The Context of the Synodal Church
A synod, as we know, is a gathering, usually of bishops, that helps the Church to walk forward together in the same direction. Synods were common in the first centuries of Christianity, in the Middle Ages and in the present era, where the bishops get several opportunities to meet and converse issues that are significant for the life of the Church.
Reading the signs of the time like clericalism, sexual abuses, corruption in the Church, abuse of power in the Church, etc., Pope Francis invites the entire Church to reflect on the theme which is decisive for its future life and mission. In the Preparatory Document for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis argues that “the whole Church is called to deal with the weight of a culture imbued with clericalism that she inherits from her history, and with those forms of exercising authority on which the different types of abuse (power, economic, conscience, sexual) are grafted.”
After the discussion of various topics like the Eucharist, the Word of God, the Middle East, the new evangelization, the family, young people, and the Amazon, the Catholic Church is preparing herself for the next Synod of Bishops in order to unlock new pathways and shower new light in the entire church after analyzing the signs of the time. Hearing the announcement of the Pope about the Synodal Church, many clerics might have asked among themselves what does it actually mean. Is the Pope destroying the Church? In fact, the Pope is renewing and reconstructing the Church to its original model which is envisaged by Christ and in the model of the early Church.
In this background, the Pope makes it clear that as the Greek word syn–hodos explains it’s meaning as ‘the same way’ or ‘the same path,’ it is through the path of synodality, the Church has to go ahead in the third millennium.
Jesus: A Model of Listening and Dialogue
If we analyze the public ministry of Jesus, it is very clear that he is a man of listening and dialogue. He asked many times “what do you want from me” and then he listens. Instead of defining his divinity he listens to the question, “who do you say I am?” and “do you love me?” Jesus carefully listens to the agony of the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:21–28) and his dialogue ends with an appreciation of her faith. Jesus becomes a model of listening and dialogue in the story of the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1–42). He bravely walks with the sinners and the tax collectors. Thus, the gospels reveal that the life and ministry of Jesus is the complete listening of others and having dialogue with them. Pope Francis wants to provide this image of Jesus as the basis of Synodality.
Listening and Making Dialogue in the pattern of the Early Church
Synodality is not a new concept. In fact, the call for listening and dialogue is not the innovation of Pope Francis. It is not a new way of doing things in the Church. The first Christians of the Early Church already practiced it. Listening was the practice of the Early Church. Whenever there was a problem, the leaders of the Early Church convoked the entire community together and they listened to the entire faithful. This can be seen in the case of the election of Matthias (Acts 1:15-26), the election of the seven deacons (Acts 6:1-7) and in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35).
Besides, the first Christians are known as the followers of ‘the Way.’ ‘The Way’ is mentioned many times in the book of Acts (9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22) in connection with early followers of Jesus who said, “I am the Way” (Jn 14:6). They were listening to the Holy Spirit on their way. The Greek word syn-hodos explains this notion very clearly i.e., ‘the same way’ or ‘the same path.’ So synodality is a walking together. In that way, we listen to what the Holy Spirit says and humbly accept the need for change since many of the circumstances have been changed.
The Significance of Listening and Walking Together
Pope Francis has already invited every diocese across the whole world to celebrate the opening of the synod in the local level through the invitation of listening to the faithful. Apart from the previous synods, where we listen to the Pope, bishops and the experts, here we listen to the faithful. Hence, it is a consultation to renew the Church in consultation with entire Church. Pope Francis envisions the synodal process as “an exercise of mutual listening, conducted at all levels of the Church involving the entire People of God.” This consultation is possible through communion, participation and mission. Therefore, the theme for this synod is “For a synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” Pope Francis clearly affirms that this theme can be actualized only through listening and walking together. His intention is to make a listening Church.
The term ‘listen’ does not refer to the process of decoding some words, but it implies going further rather than just hearing. In order to listen, first of all, it is indispensable that we need to be silent and hear what the other has to say. Secondly, listening requires that one has to leave one’s world to immerse oneself in that of the other. There is only noise if there is no listening and dialogue. In a world where there is no dialogue, there we find the growth of violence, because “opinions different from mine become a danger for me.” A society that does not sense and listen to the pain of others is a deaf and violent society. Pope Francis says, “Listening is much more than hearing. Hearing refers to the sphere of information; listening, on the other hand, refers to the sphere of communication and requires closeness. Listening allows us to take a proper attitude, abandoning the condition of spectators.” This is clear from the purpose of the Synod. The Vademecum says, “the purpose of this synod is not to produce more documents, rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.”
A Synodal Church in the Place of a Clerical Church
Normally, it is said that the role of a lay person in the Church is to pray and pay and rest of the decisions are from the priests and bishops. In fact, who guides the Church? Is it the Pope or the bishops or the priests? Have the lay people got any role in the Church? In reality, the lay people are conditioned and as a result they entrust everything to the clerics. There is a monopoly of clericalism everywhere in the Church where all the significant roles and decision making power are entertained by the ordained clerics. They act as if they are either beyond the people of God or as corporate agents. Such clericalist mentality seems to permeate many of the ecclesial structures and pastoral practices.
But, the Church of Christ is neither a clerical church nor a hierarchy. The Church is not bishops and priests. The true nature of the Church is neither about command nor about control. It is the house of the people of God. Therefore, every exercise of authority in the church is to be at the service of the people of God. There the bishops and priests need to listen and consult the whole community together. It means that the Church in the third millennium should not be a clerical church but a synodal church. A synodal vision challenges us to change and transform clericalist practices where one person or a group of persons in the Church put together decisions without listening and consulting.
A synodal Church challenges the culture of clericalism and proposes a culture of listening, conversation and consensus. Synodality, without any doubt, insists the need of listening and engaging in dialogue in order to create necessary relationships which build the church, considering them as the people of God. In other words, “synodality means people in the Church have much greater decision-making power at all levels.” But, many of the clerics do not like the decision of the Pope since they fear that their role and power will be shifted to the lay faithful. On the other hand, synodality does not limit or remove the role and decision power neither of the Pope nor of the bishops and clerics. But, it affirms and strengthens that their decisions should be resulted from sincere and genuine discussion and consultation and getting agreement.
Does the Synodal Church Listen to All?
In a synod, generally, the Rome speaks and the local parishes listen. But, the synod of bishops on synodality has a different approach. The uniqueness of the synod on synodality is that unlike the past synods, this is not a one month synod which addresses any particular issues but two year Synodal process where the entire people of God is invited by God to become a Synodal Church. All the people of God are invited and no one is to be left behind or excluded. No Christian is an island! Every organ is necessary in the Body of Christ! All of us are walking together, amidst the reality of today’s world! It’s not just about filling in a questionnaire, but gathering the fruits of what the Holy Spirit is saying to us here and now. It aims at giving the entire Church a lived experience of synodality. The aim of the synod is not just to talk about synodality, but to put synodality into practice from now onwards, in every diocese, parish, and country across the whole world. This calls all of us, at every level of the Church, to renew our way of being and working together moving forward. Synodality is an invitation for the whole Church to have our voices heard. We can only move forward if we work and walk together. In the synod, the voice of everyone is listened because God speaks through anyone including bishops, priests, deacons, brothers and sisters. All of them are invited to engage and dialogue in and through the synodal journey. It means each and every member of the Church should be listened to and to help each other to walk forward together.
Still there are Questions
The aim of the synod is to listen to all the members of the Church and walk forward together. When we speak of listening it implies that we have to listen to the people who are the members of the Church as well as the people who are not in the Church. However, there are some unanswered questions with regard to this. Will we listen to the victims of the sexual abuses by the clergy? Will we listen to the actual problems of the married people? Will we listen to the actual issues of the divorced and remarried? Will we listen to and walk with the LGBTQ? Will we listen to and walk with the migrants? Will we listen to the problems of women? Will we listen to the voice of the poor and the oppressed? Will we listen to the Tribals and the Dalits and the cultures that have lost their voice in the public sphere? Will the spirit of synodality listen to the political leaders who are working for the common good of our nation? Will the interactive process lead us to become a more attentive, inclusive, and just people of God? Will the spirit of synodality listen to and discover from the wisdom and struggles that come from the peripheries?
To conclude, there is joy in listening and walking together. But, this joy can be achieved its perfection through the process of listening which begins by paying attention to those who are often forgotten, excluded, marginalized or not listened to. It means we need to listen to the people who are at the periphery, who are marginalized and who are pushed by the Church. We cannot forget them. The Church shall follow the model of Jesus who left the ninety nine sheep and went searching for the lost sheep. In short, we must listen carefully, especially to those who have been marginalized; those who experience rejection, exclusion are unwelcomed in their families, parishes and other Catholic spaces and contexts.