On October 18, an article by Colleen Dulle and Doug Girardot in America confirmed that only about half of all U.S. dioceses had appointed a local coordinator to begin the process for Synod 2023 per the Vatican’s directive. This global synod, formally titled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission” and colloquially referred to as the “synod on synodality,” officially began on October 10 with a solemn Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and a homily by Pope Francis that centered on the “art of encounter.” “Let us not soundproof our hearts,” the pope urged the faithful as he opened the synodal path, “let us not remain barricaded in our certainties.”
The etymological root of the word synod comes from the Greek for with and path, implying a journeying together. Pope Francis has convened three synods so far during his papacy: on the family (2014), on youth (2018), and on the Amazonian region (2019). What is special about this synod, however, is that the pope is inviting the input of all the church’s members—including and especially those voices that have been marginalized in the past—in a six-month “diocesan phase” that will run through April 2022. A series of “listening sessions” throughout this diocesan phase will coordinate discussions among parishes, lay movements, ecumenical and social action groups, and other organizations, all with the goal of discerning the path forward for a more synodal church in the third millennium.
For laypeople who have long dreamed of a more participatory and inclusive church—a church that, in the words of the International Theological Commission’s (ITC) 2018 document “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” might “overcome the obstacles created by the lack of formation and recognised spaces in which the lay faithful can express themselves and act, and by a clerical mindset which runs the risk of keeping them on the edges of ecclesial life” (§73)—this comes as a golden opportunity. As journalist Christopher White has reported, even Pope Francis himself has stressed that “the synodal process should be not an occasional experience, but one of structural change, ‘where all can feel at home and participate.’”
A month prior to the opening proceedings, the Vatican issued two key documents to help shape hearts, minds, and consciences around the themes of the synod: a preparatory document that lays out the aims of a “synodal journey [that] unfolds within a historical context marked by epochal changes in society and by a crucial transition in the life of the Church, which cannot be ignored”; and a vademecum, or handbook (the term comes from the Latin for “go with me”), that provides “practical support” to individual dioceses “to prepare and gather the People of God so that they can give voice to their experience in their local Church.”
Both documents are worth reading on their own. For those who wish for a more complete picture of the pope’s approach to synodality, his Address at the Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops (2015) and the apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio (2018) are also recommended, as is the International Theological Commission’s document referenced above. Taken together, this series of documents provides a vision for a more decentralized, collaborative church—one that fully incorporates the doctrine of the sensus fidei fidelium, or the “sense of the faith on the part of the faithful,” so that “all members of the Church are agents of evangelisation” (ITC, §9).
Such a vision has profound impact on the conception of leadership within the church. Instead of a top-down, hierarchical model, the synodal church is represented as an “inverted pyramid” where “the top is located beneath the base.” Priests, bishops, and clergy up to and including the pope himself preserve the unity of the local and universal church and guard the deposit of the church’s teaching, but that teaching emerges through a culture of encounter and co-creative dialogue between and among all of its members. The reciprocal movement between the faithful and their pastors in shaping the church’s mission mirrors the divine intersubjectivity of the Persons of the Trinity (ITC §64); it also deepens and enriches the image of the church as the body of Christ “whose kérygma, life and person reveal that God is a communion of love who, in His grace and mercy, wishes to embrace the whole of humanity in unity” (ITC §15). The ITC beautifully expresses the practical applications of these insights as well as the potential prophetic dimensions of synodality with its observation that “today, when growing awareness of the interdependence between peoples forces us to think of the world as our common home, the Church is called to demonstrate that her Catholicity and the synodal way in which she lives and works are a catalyst of unity in diversity and of communion in freedom” (§118).
One would think that this invitation to the lay faithful to more fully participate in the life of the church would have been met with a more robust response from local dioceses than what Dulle and Girardot’s reportage bears out. After all, we hear week after week about the decline in parish attendance, the lack of young people in the pews, and the growing disconnect between the institutional church and its place in the public square; this is an opportunity for clerical leaders to engage in a ministry of listening with the faithful, so that each experiences a bilateral shaping, challenging, and opening of perspectives that address these pressing issues of the church. It is crucial, as Dominican Sr. Donna Ciangio and others have pointed out, that the dialogical process include former or lapsed Catholics who have left the church: only by attending to the critiques of the wounded or disillusioned, the spurned or the just plain turned off, can we obtain a complete picture of the ways the church is or is not speaking to people’s real needs. The vademecum makes this explicitly clear:
The synthesis [of feedback received throughout the listening process] should pay special attention to the voices of those who are not often heard and integrate what we could call the “minority report.” The feedback should not only underline positive experiences but also bring to light challenging and negative experiences in order to reflect the reality of what has been listened to (§4.1).
To which the preparatory document adds:
It is impossible to think of “a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People”: together let us ask the Lord for “the grace of conversion and the interior anointing needed to express before these crimes of abuse our compunction and our resolve courageously to combat them” (§6).
An informal survey of the websites of the three dioceses of Connecticut, where Today’s American Catholic is based, indicates that only one—the Diocese of Bridgeport—seems to have enacted a public plan for the first phase of Synod 2023. In fairness, the Archdiocese of Hartford only recently completed its own synod and may well be introducing a program for Synod 2023 in the days to come—perhaps one that opens with a liturgical celebration, as recommended by the vademecum (§4.2). In the interim, the faithful wherever the find themselves need not wait for their bishop to officially convene proceedings: they can begin to organize themselves, to initiate the process of dialogue and encounter in parishes and small-church groups and informal conversations. Voice of the Faithful has compiled a very helpful series of resources for those interested in learning more about how to introduce the synodal process to their local community, and the organization plans to host its own series of listening sessions in the months to come. This synod will be built from the bottom up, an ingathering of voices that may articulate new ways of communion within the church. “After all,” as the vademecum states plainly, “this Synodal Process is not the end but a new beginning” (§4.4.10).
Editor, Today’s American Catholic