A few months after his election in March 2013, Pope Francis recalled Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini’s dream of a synodal Church, noting how long and difficult the cardinal knew the path to it would be. Francis said he wanted to proceed ‘gently, but firmly and tenaciously’ down that route. He has been true to his word.
The Francis pontificate has seen a springtime of synodality and its corollary, collegiality, as vital instruments for the keeping alive the experience of the Second Vatican Council. Focusing firstly on regenerating the institution of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, established by Pope Paul VI in 1965 after centuries of disuse, Francis has regenerated it as an authentic mechanism of ecclesial discernment actively involving the people of God, while using the four synodal assemblies held in Rome in October (2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019) to teach and inspire the rest of the Church to do the same.
The Synod of Bishops in 2023 and 2024 will be the most significant and far-reaching ecclesial event since the Second Vatican Council, embedding the Council permanently in the dynamic life of the Church, obviating, perhaps, the need for a future ecumenical council.
Francis’ stress on synodality has opened a new stage of the reception of Vatican II, marking the end of a thirty-year hegemony of communion ecclesiology following the synod of 1985 in which the full implications of the people of God in Lumen Gentium were downplayed by a papacy nervous of a hermeneutic of rupture.
Synodality, for Francis, is the expression of the Church as polyhedron and inverted pyramid implied by Lumen Gentium, in which the people of God – the members of the Church, equal in dignity – are served by the hierarchy concerned for their salus animarum, their salvation and wellbeing, and are emboldened to go out in service of humanity.
Synodality, in Francis’ regenerative conception, allows for the full ecclesiological consequences of the Church as the people of God, and is inextricably bound up with a call for a missionary, centrifugal Church, ex natura ad extra, in which ordinary believers take responsibility for evangelising our world as missionary disciples.
This new season of synodality has not been short of cold winds and surprise frosts. The two Rome synods on the family, of October 2014 and October 2015 especially, triggered intense debate and stirred powerful latent phobias across the conservative Catholic world that the Church was renouncing its commitment to the indissolubility of marriage.
Although this was deeply untrue (both the Aynod final report and the post-synod exhortation Amoris Laetitia were focused on almost every page on enabling the Church to better help people to live indissolubility), the hysteria reflected in media reports distorted its reception, pushing many suspicious conservatives into a state of semi-schism and making discernment all but impossible.
The Amazonian synod of October 2019 also led to baseless accusations promoted by conservative Catholic media that paganism and syncretism had penetrated Catholicism in the guise of inculturation, vividly illustrating what in Let Us Dream the Pope calls ‘the isolated conscience’.
Francis’s response to the Synod in his February 2020 exhortation, Querida Amazonia, was more likely to dismay progressives convinced that the majority vote at the synod in favour of ordaining married men and women deacons gave the Pope the legitimacy he needed to proceed with those reforms.
When he chose not to implement the majority synod vote in favour of both measures, he was accused of caving to conservative pressure.
A second challenge has been a ‘functionalist’ hermeneutic, especially in those Churches – both Australia and Germany are examples – recovering from devastating sex abuse crises that have thrown into doubt the Church’s governance structures.
The German Synodal Way is specifically in response to the devastating “MHG Study” of September 2018 conducted by an interdisciplinary consortium commissioned by the German bishops’ conference, which reviewed case files of Catholic clergy over many decades.
Tensions are no surprise: Francis is asking the Church to embrace a modus vivendi et operandi that lies at the heart of its very self yet with which it has become deeply unfamiliar. Even the task of reuniting in assembly, and in participating actively in the evangelising mission, is an experience alien to most of the faithful.
Francis’ repeated warnings against functionalism and focus on governance questions in synodal processes, and his insistence on the primacy of the Spirit – that is, in Church reform, there is no good that can be accomplished without the mediation of the Spirit – has led even supportive voices to question whether Francis’ understanding of synodality is more akin to the rarified practices of superiors of religious orders than to bishops.
Yet in reality, his concern is above all to recapture the charismatic, dynamic and popular element of the early councils of the Church, an element best expressed in both the Jesuit tradition of apostolic discernment in common and in Latin America’s history of general conferences since the 1950s.
The Council of Jerusalem described in Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 involves the participation of ‘the apostles, the elders, and the whole Church’ (Acts 15:22) and ends with St Peter telling the assembly: ‘It has seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28).
Both elements are key: the assembly of the people, and the prompting of the Spirit. In going to the heart of Francis’s understanding of synodality, I want to argue for the importance of these two elements which, because they are often overlooked or downplayed in some European and American discussions of this topic, can lead to serious misreadings by both progressive and conservative Catholics.
The Latin American Episcopate’s General Conference at Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007, was prepared over many years by hundreds of ‘mini synods’ across the continent and became the deepest signs-of-the-times discernment undertaken by the Church in any part of the world
in recent decades. It resulted in an extraordinary ‘Pentecost’ moment that invigorated the Latin-American Church’s understanding of its mission in the contemporary era, whose concluding document was written under the supervision of then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
The great notes of the Francis era —a merciful, joyful, Spirit-filled Catholicism that captivates by offering the experience of the encounter with Christ; an outward-facing Church of service rooted in the people of God; a determination to reform in response to the ongoing conversion of a Church responding to the Spirit – were all first struck at Aparecida in the form of a coherent, symphonic whole.
The influence of the vision of the Aparecida document (DA) on the Francis pontificate is by now commonplace, not least because of its obvious influence on his programmatic 2013 exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Yet few have noted the way the Aparecida process has profoundly shaped Francis’s pontificate.
For Bergoglio, there is no true synodality without the action of the Spirit, which is detected in the movements, in consolations and desolations, and above all in the action he describes vividly in Let Us Dream as ‘overflow’.
This action is one that is felt above all in contexts of tension and disagreement when the parties involved choose not to pursue by means of power the triumph of their own point of view, but rather agree to maintain in tension different views in expectation of an ‘overflow’ that will transcend the existing polarities, resolving them on a higher plane.
What Francis seeks to bring about in the global Church through the 2021-2023 global synodal process is not, in other words, a Latin-American program of reform, but the process that led to that reform, which each Church is called to make its own. It is a process that involves a return to the Church’s own roots: apostolic discernment in common, rooted in the experience of the people of God, focused on mission and evangelisation.
The synodal path, says Francis, begins in every Christian community, from the bottom up. It is not so much a program to be carried out or a decision to take but above all ‘a style to incarnate’, that is, ‘dialogue, discussion, research – but with the Spirit’.
The style of Aparecida is missionary in outlook, reading the spirits in the light of the signs of the times, and involving and oriented to the whole people of God, rather than elite groups. ‘Synodality starts with hearing from the whole people of God,’ Francis says in Let Us Dream, adding: ‘A Church that teaches must be firstly a Church that listens.’
As Cardinal Mario Grech, the synod secretary general, put it to the Irish bishops, ‘synodality is not just a methodological choice, but the mode of being of a church which wants to go out in mission’.
The centre (Church leadership) opens to the periphery and allows itself to be affected and changed by what it sees. Then it moves to discernment: why is it this way? What is God’s will for this situation? What needs to change (a) in the world, to conform it to Christ and God’s Kingdom, and (b) in the Church, in order to enable that change?
The clarity gained in the discernment then guides the proposals for concrete action that conclude the synodal process. For the Church to fail to embrace synodality is to submit to worldliness. Fear of change and contamination and a deep sense of threat have led the Church over time to abandon trust in the spirit of the assembly in favour of juridicism, moralism and rationalism, ironically emulating the modernity it claims to resist.
This command-and-control Catholicism in turn provokes a search for reforms that borrow more from parliamentary systems than the Church’s own tradition. Both the conservative and progressive mindsets are inimical to synodality.
For conservatives, the primary preoccupation is not discerning God’s will in the face of pastoral need but the need to stand up for the truth of the Catholic faith without compromise in the face of the threat of change.
A Synod in this thinking can never be more than a means of designing new reiterations of timeless truths and condemning fresh errors, even claiming that this modus operandi is ‘pastoral’ because it guides people in the way of truth.
Francis’s four synods have created a dynamic of ecclesial discernment that, as the family Synod followed by Amoris Laetitia showed, is clearly able to develop doctrine and the means of its application through a process that begins with consulting the faithful and involves the people of God at every stage.
Seen through the conservative prism, this dynamic synodality raises fears of a Trojan horse concealing a plan to unravel tradition and to compromise with modernity – the very fear that led to synodality dying out in the Latin Catholic Church.
Yet progressives have too often misinterpreted this more dynamic synodality under Francis as a reform of the Church’s teaching and structures as its primary objective. The hermeneutic assumption here needs to be exposed.
Where for the conservative, the hermeneutic is driven by fear of change, the progressive hermeneutic is frustrated with Church traditions and teachings, which are seen as per se unjust and an obstacle to evangelisation because they are antithetical to modernity. Thus, the primary task of a synod in the progressive view is to dismantle those structures in order to make the Church more acceptable.
A Synod is not a parliament or a committee of inquiry in which experts debate and discuss solutions to problems, but an act of collective discernment that opens the Church to the action of the Spirit. Yet both conservatives and progressives – feeding and at times fed by the media – framed the Synod as ‘about’ the Communion question, as if it had been called to resolve it. At the conclusion of all the synods, Francis has given an address in which he surveys the ways in which the Spirit had unmasked intentions.
With this in mind, synodal discernment risks being side-tracked by traditionalists concerned with the defence of doctrine against perceived threats, or by progressives anxious to change the ‘unjust’ structures of the Church and it has been hard to persuade progressives that the real question for the Pope after a synod is not whether this or that reform is good or what the Pope thinks but whether it is what the Spirit is asking of the Church at this time.
A Synod creates a new kind of harmony, in which what is good and valid on all sides is preserved in a new vision that transcends the parties in disagreement. It is hard work, requiring patience and commitment, holding in tension contrary views (‘contrapositions’) without allowing them to fall into contradiction and polarisation, and having an expectation of resolution ‘by overflow’ (desborde).
In this way, the tensions in the body become not the cause of division but fruitful, leading to new ways of seeing, especially in a crisis. Like a good spiritual director, Francis in Let Us Dream makes clear the attitudes synodality demands to keep us open to the Spirit’s action while warning us against the temptations that close us off from it.
One is to seek a false peace, an irenic avoidance of tension, a dishonest refusal to face the reality of conflict. Another is simplistic binary thinking that turns contrapositions into contradictions. In both cases, the Spirit is denied the freedom to act.
Typically, disappointment of an outcome reveals a pre-existing agenda: ‘you come wanting to achieve something, and when you didn’t get it, you feel deflated’, a sign that ‘you remain trapped within your desires, rather than allowing yourself to be touched by the grace on offer’.
For Francis, the Spirit moves, above all, in the body of the people, acting to form the ‘union of hearts and minds’, a reconciled diversity that gives birth to fraternity. The alchemy of a synod open to the Spirit allows participants to enter into reciprocity with others and with God.
To fall into contradiction and polarisation is to withdraw from the reality of creation, into the lesser reality of our own ideas, to reject reciprocity in favour of the winter palaces of our own individual perceptions.
Reality is discerned, says Francis, while ideas are debated. Parliaments debate ideas, synods demand discernment. To hear the Spirit in the assembly is to be healed of the illusion of my self-righteousness and self-enclosure. It is to make fraternity possible.
A Church that embraces synodality in this way can be ‘like a standard lifted up among the nations’, Francis said in his 2015 speech, adding: ‘let us cherish the dream that a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of authority as service will also be able to help civil society to be built up in justice and fraternity’.
But for the Church to raise that standard, it must first embrace its own self: it must become synodal, to hear the Spirit in the Assembly. That remains the great task not just for Francis but, increasingly, for the whole Church in the twenty-first century.
Article taken with kind permission from the book The Synodal Pathway: When Rhetoric Meets Reality. Available to buy at https://columbabooks.com.