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.