Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Last weekend, in Rome, the Holy Father began what is called the synodal path.
What is this? Every few years a Synod of Bishops is held in Rome. The synod is presided over by the Pope. It brings together some two to three hundred bishops from all over the world (out of the 5,600 in the world), and discusses a chosen theme. Afterwards, the Pope will draw the discussions together and write something on the theme to the whole Church. This has been a regular part of the Church’s life since Vatican II. To be honest, they may seem rather remote.
The next Synod of Bishops is to be held in October 2023. And here’s the rub. Its topic is synodality. At which we might ask, What on earth is that? I’ll come to that in a moment. The other aspect is this: the Pope wants everyone to be involved in the run-up to this event in 2023. He would like us in each and every diocese in the world (there are 2,900), us the laity, religious, clergy, even fellow-Christians of other denominations and others too, to ask ourselves the questions: are we synodal?
So, what is synodality? It’s not a word we’ll hear in the pub or on the news. It’s a theological word which has come to the fore in recent times. There have, though, been “synods” since the early days of Christianity. Our word goes back to a Greek word which means to “travel together” and to “meet together”. So, in the Church, synodality means 1) travelling together 2) sometimes meeting together. And it means a third thing too, which makes sense of the other two. Hidden in “synod, synodal, synodality” is the Greek word for “way” or road: hodos. For a Christian that evokes Christ. Jesus said, “I am the way”, the hodos (Jn 14:6). So, synodality means, thirdly and most importantly, being with Christ on the way.
And here’s the vision. We Christians are God’s people following Christ through history towards the final Kingdom of God. In other words, we are a People who are travelling together. We are a synodal people. You remember the story of the twelve-year old Jesus and his parents going up to Jerusalem for the Passover. They travelled as part of a larger group. And the word for that is “synod” (Lk 2:44). They travelled together, Jewish people, to Jerusalem. We the Christian people are travelling together to the heavenly Jerusalem. So, the Pope would like us to meet together to see how we can better travel together, along Christ’s way.
Within our Catholic community, within this People of God, the Church, the Body of Christ, there are many different roles, ministries and ways of serving. There are lay people, the great majority (1.3 billion) living out their Christian lives in different ways. There are religious or the consecrated (about 1 million, I believe). There are ordained ministers who have the task of shepherding the flock (more than 400,000). In today’s Gospel, Jesus is clear on how this shepherding is and isn’t to be done. But beyond the variety is a unity. We have one Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. One faith. We are all children of God through baptism. The Holy Spirit is part of our lives. We are all under the same commandment to love as Christ loved us. We are all called to the same Table. We share a common Christian freedom and dignity and a common goal: the heavenly kingdom. (Cf. Lumen Gentium 10). We each have a contribution to make. We are all singers in the choir. We are fellow travellers. This is what “being synodal” means.
So, the Holy Father is simply asking us to ask: how are we doing with this? Are we a synodal parish or diocese or lay association or society or religious community? Do we allow each other to make our contributions to the whole? As we know, there are people in the Church who are disconnected, who feel marginalised, sometimes hurt. Are we listening to and supporting one another as much as we could? What forums do we have for doing this? Could they be improved or new ones created? What is our experience of walking together? Are the clergy too clerical, control-freaks? Or, conversely, are we allowing them to shepherd us as they are called to? How do women feel? Young people? The elderly? And so on.
The Pope is strong that this all be looked at while reading Scripture together, praying, and with Eucharistic adoration. The Holy Spirit must be in charge. The idea is not an orgy of mutual criticism or a great common moan and grump. The idea is not to change Church doctrine or her fundamental structure, or to have a series of parliaments with parties and majority votes. It is to meet together to see how we are travelling together along with Christ. To use this diocese’s motto: are we together in Christ or all over the place? The Pope wants us to shake off passivity and routine. He wants each of us to stir up the gift inside us. He wants us to recover our sense of unity and communion. He doesn’t want us to be a clerical business or the prey of particular agendas. He wants us to listen to each other and to weigh what we hear, to discern what can help us be the Church better. And all this – key point – for the sake of our common mission to be the eyes and lips and hands of Christ in the world.
When this came out, I first thought: come on, here we are going into winter and recovering from Covid, how can we do this? But then it has come to me: this pandemic has scattered us, disheartened us. Here is an invitation to come together again and pick up.
And what does will it mean in practice? Today the diocesan part in this larger story begins. It is to run to April. Ideally, every parish, every deanery, every lay association, every community, will come together to discuss our “synodality”. We have the time between now and Christmas to get our heads round this and see how it will work. We’ll do it by deaneries. We’ll be approaching mainly lay people to help it happen. Then in the New Year, weather permitting, I hope we can come together in different ways to pray and discuss. Towards the end, hopefully, there will be some form of bringing the diocese together, at least symbolically. And finally, by April, a not more than 10 page report is to be produced, and shared with other dioceses.
Of course, we can only do what we can do, but let’s give it a go.
Last thing: when and where are we truly “synodal”? Here and now – when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Here we are together with Christ on the way, travelling together to the Kingdom of God, meeting together round the table of the Lord. Here we are united in our common faith and baptism, here we are, none of us, please God, passive, each fulfilling his or her role in the one Body, receiving and giving, here we are turning to the Lord and awaiting his coming. To be synodal is to be eucharistic. We are at it already! Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.