From October 2021 to April 2022, the first phase of a two-year synod begins: The Synod on Synodality. The theme of this Synod is: For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission. From around the world, Bishops and lay people alike will meet in Rome in order to discern together how the Church as a whole can become more synodal.

Ever since Pope Paul VI instituted the Synod of Bishops on 15 September 1965, there have been fifteen ordinary assemblies to address different issues and questions. The one about to begin is the sixteenth. For those who don’t follow the happenings in Rome, it might be helpful to unpack briefly what a synod is and what, broadly speaking, this synod will be trying to achieve.

What is a synod?

In 2018, the International Theological Commission released a helpful document outlining the principles behind synodality in the tradition and mission of the Church. Basically, the word synod refers to a Church assembly brought together to answer some of the prominent questions that need addressing, in the light of the Gospel and with the help of the Holy Spirit. The word itself is made up of two Greek words – “with” (συν) and “path” (όδός) – that evoke the meaning of walking or journeying together along the Way of Jesus. St John Chrysostom famously said that the Church is just a name that means ‘walking together’.

Historically, words like council and synod have been used interchangeably, although since the Second Vatican Council there has been a fresh meaning given to the term synodality that is the focus of this Synod and a consistent theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate.

One of the much needed clarifications given to us by Vatican II was on the nature of the Church. The Church, in its essence, is not simply an institution and nor is it made up simply by clergy. The Church is a whole people – the People of God, gathered together by grace to be ‘an instrument for the redemption of all’ (Lumen Gentium, §9). The Church is, more to the point, a pilgrim people, a sojourning people, on the road towards the ‘new heavens and the new earth’ (Revelation 21:1). What Vatican II did was invert a common image people had of the Church. The Church had been seen as a pyramid, with the lay faithful on the bottom and the Pope at the top. On the contrary, the Council stressed, the Church is more like an inverted pyramid: The Pope and the Bishops are at the bottom, serving the People of God so they can be more empowered to fulfil their mission and be a light to the nations. Whatever authority exists in the Church is for that end.

According to the Vatican II document Ad Gentes, the purpose of a synod of bishops is missionary: Missionary activity is the ‘greatest and holiest task of the Church’ and it should be their concern (§29). When the Synod of Bishops was created at the end of the Council, it was intended to be a continuance of the Council’s understanding of the Church, expressing the universality of the Church by having its representatives (the bishops) come together from around the world to address the needs of their people.

It should be pointed out, however, that the Synod of Bishops is not a legislative assembly or a doctrinal council. It serves the missionary agenda of the Church by, according to Pope Paul VI, ‘providing information and offering advice’ – by being consultants, essentially. Synods are not places to debate or change doctrine; if doctrine is up in the air in some parts of the Church, then the Synod of Bishops has a responsibility to ‘facilitate agreement’ on existing doctrine. Based upon the discussions, the Synod of Bishops will draw up recommendations and bring them to the Pope, who uses them to take courses of action if he deems them appropriate.

The synodal way

Just because synods are consultative, doesn’t mean they’re not useful. The path of synodality proposed by Pope Francis is an extension of the developments borne by Vatican II, letting them affect the actual structures and institutions that make up the Church. It is about involving lay people in the discussions so that the future of the Church can be walked while knowing the genuine needs of her people.

Pope Francis has long called for a more "synodal" Church, that is, a church ‘which listens, which realises that listening is more than simply hearing’. 'It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth' (Evangelii Gaudium, §171).

In the lead-up to the first phase of the Synod on Synodality, a preparatory document was released to offer guidance on the process. It opens with a question:

How does this “journeying together,” which takes place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?’ (§2).

By letting lay faithful have a voice in how the Church solves problems and more effectively proclaims the Gospel, the reality of the Church as a common pilgrim people shines forth more strongly. It is also a healing salve, the document says, for a ‘culture imbued with clericalism’ that the Church has inherited (§6).

Ultimately, the path of synodality should be seen to be the path of mission. This is highlighted by the theme of this synod: Communion, Participation, Mission. It is about changing our mentalities and trying to direct the institutional makeup of the Church to be more mission-oriented.

The Synod on Synodality

Pope Francis will officially open the Synod on Synodality on the weekend of 9-10 October 2021. A week later, dioceses around the world will begin a period of “active listening” to their people, a period of “consultation” with the People of God. Over the next two years there will be a series of regional, national and continental phases of consultation, concluding with the bishops meeting in Rome in October 2023, where they will draw up recommendations for Pope Francis.

There has been released a Vademecum (a handbook) to guide thought and discussion along the consultation phases, as well as a Preparatory document. If you like to contribute in some way to this ongoing synod, a good place to start would be these documents, letting them feed prayer and discernment and discussion during this time.

The Plenary Council

Closer to home, the first Assembly of Australia's fifth Plenary Council gets underway on 3 October 2021. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said that the Synod of Bishops office in Rome has been following the journey of the Australian Plenary Council 'with interest, seeking to learn from it.'

Understanding the concept of synodality will be essential towards becoming a more synodal Church, which one of the Plenary Council's National Themes of Discernment speaks to. It asks the question: How do we, as the Church in Australia, become more inclusive and participatory? How do we reform governance and decision-making structures so that there is a sense of being "co-responsible" in the Church's mission?

It is a huge question, one that requires much prayer and discussion. It is a question that, thankfully, the Church is beginning to devote itself to.