By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
You’ve likely heard that Bishop Burns called for a diocesan synod. You’ve probably also heard that Pope Francis called for the Church to reflect on “synodality” as the very “path … which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” But what is a synod? And is “synodality” even a word?
The first question is easy: a synod is a meeting. A diocesan synod is a meeting called by the bishop to discuss and receive counsel about the diocese. Bishop Burns called for such a meeting to take place in 2024. It will be preceded by two years of “listening sessions” held throughout the diocese (15 sessions are expected). At these sessions, participants are encouraged to share their thoughts and experiences in order to serve the good of the Church. Everyone should consider participating! The more people participate, the more the synod will be able to deepen our solidarity, reflect the reality of the diocese, and advise Bishop Burns accordingly.
The second question is harder: words like “synodality” and “synodal” are hard to explain today. In 2018, the International Theological Commission, which is a group of theologians from all over the world that serves the pope, acknowledged that these are new words needing “careful theological clarification” and their emergence is “a sign of something new that has been maturing in the ecclesial consciousness starting from the Magisterium of Vatican II” (Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church §5).
In the remaining space of this brief article, let me suggest something of a working definition of synodality. If you’re interested, I encourage you to read Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church by the International Theological Commission, as well as documents issued by Pope Francis and those collaborating with him for the Synod of Bishops. As a working definition of synodality, we can take a sentence from the International Theological Commission (to which the Vatican’s official Preparatory Document §10 also refers): “synodality is the specific modus vivendi et operandi [way of living and working] of the Church, the People of God, which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission” (Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church §6). This definition includes three key ideas which Pope Francis and others frequently use when talking about synodality: communion, participation and mission. So, let’s consider them.
The communion of the Church is rooted in God, the Trinity, whose unity is the communion of Father, Son and Spirit. This is what makes the Church so special. In Jesus, God became a human being; a human being lived the very life and love of God. To our great joy, through that one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, God draws all people into communion with himself and in him with each other. The Church, the Mystical Body of Jesus, is therefore a harmony of people: a diverse union of divine love.
This communion is manifested in the participation of every member in the life of the Body of Jesus Christ. St. Paul speaks of the great diversity of this Mystical Body in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The Church, therefore, is the one community in which every human being is called by God to play a role – to participate. St. Paul proclaims, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Corinthians 12:7). The Church does not have “client” or “consumer” relationships with her members. Called by God into the Church, each of us is to be an active limb of Jesus’ Mystical Body, contributing his or her gifts to the life and work of the whole.
This participation leads to the third idea: mission. Whatever the world means by diversity, what Catholics mean is the variety of “gifts” showered by the Spirit upon the members of the Body of Christ for the sake of the common good, for the sake of “some benefit” to the Church and its saving mission in the world. No one is an “extra” in God’s design. Everyone has a crucial role to play. Every human life is eternally meaningful. The Church is that community in which everyone can find the deep and eternal meaning of his or her life as a cooperator with God in his work to redeem the world.
So, it seems to me that “synodality” is a profoundly important idea. In an age so divided as our own, the world needs to see the divine communion extending into our world – it needs to see the Church. In an age so plagued by self-absorption, the world needs to know that each person has been given gifts that impel them toward Catholic unity – each is called to set aside his or her private ambitions and participate in the Church. And in an age so plagued by distraction and depression, the world needs to see that we have been given a cosmic mission, that the Creator of the universe wants each of us to play a part in his work of salvation. The Church needs to manifest her synodal character, and the world needs to see it.
Father John Bayer, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.