On 10th October 2021, Pope Francis formally opened a two-year process called ‘a synod on synodality,’ officially known as ‘Synod 2021-2023: For a Synodal Church.’ In brief, the process entails bishops around the world consulting with all of the baptised (parishioners and priests, monks and nuns, places of Catholic education, as well as those on the margins of the Church, those who have drifted from practice or are not directly involved in the life of the Church in a visible and obvious way) before coming together for a gathering of bishops in October 2023.
The word Synod comes from two Greek words ‘syn-‘ meaning ‘walking together’ and ‘-hodos’ on a ‘particular way’. The way is established, Jesus Christ, who is our Way, our Truth and our Life. The Synod has been called to explore how the whole Church does this together.
There are three key words for this Synodal process: communion, participation, and mission. As Archbishop John puts it beautifully in his Pastoral Letter announcing the Process in Southwark, these three themes can be expressed in three simple questions:
‘What does it mean for us to belong to Christ and be in relationship with His Church? What does it mean for us to be engaged and involved with Christ in His Church? What does it mean for us to be sent out, in proclamation and service, by Christ and His Church?’
We are being asked to rediscover together - laity, clergy, and religious - what it means to be a servant-Church, rooted in Christ. The Synod is an opportunity for everyone baptised into Christ to consider what it means to be a missionary disciple. It begins at the grassroots and leads, through a national and continental phase, to a gathering in Rome in 2023.’
Pope Francis on the Synod Journey
At a recent gathering in Rome, the Holy Father shared his thoughts on the three key words for the Synod: communion, mission and participation. The starting point for this participation is Baptism. All the baptised are called to participate in the synodal process, not just practising Catholics! ‘Baptism is the identity card to enter the process’, as he put it.
Pope Francis has warned us that we must not enter into the Synod Process in order to look good, ‘to be seen to be doing something positive’. A façade, he said, ‘only keeps people out, and does not invite people in’. Equally it must not be a superficial, intellectual exercise… ‘something else we just need to do’. We must listen rather than come with pre-formed and confirmed opinions.
The Holy Father also warned of the temptation that we just do this whole exercise, and nothing ‘moves’ afterwards. The synodal journey is designed to keep us moving as a Church.
The Synodal Process, or journey, also presents opportunities such as awakening, in us, a sense that a spirit of openness and engagement is both desirable and necessary. The Holy Father wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, that ‘pastors ought to smell of their sheep’ (EG 24). The Synod journey is intended to help us become a ‘Church of closeness’ where people feel close to their parish, their priest, their congregation.
Pope Francis has also clearly articulated that we are not called to make a new church but that ‘we have everything we need’ to make our Church come alive in the Holy Spirit and avoid becoming a ‘museum Church’ (EG 83).
The Process in Southwark
Pope Francis in his book Let us Dream says ‘we need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas’. This is at the heart of the process. In Southwark, the listening process will first and foremost take place in our parishes. Delegates have been appointed with the brief to facilitate opportunities for respectful, mutual listening, reaching as broad a scope of people as possible.
The delegates will then bring what has been learned to a series of diocesan meetings where the fruit of our reflection on the principal question of the synod will be shared.
A synodal Church, in announcing the Gospel, ‘journeys together.’ How is this ‘journeying together’ happening today in your local Church? What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our ‘journeying together’?
Our diocesan submission will then feed into a national document before a regional, continental phase which precedes the Synod of Bishops in October 2023, where Archbishop John will represent the Bishops of England and Wales.
It is in the Diocese, however, that the fruit will be most immediately felt in the coming months. Parishes, in listening intently to the prayerful sharing on how we grow closer to Christ and each other, how we encourage participation and how we proclaim the Gospel, will have a roadmap for our onward journey. It will provide more clarity on the needs present in the parish and the diocese to help us undertake our shared mission.
Holy Spirit as the main protagonist of the Synod
I was recently on car journey where a story was recounted of a bishop who, at the end of each day, would place his episcopal ring by the tabernacle and say to the Lord, ‘I’m going to sleep now, it’s over to you!’ In the truest sense, as every bishop really knows, it the Holy Spirit who propels the Church in every age with each of us relying on God-given grace to play our part.
The Synod is, first and foremost, a spiritual process. It should not, therefore, simply be a dialogue between priests and people, or between believers, or even between the baptised but rather a ‘trialogue’, a conversation mindful of the guidance and the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Let us not miss out on the grace-filled opportunities born of encounter, listening and discernment. In the joyful conviction that, even as we seek the Lord, he always comes with his love to meet us first.
Dr Mark Nash Director of the Southwark Agency for Evangelisation and Catechesis & Joint Synod Lead
Pope St Paul VI created a permanent structure for a Synod of Bishops, with a secretariat in Rome and a General Assembly gathered regularly by the pope. Since 1967, the popes have brought this assembly together 18 times: 15 ‘Ordinary Assemblies’ and three ‘Extraordinary,’ in addition to a number of ‘Special Assemblies’ involving particular regions of the world.