The Synod 2021-2023

On Oct 10, 2021, Pope Francis officially launched the 2021-2023 Synod on Synodality with an opening Mass in St Peter’s Basilica attended by 3,000 faithful.

The purpose of the Synod, and therefore of this consultation, is not to produce documents, but “to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.”

What Is The Synod?

For many in the Church a synod is something that happens every few years at the invitation of the Pope. These gatherings bring together bishops from around the world to discuss and discern important matters of faith and Church teaching. Recent synods have looked at New Evangelization, Family Life, and Youth.

On October 10, 2021 Pope Francis will open the 16th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops with the theme: For a synodal church: communion, participation, mission. Previous synods have sought to understand how the faithful around the world are journeying together by hearing reports from delegates - usually bishops - as they gather at the specified date. This year however, Pope Francis is shifting the synod from being an event to being a process ;  a process the lives out synodality. Synodality in this context refers to a process of discernment that is led by the Holy Spirit and involves clergy, religious and laity – each according to their gifts and charism. The Holy Father seeks the participation of the whole People of God in the mission of the Church. This monumental work is the task that we begin together in October of 2021 and will continue until the assembly of bishops planned for October 2023.  This three-year synodal journey has three phases of consultation and discernment: diocesan, continental, universal. The diocesan consultation period begins in October and goes until April of 2022. 

The tree

“A large, majestic tree, full of wisdom and light, reaches for the sky. A sign of deep vitality and hope, it symbolises the cross of Christ. The horizontal branches, opened like hands, carries the Eucharist, which shines like the sun.” The branches are also outspread like wings, symbolising the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit over the whole Synodal process.

In his homily, Pope Francis said that the Synod must be a process of spiritual discernment that “unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the Word of God” and not just another “Church convention, a study group or a political gathering, a parliament” but a truly “grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Spirit.” Jesus invites us today, explained the Pope, in the same way He did the rich man in Mark 10:17-24, to “empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, including our inward-looking and outworn pastoral models” and to discern what God’s message us for the Church in this time, and in which direction He wants to lead it.

The People of God

The 15 silhouettes depict a pilgrim Church on the move. The bright colours to signify the joy and enthusiasm with which the People of God set out – young and old, men and women, singles, couples, families, children of all ages, persons with disabilities, clergy, religious and lay persons. The Bishop walks not in front of his flock, but among his sheep, with young people leading the way. This refers to Jesus’ words, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children”. (Matthew 11:25)

Indeed, the word “synod” comprises two Greek words syn and hodos which, when combined, mean “journeying together”. Pope Francis pointed out that the Gospels frequently show Jesus as one who “walks alongside people and listens to the questions and concerns lurking in their hearts” and “meets us where we are, on the often rocky roads of life.” He challenged everyone to be “prepared for the adventure of this journey” instead of being “fearful of the unknown, preferring to take refuge in the usual excuses: “It’s useless” or “We’ve always done it this way”.

The theme

The words “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission” run from left to right in the direction of movement of the People of God, underlining and strengthening it.

The Holy Father once again referred to the story of the rich man in Mark 10:17-24 to show what the synodal process should be: “First, Jesus encounters the rich man on the road; He then listens to his questions, and finally He helps him discern what he must do to inherit eternal life.” These three verbs characterise the Synod, said the Pope.

We must make time to encounter God and one another. “Time to devote to prayer and to adoration and to hearing what the Spirit wants to say to the Church.  Time to look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say, to build rapport, to be sensitive to the questions of our sisters and brothers, to let ourselves be enriched by the variety of charisms, vocations and ministries.”

Pope Francis address
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Dear brothers and sisters,

Thank you for being here for the opening of the Synod.  You have come by many different roads and from different Churches, each bearing your own questions and hopes.  I am certain the Spirit will guide us and give us the grace to move forward together, to listen to one another and to embark on a discernment of the times in which we are living, in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of all humanity.  I want to say again that the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit is not present, there will be no Synod.

May we experience this Synod in the spirit of Jesus’ fervent prayer to the Father on behalf of his disciples: “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).  This is what we are called to: unity, communion, the fraternity born of the realization that all of us are embraced by the one love of God.  All of us, without distinction, and in particular those of us who are bishops.  As Saint Cyprian wrote: “We must maintain and firmly uphold this unity, above all ourselves, the bishops who preside in the Church, in order to demonstrate that the episcopate is itself one and undivided” (De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate, 5).  In the one People of God, therefore, let us journey together, in order to experience a Church that receives and lives this gift of unity, and is open to the voice of the Spirit.

The Synod has three key words: communion, participation and mission.  Communion and mission are theological terms describing the mystery of the Church, which we do well to keep in mind. The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that communion expresses the very nature of the Church, while pointing out that the Church has received “the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God, and is, on earth, the seed and beginning of that kingdom” (Lumen Gentium, 5).  With those two words, the Church contemplates and imitates the life of the Blessed Trinity, a mystery of communion ad intra and the source of mission ad extra.  In the wake of the doctrinal, theological and pastoral reflections that were part of the reception of Vatican II, Saint Paul VI sought to distil in those two words – communion and mission – “the main lines enunciated by the Council”.  Commemorating the opening of the Council, he stated that its main lines were in fact “communion, that is, cohesion and interior fullness, in grace, truth and collaboration… and mission, that is, apostolic commitment to the world of today” (Angelus of 11 October 1970), which is not the same as proselytism.

 

In 1985, at the conclusion of the Synod marking the twentieth anniversary of the close of the Council, Saint John Paul II also reiterated that the Church’s nature is koinonia, which gives rise to her mission of serving as a sign of the human family’s intimate union with God.  He went on to say: “It is most useful that the Church celebrate ordinary, and on occasion, also extraordinary synods”.  These, if they are to be fruitful, must be well prepared: “it is necessary that the local Churches work at their preparation with the participation of all” (Address at the Conclusion of the II Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 7 December 1985).  And this brings us to our third word: participation.  The words “communion” and “mission” can risk remaining somewhat abstract, unless we cultivate an ecclesial praxis that expresses the concreteness of synodality at every step of our journey and activity, encouraging real involvement on the part of each and all.  I would say that celebrating a Synod is always a good and important thing, but it proves truly beneficial if it becomes a living expression of “being Church”, of a way of acting marked by true participation.

 

This is not a matter of form, but of faith.  Participation is a requirement of the faith received in baptism.  As the Apostle Paul says, “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13).  In the Church, everything starts with baptism.  Baptism, the source of our life, gives rise to the equal dignity of the children of God, albeit in the diversity of ministries and charisms.  Consequently, all the baptized are called to take part in the Church’s life and mission.  Without real participation by the People of God, talk about communion risks remaining a devout wish.  In this regard, we have taken some steps forward, but a certain difficulty remains and we must acknowledge the frustration and impatience felt by many pastoral workers, members of diocesan and parish consultative bodies and women, who frequently remain on the fringes.  Enabling everyone to participate is an essential ecclesial duty!  All the baptized, for baptism is our identity card.

The Synod, while offering a great opportunity for a pastoral conversion in terms of mission and ecumenism, is not exempt from certain risks. I will mention three of these.  The first is formalism. The Synod could be reduced to an extraordinary event, but only externally; that would be like admiring the magnificent facade of a church without ever actually stepping inside.  The Synod, on the other hand, is a process of authentic spiritual discernment that we undertake, not to project a good image of ourselves, but to cooperate more effectively with the work of God in history.  If we want to speak of a synodal Church, we cannot remain satisfied with appearances alone; we need content, means and structures that can facilitate dialogue and interaction within the People of God, especially between priests and laity.  Why do I insist on this?  Because sometimes there can be a certain elitism in the presbyteral order that detaches it from the laity; the priest ultimately becomes more a “landlord” than a pastor of a whole community as it moves forward.  This will require changing certain overly vertical, distorted and partial visions of the Church, the priestly ministry, the role of the laity, ecclesial responsibilities, roles of governance and so forth.

 

A second risk is intellectualism.  Reality turns into abstraction and we, with our reflections, end up going in the opposite direction.  This would turn the Synod into a kind of study group, offering learned but abstract approaches to the problems of the Church and the evils in our world.  The usual people saying the usual things, without great depth or spiritual insight, and ending up along familiar and unfruitful ideological and partisan divides, far removed from the reality of the holy People of God and the concrete life of communities around the world.

 

Finally, the temptation of complacency, the attitude that says: “We have always done it this way” (Evangelii Gaudium, 33) and it is better not to change.  That expression – “We have always done it that way” – is poison for the life of the Church.  Those who think this way, perhaps without even realizing it, make the mistake of not taking seriously the times in which we are living.  The danger, in the end, is to apply old solutions to new problems.  A patch of rough cloth that ends up creating a worse tear (cf. Mt 9:16).  It is important that the synodal process be exactly this: a process of becoming, a process that involves the local Churches, in different phases and from the bottom up, in an exciting and engaging effort that can forge a style of communion and participation directed to mission.                     

 

And so, brothers and sisters, let us experience this moment of encounter, listening and reflection as a season of grace that, in the joy of the Gospel, allows us to recognize at least three opportunities.  First, that of moving not occasionally but structurally towards a synodal Church, an open square where all can feel at home and participate.  The Synod then offers us the opportunity to become a listening Church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen.  To listen to the Spirit in adoration and prayer.  Today how much we miss the prayer of adoration; so many people have lost not only the habit but also the very notion of what it means to worship God!  To listen to our brothers and sisters speak of their hopes and of the crises of faith present in different parts of the world, of the need for a renewed pastoral life and of the signals we are receiving from those on the ground.  Finally, it offers us the opportunity to become a Church of closeness.  Let us keep going back to God’s own “style”, which is closeness, compassion and tender love.  God has always operated that way.  If we do not become this Church of closeness with attitudes of compassion and tender love, we will not be the Lord’s Church.  Not only with words, but by a presence that can weave greater bonds of friendship with society and the world.  A Church that does not stand aloof from life, but immerses herself in today’s problems and needs, bandaging wounds and healing broken hearts with the balm of God.  Let us not forget God’s style, which must help us: closeness, compassion and tender love.

 

Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit!  For we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and spreads joy.  The Holy Spirit guides us where God wants us to be, not to where our own ideas and personal tastes would lead us.  Father Congar, of blessed memory, once said: “There is no need to create another Church, but to create a different Church” (True and False Reform in the Church).  That is the challenge.  For a “different Church”, a Church open to the newness that God wants to suggest, let us with greater fervour and frequency invoke the Holy Spirit and humbly listen to him, journeying together as he, the source of communion and mission, desires: with docility and courage.

Come, Holy Spirit!  You inspire new tongues and place words of life on our lips: keep us from becoming a “museum Church”, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future.  Come among us, so that in this synodal experience we will not lose our enthusiasm, dilute the power of prophecy, or descend into useless and unproductive discussions.  Come, Spirit of love, open our hearts to hear your voice!  Come, Holy Spirit of holiness, renew the holy and faithful People of God!  Come, Creator Spirit, renew the face of the earth! 

Amen.