognize ‘the presence of Christ walking besides us’.... Do they sound familiar? Many have noticed Francis’s fondness for the idea of accompaniment on a journey. Yet not everyone has embraced this hermeneutic of the journey; a headline in the U.K. Catholic Herald in March read: “Walking Together, But... to Where?” This is to overthink things, however, and it ignores the very frames that extend around our tradition. Jesus, after all, did a lot of walking. He also gave the Great Commission to “go forth and make disciples of all nations.” Paul looked back on his ministry, saying he had “run the race,” and one of the reasons John XXIII gave for calling the Second Vatican Council was “to make the human sojourn on earth less sad.”

It’s worth noting John XXIII’s words, because in many ways we are still caught up in the leg of the journey that he initiated with Vatican II. The great Jesuit scholar John O’Malley maintains that, to fully receive an ecumenical council, the Church needs one hundred years. Pope Francis, whose election and early pontificate coincided with the fifty-year mark, knows this (and the second fifty years were always going to be more interesting). He acknowledged the direct line from the council when he convoked a Jubilee Year of Mercy, explicitly citing John’s opening address, in which he said that the Church prefers the medicine of mercy to the spirit of severity. 

Another critique of the synodal model laments that it amounts to a “partial Emmaus”—that is, it seeks to accompany but not to convert. I would argue that a movement from severity to mercy is already quite a conversion. But we can’t just wait for people to redeem themselves and come back. We have to attend to our own conversion first. And to do that, we have to go out. We are the Body of Christ, out in the world. And what do healthy bodies do? They move. Shortly before the beginning of the third session of the Council, Paul VI published his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam, in which he proposed dialogue not simply as a pragmatic method for communication or problem-solving, but as a paradigm for expressing the salvific relationship between God and human beings. Then, in the final months of the council, he instituted the Synod of Bishops, which has since held fifteen ordinary and numerous special assemblies, seeking to provide a sort of propulsion for the Barque of Peter on crucial issues in the life of the Church.

But the record of the Synod of Bishops lately has come under heavy fire from friend and foe alike. There was a memorable critique in 2018 from Adam A. J. DeVille, an Eastern Catholic and theology professor, who in “A Short Defense of Authentic Synodality” said that synods, as understood throughout the history of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches, and the Anglican Communion,

are not thematic conferences discussing boutique interests of some group or other. Rather, synods are business-like affairs (rarely held in full glare of the world’s media) with powers of passing legislation and electing bishops (and in some cases disciplining them). The current statutes governing these so-called Roman synods of bishops permit them to do neither.... [I]f the Latin Church does continue in a synodal direction, it must not let its post-1965 shambolic pseudo-synods make it scared of the real thing.

DeVille ultimately lifts up the International Theological Commission’s call for authentic synodality that is lived “on different levels and in different forms,” reflecting the faith of the universal Church, involving the leadership of local bishops and the ministry of unity of the pope. It’s this aspirational vision that I believe explains the esteem that someone like Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has for Pope Francis. I believe he recognizes an exercise of authority that captures with deep intentionality a way of doing and being Church that his tradition strives to live. Francis isn’t merely aping the Orthodox in an effort to force the Body of Christ to breathe with both lungs. Rather, he seeks to recover the more collaborative Church of a time when we didn’t have two millennia of institutional inertia baked into our tradition. The Vatican II term was ressourcement—reconnecting with ancient roots of our traditions in order to draw new life into them.

We cannot deny that for centuries the Church has used synodality as a way to kick people out. With every early ecumenical council, we would come together to repudiate this heresy or to define that dogma, and the Body of Christ would lumber on. But I submit that we have entered a new stage of the journey. Acts of synodality no longer function as sweeping dogmatic declarations, but rather are used to fine-tune how the Gospel is applied to the signs of the times. And with that comes the next important point of Francis’s long game: conversion.


When I say “conversion,” I’m talking about the Church’s own conversion, a new way in understanding and approaching how we carry out our mission. Francis has rightly decried the mindset of “But we’ve always done it this way.” John XXIII famously said that we in the Church are not called to guard a museum but to tend to a flourishing garden of life. The same goes for a synodal Church. You can’t show up with an imperious attitude, as if you have all the answers. Indeed, John XXIII read the signs of turmoil and destruction of the first half of the twentieth century and saw that the Church had to be as intentional and missionary as it possibly could with its witness—and that the way to achieve this was through a council. In effect, he called on the council to create a blueprint for the engine that would power the Church for the third millennium. John cast a vision: this is what we need to build. Vatican II produced a blueprint. Paul VI set to work constructing it. John Paul II made sure it kept to the exact specifications required. Benedict XVI added the finishing touches, and now, Francis has put it into action. (I find it interesting, now that Francis has started revving up the engine to see what it can do, that the folks who seem most threatened are the ones with the most engineer-like grasp of all the norms and canons: if A = irregular union and B = not living as brother and sister, then A + B = can never be admitted to the Eucharist.

But Francis isn’t merely challenging us to move faster. The deeper institutional conversion also involves being nimble and strategic in our discernment. One of the best assessments of Francis comes from journalist Christopher Lamb. He notes that Francis knows which dams are inevitably going to burst. It does not make much of a difference if one man, even if he is the pope, is jumping up and down on top of the dam, trying to hasten—or halt—the change. But it does make a difference if someone in a true position of leadership is leading others in reinforcing the banks. We have to build that together, mindfully, authentically, and in a spirit of discerning where the Spirit wants us to go.

Acts of synodality no longer function as sweeping dogmatic declarations, but rather are used to fine-tune how the Gospel is applied to the signs of the times.

For many, one of the great surprises of all the synod adventures under Pope Francis was his rejection of a recommendation of the 2019 Synod on the Amazon—namely, ordaining to the priesthood married men of “proven virtue” in remote regions where priests are scarce. What was fascinating was that the reason he gave was not theological, but process-oriented, saying that the synod had displayed a “parliamentary logic,” rather than authentic group discernment. You know, it takes years to plan a synod. If it were just a charade to allow the pope to push his not-so-secret agenda on the Church, he has an odd way of going about it.

The theme of the Synod on Synodality could be, “Do it again. Show your work this time!” A successor of Joseph Bernardin, Cardinal Blase Cupich, has used the beautiful image of the magi in the Gospel to illustrate the synodal process: “They went back a different way.” Look at the phenomenon of Vatican II and the conversion that synodality fostered among the council fathers. The Curia had labored to ensure that the working documents of the council would not be hospitable to sweeping reforms. But once you got three thousand bishops in the same room and invoked the Holy Spirit, something happened.

John XXIII’s private secretary, Loris Francesco Capovilla, who at the age of ninety-eight was made a cardinal by Pope Francis, described John’s rationale for calling the council in a documentary for Catholic News Service, “Voices of Vatican II.” Capovilla recalls Pope John saying, “It was very good that after World War II, three international institutions were established: the UN for peace, the Food and Agriculture Organization for bread, UNESCO for culture. Why can’t we also get together and talk?”

And it’s precisely this postwar period, in which the world had been turned upside down, that points us to the final conversion of the long game of Francis: the conversion to mercy.


One thing that synodality and a world turned upside down have in common is that both afford us what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the view from below.” One way we could look at this: the election of Pope Francis opened up the rest of the world to the rich theological ferment of the Church in Latin America, with its strong sense of mission, encounter, peripheries, and mercy. Another way to understand Bonhoeffer’s “view from below” is to think in terms of the peripheries of the marginalized and oppressed. Pope John famously said he called the council to open a window. We always associate this with letting in fresh air, but something else happens when you open a window: you can hear what people outside are saying. When we invite people in to reflect and weigh in on the hard questions, we’re going to get answers we as a hierarchy, or even an entire Church, find difficult.

Before Vatican II began, the Jewish historian Jules Isaac sought an audience with John XXIII. Isaac hoped the upcoming council would repudiate the longstanding “teaching of contempt” for the Jewish people. His research showed how Christian anti-Semitism had played a central role in instigating the Shoah; wasn’t there something the pope could do? We know that, thanks to the openness of Pope John and the synodal process of Vatican II, the council’s decree on non-Christian religions, Nostra aetate, would definitively reject anti-Semitism, whether found in the Catholic Church or anywhere. For a glacial Church, this was a white-hot flash of purification to our witness—and, I believe, a model that has application in a synodal context.

We can see signs of this synodality-fueled conversion to mercy all around us in the Church today, if we’re looking for it.

As John agreed to meet with Jules Isaac, Francis met with Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of sexual abuse whose encounter with the pope played a critical role in instituting a new, more merciful approach to hearing the cries of these children of God. Now Cruz is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, appointed by Francis. The peripheries have been brought to the center, and the Church—including the pope himself—has undergone conversion.

And we can see signs of this synodality-fueled conversion to mercy all around us in the Church today, if we’re looking for it. There was Francis writing in Fratelli tutti that “public discussion, if it truly makes room for everyone and does not manipulate or conceal information, is a constant stimulus to a better grasp of the truth.” There was Sr. Nathalie Becquart, an undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, noting that her historic appointment is a sign that the Church is heeding the call to center the voices of women. There’s the most recent document from the Migration Section of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, which focuses on the plight of people who are forced to migrate due to climate change. And recently, marking the 150th anniversary of St. Alphonsus Liguori being named a Doctor of the Church, Pope Francis lauded the saint’s approach of “listening to and accepting the weaknesses of the men and women who were most abandoned spiritually.”

Some might say that this all has a whiff of “wokeness” about it. But I’ll say that the beauty of a billion-member, two-millennia-old religious tradition is that there are structures in place to support being a little woke. We’re grounded deeply. There’s no defensiveness in the Body of Christ. The Lord hears the cry of the poor. We should seek to imitate him. We shouldn’t steep ourselves in the delusion that things are more just and harmonious than they actually are. It is crucial that we as a Church not merely listen, but that we actually hear from people. That is what softens our hearts and primes them for conversion, and what gives us bishops the confidence to know that, yes, that new thing we are discerning is a movement of the Spirit, because our people hear it too.

One important word in how the Church approaches mercy, and one that is helpful in understanding synodality, is “integration”—the question of what needs to be integrated. And I would say in this case it’s helpful to integrate the head of the Church and the rest of the Body of Christ. Imagine a body where the outer extremities are cold and gray. The heart may be beating, but the life force is not reaching all the capillaries. I think of the line in Amoris laetitia that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” One interpretation, which I think was willfully obtuse, suggested this meant Amoris itself is not part of the magisterium. No, what Francis was saying was that the Vatican is not the only part of the Body of Christ. Francis has been clear; he sees his role as protecting the tradition.

The head is good for thinking, looking around, perhaps setting our vision on the far horizon and occasionally butting our forehead against the wall in frustration. But we can’t lift things up, we can’t embrace people, with just our heads. Where are the outstretched arms of the Body of Christ? A circulation between the center and the peripheries needs to be a greater part of the daily goings-on of the Church. And as we continue on this mission from God, we have to keep attuned to our whole body, to the tension points, and even to the unhealed wounds that risk making our witness toxic—racism, misogyny, clericalism, sexual abuse.

But God transforms everything. What is an unhealed wound that is touched by God? It’s something another man named Francis bore on his body: the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus Christ. A Church of authentic synodality, that walks together, listens and brings mercy to all we encounter, inside and out, is one that never forgets our wounded parts, and the power they have to inspire faith. 

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin was installed as the Archbishop of Newark, N.J., in January 2017. This essay has been adapted from the Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Address delivered by Cardinal Tobin on May 3, 2021, at Loyola University, Chicago. 

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