InsightOut: Synodality, Laity, Pope Francis—What’s It All About?

InsightOut: Synodality, Laity, Pope Francis—What’s It All About?

Dr. Brian Thornton worked as an accountant in 17 countries on four continents. Then he came to Canada and St. Mike’s. A few months ago he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation.

Synodality, Laity, Pope Francis—What’s It All About?

Synod 2021 - 2023: For
a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission. Logo includs colourful text and handwritten looking type, with an abstract drawing of an angel in orange and a diverse collection of people facing the same direction.

Pope Francis recently called a synod—a meeting of Church leaders—which opened in October and runs until 2023, and includes local consultations as well as meetings in Rome.

Pope Francis has declared that synodality is what God expects of the Church in the 21st century. He has put his own transformative stamp on the meaning and conduct of synods, saying that a synod involves mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn.

Synods are not new. They have been around since the early days of the Church. History records that bishops of neighbouring churches in the second century gathered together to find solutions to their common problems. It was not always stated when or if the laity participated. We know, for example, that bishops, presbyters, deacons and laity attended the Synod of Elvira around about the year 305. The Synod of Whitby in 664 was convened by a layman, King Oswiu, who ruled that the decisions of the synod were to apply in his kingdom. A modern historian has written that Vatican I (1869–1870) was the first ecumenical council “without direct lay participation.”

The irony is that, 10 years earlier, Father John Henry Newman had famously written about the necessity of consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine. In 1917 the Code of Canon Law limited attendance at diocesan synods to priests and bishops. But the Code left ajar the door to lay participation. It allowed diocesan bishops to invite “others” at their discretion, but did not define “others.” Shortly before the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops as a permanent institution. Attendance was extended to representatives of religious institutes and to “clerics who are experts.” There was no provision for lay participation.

Then, only eight days after the formal close of Vatican II, the Bishop of London in Ontario made a startling announcement. His diocese was to hold a synod, to which everyone in the diocese— clergy, religious and lay—was invited. He was not concerned that the laity would be in the majority; indeed he welcomed it. He was bent on letting the people of the diocese absorb and receive the teaching of the council. And he planned to be a listening bishop. He used this phrase often for he wanted to hear the opinions of the people on how the diocese should move forward. The voice of the people mattered because he took seriously what the council had taught him about the infallibility of the people of God. His other oft-repeated remark was that the Spirit would speak where the Spirit wished to speak.

More than half a century later this pioneering diocesan synod can be seen in conformity with the call of Pope Francis for a synodal church. Everyone in the church, clergy, religious and lay, has to listen to the others in order to discern the will of the Spirit. It requires an act of faith which is based on the conviction that God is at work in world history. Francis referred to the prophet Elijah who learned that the Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but rather in a tiny whispering sound. “This is how God speaks to us,” said Francis, and “we need to open our ears to hear that tiny whispering sound.”

Since his election Pope Francis has convened synods dealing with the family, young people, and the Amazonian region. Bishops, priests and laity attended them all in limited numbers. Now Francis has launched a synod of the whole Church. It is an ambitious project which will last two years, until 2023. Francis wants to hear the voice of the entire Church, so this synod is an exercise in mutual listening. It starts in the dioceses where all are invited to offer their thoughts and opinions. Each diocese will forward a synthesis to the local bishops’ conference. From there a further synthesis will go forward to the Synod of Bishops in 2023. After that the action moves back to the dioceses for the implementation phase.

Pope Francis opened the synod in October this year. He felt sure that the Spirit would guide the church and “give us the grace to move forward together, to listen to one another and to embark on a discernment of the times in which we are living.” He stressed that the synod was neither a parliament nor an opinion poll, but an ecclesial event. “If the Spirit is not present there will be no synod.” He emphasized the participation of all because participation was a requirement of the faith received in baptism. Baptism was our “identity card,” and his call for all to participate includes those on the fringes. “Enabling everyone to participate is an essential ecclesial duty,” he said.

The subject of this synod is synodality. When we place that alongside two prominent sayings of Francis, a diverting discovery emerges. Firstly, says Francis, synodality is the way of the Church in the 21st century. Secondly, the point of a synod is to discern where the Spirit is leading the Church. We can see then that Francis is inviting the Church to consider and discern synodality, the very subject that is at the heart of his pontificate. He has thrown it wide open. This is a valiant venture with an uncertain end result.

Read other InsightOut posts.