“It foresees all the people of God taking greater responsibility for the church’s mission.”
From the time of the early Church in Jerusalem, the apostles – and later their successors – would come together to pray and make decisions about matters of Church teaching and practice for all the faithful under their care.
These gatherings would later be known as “synods” from an Greek word “synodos” which means “coming together” or “traveling together.”
In time, bishops from neighboring provinces would gather to discuss matters affecting all the Christian communities in a region, thus starting the tradition of regional synods. Eventually, the bishops around the world would assemble for the ecumenical councils to resolve issues that were consequential for the whole church. However, as the power of the papacy grew, not only did the importance of regional synods diminish; ecumenical councils also began to happen infrequently. The most recent one, the Second Vatican Council, met from 1962 to 1965, ushering in a wide-reaching “aggiornamento” or renewal of the Catholic Church.
However, Vatican II did not only reinforce the importance of bishops in leading their respective local dioceses. It also emphasized the need for them to cooperate with one another, and make them mutually responsible for the governance of the whole church under the leadership of the pope. To this end, Saint Pope Paul VI created a permanent structure for the “Synod of Bishops” – an assembly of bishops called regularly by the pope. Since its creation, the popes have brought this assembly together at least 18 times, the last held in 2018 to discuss the role and mission of the youth in the Church.
Early this year, Pope Francis introduced two unprecedented changes to the next general assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
First, instead of the usual month-long gathering in Rome, the Pope launched a three-year “synodal process” of listening, discussion and discernment on how the Catholic Church can move forward as a church that “journeys together.”
The diocesan and national listening phases will run until April 2022 and will be followed by a continental phase from September 2022 to March 2023. The final “universal Church phase” will culminate in the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023.
Second, while participation in the actual general assembly will be limited to bishops, the next synod will begin in dioceses all over the world by seeking the input of every Catholic at the diocesan, continental and international levels and encouraging a much wider consultation with the faithful. It starts with, and involves, all the faithful at the diocesan levels across the world, promising to listen to all, especially to lay people. In effect, Pope Francis has decided to involve the people in a bottom-up synod process.
In his opening address to the Synod, the pope called on the Church to take this synod as an opportunity “to become a listening church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen.”
Interestingly, the next Synod of Bishops will focus on the theme of “synodality,” a theme that is very close to the heart of Pope Francis himself. The upcoming synod is a fitting culmination of efforts by the pope to bring about a new way of being the church, and furthering openness, collaboration and greater participation of ordinary Catholics. In fact at the diocesan level, the synodal consultation will comprise three phases: preparation, celebration and implementation.
In the Philippines, the output of the consultations will be collated from the parish to the diocesan level and will be reported to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. At the “continental phase,” the reports from the different dioceses will be forwarded to the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference, which will now prepare the final regional document for submission to the general assembly.
The Catholic bishops in the Philippines have willingly accepted the pope’s invitation to take part in the two-year synodal consultation with a pastoral message by CBCP President and Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles, entitled “Jesus Walked With Them.”
In the said pastoral message, Archbishop Valles clarified that the “Synod on Synodality” is a way for the Church to discern the “signs of our times” in order to respond to the calls of the present-day world. This is particularly timely, as the Church continues to address the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic, the scandals in the Church and in government, the secularism and materialism, and the “double-edged” power of the digital world.
Archbishop Valles raised two important questions in his pastoral message. The first is, “How is our Church with?” The second is, “How is the Church together with the entire human family.”
“Are we still salt and light for the world? Is dialogue our way of life? How willing are we to listen with humility and respect despite differences? Have we become haughty or insensitive to the groans of suffering humanity?”
Pope Francis has invited the whole Church to examine how it can live out “synodality” in its life and mission by reconnecting its roots in the early Church and by witnessing more faithfully to the vision of the Second Vatican Council.
There is no doubt that this “Synod on Synodality” could be the most important effort since Vatican II that is aimed towards the renewal of the Church. The pope himself pointed out the biblical roots of the synodal process, and that the Church is a pilgrim community on a journey “that began with the first apostles and has continued ever since.” Rather than having a mere theoretical consideration of synodality, the entire synodal process hopes to put into practice how the Church can collegially discern its future.
In a nutshell, synodality foresees all the people of God taking greater responsibility for the church’s mission. It hopes to end the culture of clericalism, put fuller emphasis on the pastoral role of bishops and priests as well as introduce a culture of dialogue, collaboration and consensus among the faithful.
Echoing the fourth century Saint John Chrysostom who said that the “Church and the synod are synonymous” the bishops of the Philippines rightly describe the synod in their pastoral message, “A synod is not just an event; it is a journey. A synod is not just a meeting; it is the life of the Church. A synod is not just an assembly in view of administration; it is a convocation guided by the Spirit for the challenge of mission.”