By Jean Flannelly, SC
Reading the goals for the Synod for a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission, I found myself pulled in two different directions. My first and overwhelming one was like the Jewish exiles returning from captivity (Psalm 126)—I was filled with joy at the vision writ large so all could see it. The other response was: if we participate and take the process seriously, will we all be pulled outside our comfort zone? We will need the Holy Spirit to give us the courage and strength to listen and follow through. To understand what is being proposed, we must first be clear on what is a synod? Who is the church?
A synod is an ecclesial gathering to discern what the Holy Spirit is asking of the church at the time. It is not a corporate strategic exercise. It is a spiritual process where control and direction are placed in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
For many Catholics, the word “church” immediately recalls the building where we worship or an institution like an Archdiocese or the Vatican. However, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council put these associations far down the list. They began by first speaking of the church as mystery and then, secondarily, as the people of God, a community of disciples. Baptism brought us into this community and entrusted us with a mission. Recall Jesus’ parting words to his disciples (us): “Go and make disciples of all nations…” The church exists for this mission and develops structures to carry out this mission mandate.
Pope Francis initiated the Synod for a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission in October 2021. The Holy Spirit, he believes, is calling us twenty-first century Christians to create ways that we can truly be this community of disciples who are journeying together to bring the Good News to all the world. The process will culminate in the Bishops’ Synod in October 2023.
In the intervening two years, dialogues will be taking place on different levels. From October 2021 through March 2022, the conversations were on the local level. Parishes throughout the world were to host meetings to listen to people’s hopes and dreams for the church so we can live out our mission. In April, the task was to create an accurate synthesis that truly captured the range and diversity of what was presented. This was then to be forwarded to the national conference of bishops. The bishops are charged with discerning the Spirit’s lead and developing a working document. This work will be sent to the continental conference of bishops for further discernment and the creation of a second working paper. When the bishops of the world meet in synod in 2023, they will use this second document to discern at a universal level the voice of the Holy Spirit who has been speaking throughout the entire Church.
We are being invited to dig deeply into baptismal identity and listen to the Spirit calling us to a future filled with hope. Let us pray for all of us as we participate in the process.