On Tuesday 31 January, the Archdiocese of Melbourne was delighted to host Sr Nathalie Becquart XMCJ for a timely and thought-provoking conversation on what it means to journey together as a ‘synodal’ Church.
Sr Nathalie—Undersecretary of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, the first woman to hold that position—was in Australia on the way to the meeting of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania in Fiji.
The theme of the morning was ‘journeying together’ as the Church—an opportunity to discuss the meaning and relevance of synodality for the local and global Church.
She emphasised that the only way to understand synodality was in the context of mission, explaining that synodality and evangelisation are simply ‘two faces of the same coin’.
A member of the Congregation of Xavières, a hundred-year-old French-speaking religious order, Sr Nathalie has been involved in youth ministry for many years, making significant contributions to the Synod on Young People (2018) and the Synod on the Pan-Amazon Region (2019). She was named by the BBC in 2022 as one of the 100 most inspiring and influential women in the world.
The current synod, the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (colloquially known as the synod on synodality), is expected to conclude in 2024 and has focused on the theme ‘For a synodal church: communion, participation, mission’.
This was Sr Nathalie’s first time returning to Australia since World Youth Day in 2008 and was her first visit to Melbourne.
She began with a word of thanks, particularly for the recent Plenary Council of Australia, which caught global attention. She explained that in launching the synod on synodality, they had listened to the experiences of many different countries, Australia among them.
‘We first tried to gather all the best practices and experiences from diocesan synods, plenary councils, and synodal processes from all over the world,’ she said, ‘and we have listened and learned a lot from the experience of the Plenary Council.’
In particular, the way the Plenary Council modelled ‘spiritual conversations’ between its participants was something the current synod adopted in its own practices.
Sr Nathalie acknowledged the variety of opinions about the synod on synodality, ranging from vibrantly enthusiastic to more doubtful. In asking why we should be thinking about the topic, Sr Nathalie said there was only one reason at the end of the day:
It is really because it’s the will of God. It’s a call … Synodality is the call of the Church and I believe it’s the call of God.
Quoting a document published by the International Theological Commission in 2018—Synodality in the life and mission of the Church—she said that the heart of synodality is the recognition that ‘the whole Church is a subject and that everyone in the Church is a subject’ (§55). Each person, by virtue of their baptism, is called by God to be a ‘protagonist’ in the mission of the church, in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.
‘The aim of the Church is not itself,’ she said. ‘It is to be an outgoing Church that serves the people, to be a missionary Church.’
‘The only way to transmit the faith today, the way to be Church in this world, in the twenty-first century … the only way to be the same Church from the beginning and to be a missionary Church is to be a synodal Church.’
Part of becoming a more synodal Church is becoming a Church where leaders are trained to work in diverse teams of people. Reflecting on her experience in youth ministry, Sr Nathalie said that she has grown and learned so much from surrounding herself with as diverse a team as possible. This kind of diversity strengthens evangelisation, she said.
I have always experienced and learned you are always better and more fruitful for the mission if you don’t work alone, but if you have a team. And as much as you have a diverse team, men and women, younger and older, different kinds of vocations, if you’re able to work together and to serve together, you are always better.
Quoting an African proverb, she said: ‘Alone you move faster. Together you go deeper.’
‘It’s never easy to do teamwork,’ she admitted, ‘but it is key for mission.’ This is why synodality calls for a two-fold ‘conversion’: a change in mindset and a change in structures. The change in mindset is a ‘personal conversion’ that must take place, a ‘passing from the I to the us. It’s about building a sense of an ecclesial we.’
The change in structures means providing more opportunities for consultation between the laity and the episcopate. Sr Nathalie pointed to the Council of Young People that emerged in the wake of the 2018 Synod on Young People, comprised of young representatives from around the world.
Creating this consultation and dialogue also creates a ‘circularity between all the levels of the Church’, keeping pastors and their people connected.
When it comes to how local churches can become more synodal in their style, Sr Nathalie said ‘there is not one way’, but that it requires attention to culture and context. It is a big challenge, and one of the challenges is that synodality brings people together from across the cultural, political and ecclesial spectrum. It's likely that tensions in the Church will become more prominent and debates will seem more polarised.
The key here is to embrace these tensions, she said, and bring everybody together around Christ.
What synodality offers is ‘a dynamic vision of the Church in history’ and not a merely ‘theoretical’ one. ‘We can say it’s an “incarnated” vision of the Church in history, in context, as the People of God working and journeying with all the people.’
Sr Nathalie gave presentations in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney during her time in Australia. She will be present for the assembly of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania in Fiji before returning to Rome and continuing her work on the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
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