The synodal way: groundbreaking innovation

Synods have a long tradition in the Church, but Pope Francis just revamped the process

Photo courtesy of Citta Nuova

7 min read
Fr. Thomas Massaro

It is hardly surprising that religion plays such a prominent role in practically every human culture. Humans are by nature meaning makers, and religion is that locus where we sort out the beliefs and behaviors that the faithful hold as significant for the very ground of our being.

Social beings that we are, we naturally gather in groups and form stable religious organizations that help us to sustain this drive for meaning. When people gather, they instinctively talk — sometimes about trivial things, but also about ultimately important matters regarding the sacred and the eternal, and our worthy response to God’s calling.

What is a religion, anyway, but an ongoing conversation about such important things?

The earliest Christians gathered mostly in house-churches to celebrate the memory of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and, yes, to talk. At first in communities scattered widely across the expanse of the Roman Empire and beyond, and later in the more formalized settings of increasingly larger churches, cathedrals, monasteries and eventually universities, early generations of Christians shared verbally their reflections about their religious commitments and about developing doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation.

To widen the conversation and to explore disputed questions, leaders of the growing Christian community began calling regional synods and even ecumenical (universal) church councils. That word synod comes from two Greek roots that may be rendered “walking together” or conferring as a group

While the history and functioning of church synods is complex, allow me to offer seven sturdy generalizations that might guide our reflections regarding where the Catholic Church finds itself today with respect to synods.

One remarkable initial impulse of the Christian community was its egalitarian nature. In contrast to the highly status-bound ethos of Roman and Greek cultures of the Mediterranean world, Christians appear to have embraced a distinctive commitment to broad consultation and open-ended dialogue — according dignity to all and inviting broad participation.

Inspired by the unconditional love of Jesus and a marked strand of universalism in the letters of St. Paul (see the inclusive message of Galatians 3:28), Christians in the early centuries appear to have placed a premium on speaking freely in their gatherings

Check out the account in Acts 15 of the very first formal church deliberation in Jerusalem — one in which many voices were encouraged to participate, even at the risk of embarrassing certain top leaders (I am looking at you, St. Peter).

2. Like most human institutions, the church underwent considerable change over time. After several centuries of frequent and broadly participative synods in the Eastern and Western parts of the Christian church, historians note a marked decline in the frequency and reach of such Church gatherings.

As the Roman Empire crumbled and the feudal order of the Middle Ages succeeded it, travel grew more dangerous, and the task of organizing synods and councils became more arduous.

The organizational forms of the Church became more calcified and monarchical in such a way that Church authorities felt less need for broad consultation anyway. Especially in Western Europe, the institution of the synod was largely mothballed.

As Austen Ivereigh recently put it in Commonweal, “synodality was squeezed out of the church” during these centuries.

3. It would be a vast simplification to portray the second millennium of Church history as “a fall from a Golden Age.” An immediate caveat must be offered. Even in the early centuries, not all voices were invited to the table of deliberation

The Christian community was never immune from invidious distinctions of class, ethnicity and especially gender. The general exclusion of women’s voices was especially pernicious, and by the time church offices such as bishop and presbyter became formalized, women found few paths to exercising even a modicum of leadership authority in the church or maintaining any semblance of agency beyond the walls of convents of religious women.

4. The Second Vatican Council revived both the institution of the synod and the core principles of broad participation that support “a synodal way.” By emphasizing the motif of “the Church as the people of God,” Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and other Vatican II documents breathed new life upon a participatory spirit in Roman Catholicism for the first time in centuries.

Pope Paul VI institutionalized the convening of regular meetings of the Worldwide Synod of Bishops, which has met roughly triennially since the late 1960s.

5. The cycle of ebbs and flows in these church gatherings has not abated. By the time Pope Francis took office in 2013, synods had devolved into highly stylized performances orchestrated from above by the Roman Curia. Even though the gathered delegates did represent all parts of the world, the structures put into place for these synods (always in Rome, and usually for about three weeks in October every third year) hardly encouraged free expression.

With few exceptions, only bishops held voting privileges. Their interventions (brief speeches) were generally stiff, predictable, almost ritualistic.

The reigning pope determined the topics in advance and tightly controlled the proceedings, eventually reserving to himself the prerogative to publish an account of the official findings (in the form of a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation that rarely reflected the full range of the deliberations or even the final synthesis, called a relatio, with its report of the delegates’ votes on key propositions).

6. Pope Francis was determined to shake things up and revive the somewhat dormant tradition of genuine synodality. Greatly to his credit, he used his first opportunity to preside over a synod to encourage delegates to break with their customary timidity and to speak with parrhesia, a Greek word for boldness, honesty and frankness — hardly the norm throughout the preceding four decades of synods.

He further disrupted established patterns by calling extraordinary synods, including holding synods on the family in two consecutive years (2014 and 2015), which allowed a much more satisfying process for deeper reflection on this key topic.

The Synod on the Amazon he convened in 2019 featured even further revisions, with renewed procedures emphasizing much more participatory deliberations.

A century from now, the reform of the synod process may well be the single greatest legacy of the Francis papacy that historians highlight.

7. We have just now embarked on an even more groundbreaking synod innovation. The two-year process that Francis initiated on October 9 features unprecedented preparatory work at local, national and continental levels and space for much broader participation.

While some of the stubborn organizational problems remain, this experimental process holds great promise regarding the incorporation of the voices of women and a whole range of previously excluded viewpoints in meaningful deliberation about church matters. 

By modeling sound practices of group discernment, it will allow us to imagine approaches to church leadership that transcend one-dimensional obedience to a few officeholders entrusted with governance.

To cap it off, the topic selected by Francis is synodality itself (technically, the theme of the culminating gathering in October 2023 will be “For a Synodal Church”). Catholics are being called to reflect on how well the church “walks together” and to ponder reforms in structures and procedures that will revive principles (such as broad consultation and organizational accountability) rarely achieved in the long history of Catholicism.

Francis has identified three keywords that will guide the synod process: communion, participation, mission. It is easy to see how these promising directions offer a counterweight to endemic clericalism and a long-delayed response to the horrendous scandal of clergy sexual abuse.

While some traditionalists are already signaling their resistance and have voiced grave concerns about these new directions (even accusing Pope Francis of attempting to democratize the Church in wildly inappropriate ways), there are already some very promising initial indications on display.

While challenges to the success of the synod process remain (including a potentially shaky communications infrastructure and uncertainties about the depth of cooperation and buy-in in some localities), this initiative holds great promise as a source for hope and even joy amidst difficult times for our church and world.

Best of all, the reforms of Francis are solidly and brilliantly informed by some of the earliest commitments of the Christian community: the dignity of all; respect for the full diversity of charisms; and God’s universal offer of salvation. The process is an attempt to “scale up” to the global level the earliest practices of those tight-knit local Christian communities to listen closely and empathetically to one another, especially those most marginalized for whatever reason.

Clearly, Francis is drawing upon his “Jesuit DNA” in proposing a process of deep communal discernment very much informed by Ignatian spirituality.

This is the kind of ressourcement (returning to the roots) that the Second Vatican Council recognized over a half century ago. Like Vatican II itself, the flowering of the new synodal process of Pope Francis aspires to attune the faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in this kairos — the opportune time that is now at hand.

The remaining question is whether we are fully prepared to seize this opportunity to discern the whisperings of the Spirit in our age. Are we willing to make the synodal way of shared deliberation our own way in these challenging times?x

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.

Fr. Thomas Massaro, SJ is professor of moral theology at Fordham University.