The headline on the front page of the National Catholic Reporter (October 29–November 11) expressed a critical truth. It read: “Pope launches synod on synodality.” Those five words bear a commanding message. The process of synodality is a rocket being launched from the Vatican II ship of state, which itself emerged as a gathering of bishops. It is now opening the doors to a journey of togetherness.
Synodality is described by the International Theological Commission as “the decision to journey together” and “a prophetic sign for the human family, which needs a shared project capable of pursuing the good of all.” This is not universally good news for some, sad to say.
There is an emotional quotient to be considered, evaluated, and understood. Change invariably evokes an emotional reaction before it can be absorbed as a spiritual response. It is no less true regarding synodality. The two-year stretch of time allows an incubating synod for us to give birth to deep synodality.
For the “people in the pews” to engage in the journey, memories have to emerge for clarification and cleansing. As I recall, the early days of the post–Vatican II church did not always evoke a gentle change. What we knew as concretized familiarity was crumbling before our very eyes. As it was occurring, we were either in the rejoicing camp or the grumbling one.
Our previous understanding —that we were simply “living to die”—was evolving into a comprehension that we are actually “dying to live.” Obedience to the law had equaled salvation. Now, “you are saved” is the cry. The change makes all the difference . . . and underscores the complexity of the challenge ahead.
Back then, we were entering a renewed, and renewing, biblical world. We were being inducted into the deeper reality of the Hebrew Scriptures with a mantra that announced a new description of God’s reign. The kingdom/“kin-dom” of God is the world turned upside down—including the ecclesial world! We were not necessarily comforted with those words. We were discomfited by them.
I, for one, went kicking and screaming into this “new church.” I joined those who were entrenched in the old ways. We groaned with the loss of statues, side altars, altar rails, votive lights. Though we had giggled over the “tissue hats” enforced when an appropriate head covering was not available, we felt ill at ease when “naked heads” were permitted.
Quiet Latin masses offered a soothing, dreamy silence broken only by an occasional “Amen” and a trip to the altar rail to kneel, closing our eyes and extending our tongues to receive the corpus meum before returning to our pews to pray in solitary connection with our God. Dutifully, we went to church and went to Mass. God was in his heaven and all was right with the world—our world.
All changed in a heartbeat, it seemed. Altar boys became altar servers whose ranks were joined by girls! Ad altare Dei was now an open road—not one reserved for future priests, male only! Guitars and drums and rhythmic melodies gained entry where organ music had once reigned supreme. Our church world was turned upside down. Questions remained: “Is this the reign of God or is it another fad? Is it the work of divinity or the deviousness of the devil?”
One might say, “Okay, that was then. This is now.” The two-year-long council occurred from October 11, 1962, to December 8, 1965—56 years ago. Yet the wrangling continues.
Old ways die hard, it seems. But there appears to be much more at issue and at stake today. We can squabble over details, ceaselessly and with little change. What is more crucial is the movement from synod to synodality, a journey that Pope Francis encourages and describes as his urging of the global Catholic Church to “master the ‘art of encounter.’” Cardinal Blase Cupich once defined encounter as the art and action of making the other count.
There’s the rub! Synods can come and go, but synodality remains a constant. It’s the call to recognize, as Pope Francis stated in his homily officially opening the synod on October 10, that “Everything changes once we are capable of genuine encounters with [Jesus] and with one another, without formalism or pretense, but simply as we are.”
Within that perception and perspective, we can no longer claim it is enough to obey the obligation to attend Mass under pain of mortal sin. We can no longer sit well in pews side-by-side with individuals we scarcely acknowledge—even with a sidelong glance at the “sign of peace.” We can no longer say we “went to church” or “went to Mass” and pretend that it is the same as participating in liturgy. We can no longer act as if “getting Communion” is identical to receiving the body and blood of Christ within a communal celebration of Eucharist. Yes, on the one hand, there is a distinctly sacramental identity; but, on the other, a clear distinction remains. We are not simply passive pew people. We are active participants in the action of the liturgy.
Within that genuine encounter, laity and priests listen attentively to each other. Laypeople are certifying that everyone counts. Everyone! Synodality means there are no volunteer positions to fill in the business of church. There are only ministries for which each person has been uniquely gifted. There are no battles for first place, unless it is the scriptural site of the one who serves the rest.
Solidarity means discernment of gifts to be shared willingly as they are needed. Solidarity means making room at the table for everyone. Solidarity means, as Pope Francis stated in his homily, that the Christian community must “reflect the style of God, who travels the paths of history and shares in the life of humanity.”
There are so many entrenched ideas, opinions, biases, or beliefs which must be examined together. So much must be revealed, unveiled, before we can walk honestly with each other in a mutual pilgrimage where Divinity is encountered in us, in all of us. Synodality means that God matters to us and we matter to God—and to each other.
It is only too obvious that this will not be easy. It will not happen quickly, and it cannot be legislated into existence. No matter how many listening groups are designed and established, nothing will happen without, as the pope describes it, our “hearing with the heart.”
Enjoy, find joy in, the synodality of our divine humanity, as we are. Discover the wonder of unending becoming which marks us as God’s own family. Delight in the fiery, inspirited gift of God’s synodality as we work together discovering the surprises of the Spirit. “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on us,” said Saint Augustine.
Law cannot contain or explain synodality. Only love, genuine love, can make our encounters true and deep. Only love says we all matter. Let’s not simply make a banner or walk in a parade to demonstrate that truth. Let’s walk into life, walk through life, and be life with each other. Let’s make it real!
Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, as well as a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.