What is the Synodal Journey? The Thought of Pope Francis

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Santiago Madrigal, SJ

 Santiago Madrigal, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:21 October 2021/Last Updated Date:29 October 2021


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“For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission” is the title of a journey solemnly begun on October 9-10, 2021, in Rome, and then again on October 17 in each particular Church around the world. On March 7, 2020, the announcement had been made that Francis wanted to hold the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2022 on the theme: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”
At the end of last May, Cardinal Mario Grech announced that the Assembly would be postponed by a year, to 2023, in part for public health reasons, but above all to encourage a different and unprecedented approach. The Assembly has been conceived in three phases, taking place between October 2021 and October 2023: the first will be diocesan, the second continental and the third universal. This methodology, which foresees the elaboration of two different instances of Instrumentum laboris,  is intended to involve all the people of God in this synodal process, whose key points are participation, listening and discernment.
‘The story we must contemplate’
We recall the first words of Pope Francis’ pontificate, spoken from the loggia of St. Peter’s on the evening of March 13, 2013, immediately after his election: “And now, let us begin this journey: bishop and people. This journey of the Church of Rome, which is the one that presides in charity over all the Churches,  a journey of brotherhood, of love, of trust among us.”[1] The pope used the word “journey” three times. As the International Theological Commission recalls, behind this concept is the Greek word synodos, which, composed of the preposition syn and the noun hodos, indicates the path that the members of the People of God walk together.[2] Putting these two considerations together, we can see that “synodal journey” means discernment and search for the will of God, not only on a personal basis, but as a Christian community, in alignment with the suggestion of St John Chrysostom: “Church is the name for synod.”
The opening words of Francis’ pontificate emphasize that synodality is the key concept behind his conception of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. At the same time it is the foundation of his ecclesiological perspective, guided by this conviction: “The path of synodality is the path that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.”[3]
As theologian Eloy Bueno writes, “synodality is a category that in the ecclesial sphere had already assumed the right of citizenship, but within an undeniable conceptual and terminological ambiguity. Francis has given it criteria for discernment and traced a way forward.”[4] On the other hand, the emphasis placed on synodality, associated with the idea of a reform of the missionary “Church that goes forth,” has introduced into the ecclesial body a dynamic of innovation that has led to talk of a new phase of reception of Vatican II.[5]
In these pages, as the title suggests, we want to follow the “synodal path of Francis,”  presenting the various aspects of his way of understanding synodality, starting from his speeches and documents and from the crucial moments of his pontificate.[6]
Pope Francis’ path of synodality – “the story we must contemplate,” to put it in Ignatian terms – is defined by these two milestones: at the starting point we find his programmatic document, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG) (November 24, 2013) and at the other extreme is the celebration of the Synod for the Amazon (2019). The next Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, dedicated precisely to synodality, has been announced for October 2023.
In retracing this path we will proceed in stages. First of all, it is necessary to go back to the precedents, that is, to the rediscovery of collegiality and synodality that took place at the Second Vatican Council. Secondly, we need to pay attention to the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in the light of the question: how is synodality present in this document?
Thirdly, we must observe the synodal praxis promoted by the pope, drawing attention to this fact: between the extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and the ordinary assembly in 2015, both dedicated to marriage and the family, lies the speech that Francis delivered on October 17, 2015, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Apostolica Sollicitudo, the motu proprio with which Saint Paul VI created the Synod of Bishops. A further contribution of Francis to this theme came from the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio (EC) of September 15, 2018, which proposes a renewal of the functioning of the Synod of Bishops at the service of the reform of the Church.
The Second Vatican Council and the institution of the Synod of Bishops
The document of the International Theological Commission reminds us (in No. 6) that although the concept of synodality is not found explicitly in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, it is at the heart of the work of renewal that the Council initiated and promoted. In the Council texts, the word synodus refers to the Council in progress, so that the ecumenical Council appears as the highest expression of synodality. In this sense, Vatican II, as an event and a new beginning, reopened the chapter on the essential conciliarity or synodality of the Church and, recalling the establishment of Synods, Provincial Councils, and Plenary Councils from the earliest centuries, encouraged the promotion and fostering of this kind of institution (cf. Christus Dominus, No. 36).
The institution of the Synod of Bishops, desired by Paul VI through the motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo, of September 15, 1965, is to be inserted into this general framework. In the decree Christus Dominus (No. 5), we find its nature and function outlined, which involve a recognition of the role of the bishops in the central government of the Church: “Bishops chosen from various parts of the world, in ways and manners established or to be established by the Roman pontiff, render more effective assistance to the supreme pastor of the Church in a deliberative body which will be called by the proper name of Synod of Bishops. Since it shall be acting in the name of the entire Catholic episcopate, it will at the same time show that all the bishops in hierarchical communion share in the solicitude for the universal Church.”
In his address of November 18, 1965 to the Council assembly, Paul VI announced his intention of soon convening the Synod of Bishops, once the Council was over. The regulations of the Synod were approved on December 8, 1966, and the first assembly was held from September 29 to October 29, 1967. It was dedicated to the preservation and strengthening of the Catholic faith, its integrity, its vigor, its development, its doctrinal and historical coherence. Two years later the first extraordinary assembly on cooperation between the Holy See and the Bishops’ Conferences was held. In 1971 the second ordinary assembly took place, which dealt with two themes: The ministerial priesthood and justice in the world. Paul VI convened  two other assemblies: in 1974 on Evangelization in the Modern World, and in 1977 on Catechesis in Our Time.
St. John Paul II encouraged the Synods of Bishops, which he considered a privileged instrument for the exercise of the primacy.[7] He wanted to give impetus to the reception of Vatican II and the preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 through “the series of Synods which began after the Second Vatican Council: General Synods and continental, regional, national and diocesan Synods.” Thus he expressed himself in the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (TMA) (1994), pointing out that “the basic theme is that of evangelization,” the foundations of which had been laid by the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi of Paul VI (cf. TMA 21). In that same year, in a famous interview, he spoke of a “synodal method.”[8] These synodal experiences, in their variety and different reach (ordinary, extraordinary, special, continental and diocesan assemblies), opened the way to the vision of the Church in a synodal key. Therefore, on the threshold of the third millennium, synodality had become “a key category at the point of arrival of post-conciliar ecclesiology.”[9]
Continuing along the same line, Benedict XVI convened three assemblies. The first two were, in 2005, The Eucharist,  Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church and, in 2008, The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. The third took place in October 2012, dedicated to The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.
After the German pope’s historic resignation in February 2013, his successor published his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG). In this way, Francis began with a programmatic document centered on the “proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world,” thus consciously following in the wake of Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN, 1975).
From this the conclusion can be drawn that the point of insertion of this pontificate into the process of reception of the Second Vatican Council is located in the sequence of the Synods of Bishops. It is not for nothing that the decree Ad Gentes (AG, December 7, 1965) established the connection between missionary activity and the new institution initiated by Paul VI: “The task of proclaiming the Gospel everywhere in the world primarily concerns the college of bishops (cf. LG 23), the Synod of Bishops, that is “the permanent commission of the bishops for the universal Church,” among the affairs of general importance must follow with particular solicitude, missionary activity, which is the highest and most sacred duty of the Church” (AG 29). As we shall see, the Argentinian pope has given new impetus to this institution, which he has defined as “one of the most precious inheritances of the Second Vatican Council.”[10]
On the other hand, it is important to add another factor that brings us closer to Francis’ biography: Latin American synodality. Bergoglio comes from a tradition that interprets the Second Vatican Council in a way that flows in accord with the rhythm of the synodal dynamic of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) and its general conferences of Medellín (1968), Puebla (1979), Santo Domingo (1992) and Aparecida (2007). As president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, he participated in the Aparecida Conference and was elected president of the Commission for the drafting of the final document. From Medellín to Aparecida the option for the poor has marked the identity of the Latin American and Caribbean Church. For the missionary theology of Aparecida, evangelization is the communication of full life in Christ.[11] The Latin American roots of Evangelii Gaudium and the novelty of this pontificate are to be sought in the final document of that assembly.
Synodality in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’
The apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is a document of pastoral theology, or the discipline that seeks to understand the Church’s evangelizing action in the light of the Church’s faith tradition. Bergoglio had cultivated it himself during his years of teaching.[12] In this programmatic text the pope offers us “some guidelines that can encourage and guide in the whole Church a new phase of evangelization” (EG 17). He has ordered them into the following seven themes: 1) The reform of the Church in her missionary outreach; 2) The temptations faced by pastoral workers; 3) The Church, understood as the entire people of God that evangelizes; 4) The homily and its preparation; 5) The inclusion of the poor in society; 6) Peace and dialogue within society; 7) Spiritual motivations for mission. Francis immediately pointed out that this choice of themes was made “on the basis of the doctrine of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium.” As we can see, synodality does not appear in this list of themes.
In reality, in the apostolic exhortation the notion appears expressly only in No. 246, where it speaks of ecumenism as an exchange of gifts. However, synodality, like an underground current, inspires very important sections of this document.[13] The words pronounced by Francis in the first interview he granted, in August 2013, to Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica,  tend in this direction. In it he referred to synodality. In the context of the ceremony of the imposition of the pallium on 34 metropolitan archbishops, Francis had defined the “way of synodality” as the road that leads the united Church to “grow in harmony with the service of the primacy.” Asked by Fr. Spadaro what ecumenical perspective this consideration might have, the pope replied, “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. Synodality must be lived at various levels. Perhaps it’s time to change the methodology of the synod, because the current one seems to me static. This could also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brothers. From them we can learn more about the sense of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality.”[14]
From these words, one can understand what is already mentioned in No. 246 of the apostolic exhortation and conclude that these are not isolated statements. On the contrary, synodality permeates the notion of the Church expressed in Francis’ programmatic document. In fact, in chapter one, which speaks of the “missionary transformation of the Church” (EG 19-49) and proposes “an urgent ecclesial renewal” (EG 27), all those ecclesial structures in which the Christian community is embodied recur: the parish (EG 28), the base communities, movements and other forms of association (EG 29), the particular diocesan Church (EG 30-31), the Episcopal Conferences and the central and papal structures of the universal Church (EG 32).
These structures, which correspond to the different levels of the exercise of synodality, are called to a pastoral and missionary conversion in accordance with the heart of the Gospel, especially in light of the basic form of synodality, portrayed in the basic ecclesiological metaphor of a “Church that goes forth” (EG 20-23). Francis describes this notion of the Church as an “evangelizing community,” as “the community of missionary disciples who take the initiative, who involve themselves, who accompany, who bear fruit and celebrate” (EG 24). Here we find the essential aspect of the synodal vocation of the People of God; in a word, a “Church that goes forth” is, in the “dynamic of exodus and gift, of going out of oneself, of walking and sowing always anew, always beyond” (EG 21), a “synodal Church.”
This reading in a synodal key of the first chapter of Evangelii Gaudium is corroborated by the reflections dedicated to the particular diocesan Church as the  “subject of evangelization” (EG 30). Among other details it states: “The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan Church, following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul (cf. Acts 4:32)” (EG 31). Here the idea of the “journey” returns: “To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant. At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.”
Immediately afterward, Francis entrusted the bishop with the task of stimulating and seeking the development of “the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone” (EG 31). Among these bodies, the pope mentions in a note the canons regarding the diocesan synod, the presbyteral council, the diocesan pastoral council, the parish pastoral and financial councils.
The general frame of reference for this vision of the Church is the “Argentine theology of the people of God”[15] in its reading of the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. It appears in the first section of chapter three – where the conception of the Church as the evangelizing people of God is developed (EG 111-134) – which opens with this statement: “The Church, as the agent of evangelization, is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God. She is certainly a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers” (EG 111; italics are ours). In this section Francis uses his favorite notion of the Church – “holy faithful people of God”[16] – founded on the idea of the sensus fidei and the infallibility of the people of God in belief, proposed in No. 12 of the constitution Lumen Gentium.
We quote here the decisive passage that shows the reality of a synodal Church, of “missionary disciples”: “In all the baptized, from first to last, the sanctifying power of the Spirit is at work, impelling us to evangelization. The people of God are holy  thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible in credendo. This means that it does not err in faith, even though it may not find words to explain that faith. The Spirit guides it in truth and leads it to salvation. As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God. The presence of the Spirit gives Christians a certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression” (EG 119).
Through the supernatural sense of faith, the People of God is a true evangelizing subject who walks in the heart of human history. In the light of this missionary understanding of the Church, the Gospel message with its clear communal and social repercussions must be read and proclaimed. Francis devoted an important section of chapter four of his exhortation to the inclusion of the poor in society (EG 186-216) and their privileged place among the people of God (EG 197-201). What does the preferential option for the poor have to do with synodality? The evangelizing community, which is the synodal Church going forth, “has an endless desire to show
mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy […]. It accompanies humanity in all its processes” (EG 24). This missionary Church must reach out to everyone: “But who should it privilege? Today and always, ‘the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel’” (EG 48). In another passage Francis proposes the theological justification, using the words of Benedict XVI: this option for the poor “is implicit in Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, to enrich us through his poverty” (EG 198).[17]
Synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church
In the discussion sessions preceding the conclave that elected as Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the demand for greater collegiality was on the lips of many cardinals. Promptly the new pope, in the footsteps of his predecessors, resumed the synodal path, convening a double assembly – ordinary and extraordinary – on the theme of the family and marriage, where a new, more participatory style of Synod was immediately evident, in relation both to the college of bishops and to the people of God. In this sense various procedural innovations should be noted, such as the decision to replace the Lineamenta with a questionnaire on the burning questions of conjugal and family life, addressed to all the faithful.
From the responses received by the secretariat of the Synod, the Instrumentum laboris was drafted. Each assembly produced its own final document, and the votes on each article and on the document as a whole were made public. Other aspects, not just methodological ones, also changed. The theologian Dario Vitali highlighted a basic element that contributed to changing the climate in which the Synod took place, that is, the willingness to listen: “Listening to God, to the point of listening with him to the cry of the people; listening to the people, to the point of breathing with them the will to which God is calling us.”[18] These were days when the secretariat of the Synod was working on the theory and practice of the celebration of the Synod.[19]
On October 17, 2015, while the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops was underway, Francis, drawing inspiration from the 50th anniversary of the institution, said, “From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome I have intended to enhance the Synod, which constitutes one of the most precious legacies of the last conciliar assembly.” He added: “What the Lord is asking of us, in a certain sense, is already all contained in the word ‘Synod.’ Walking together – laity, pastors, bishop of Rome – is an easy concept to express in words, but not so easy to put into practice.” In this context he recalled this statement of St. John Chrysostom: “‘Church and Synod are synonymous’ because the Church is nothing but the ‘walking together’ of the flock of God on the paths of history toward Christ the Lord.”[20] In Francis’ speech the essential features of a “synodal Church” were outlined.
The listening Church, one with  the supernatural sense of faith (‘sensus fidei’)
Francis referred to the words of the Second Vatican Council, which describe the people of God as the totality of the baptized, “called to form a spiritual dwelling and a holy priesthood” (cf. LG 10), and stressed that “the totality of the faithful, having the anointing that comes from the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2:20.27), cannot err in believing, and manifests this property by the supernatural sense of faith of the whole people, when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show their universal assent in issues of faith and morals (cf LG 12).”[21]
The pope illustrated this idea by recalling what he had already written in Evangelii Gaudium (cf. EG 119-120) on the holiness of the People of God by virtue of the Spirit’s anointing, adding new elements for reflection: “The People of God are holy by reason of this anointing which makes them infallible ‘in credendo’ (cf. EG 119), [because] each baptized person, whatever his or her function in the Church and the degree of instruction in faith, is an active subject of evangelization and it would be inadequate to think of a plan of evangelization carried out by qualified actors in which the rest of the faithful people were merely receptive to their actions” (cf. EG 120). The sensus fidei prevents a rigid separation between the Ecclesia docens and the Ecclesia discens, since the flock also possesses its own ‘nose’ for discerning the new paths that the Lord opens up to the Church.” And he concluded as follows: “A synodal Church is a listening Church, in the awareness that listening ‘is more than hearing’ (cf. EG 171).”
In that speech Francis proposed “a mutual listening in which each one has something to learn. Faithful people, episcopal college, bishop of Rome: one listening to the other; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17), to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).”
Francis immediately drew a significant consequence from this: “The Synod of Bishops is the point of convergence of this dynamism of listening conducted at all levels of the life of the Church.” In other words, the entire life of the Church is traversed by synodality as a style and as a process that is not exhausted in the synodal assemblies, but belongs to the very being of the Church.
Stages and levels of the synodal journey
The pope also indicates the stages of this dynamism of listening and communion within a synodal Church: “The synodal journey begins by listening to the people […]. The journey of the Synod continues by listening to the pastors. […] The synodal journey culminates in listening to the bishop of Rome.” In this process there is a truly new datum that should be highlighted: the synodal journey starts from the people of God. The reason is that it “also participates in the prophetic function of Christ” (cf. LG 12). Here is rooted, essentially, the reason why Synods on the family and on young people must be prepared by consulting the people of God. In this way, explains Francis, “a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium is implemented: Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus tractari debet.[22] Consequently, the active capacity and the status of subject of the people of God are recognized, alongside the other two subjects – pastors and the bishop of Rome – who carry out specific functions.[23]
Levels of the exercise of synodality
A correlative aspect to these three subjects, with their three specific functions – prophecy, discernment, implementation – is the consideration of three levels in the exercise of synodality. The first concerns the particular Churches, in which it is necessary to revitalize the process of participation through the “bodies of communion” foreseen in the Code of Canon Law, beginning with the diocesan synod (cc. 460-468) and continuing with the presbyteral council, the college of consultors, the chapter of canons and the pastoral council (cc. 495-514).
The second level concerns the ecclesiastical provinces and regions, the particular Councils and, in a special way, the Episcopal Conferences (cc. 431-459). Through these bodies, as “intermediate instances of collegiality,” steps can be taken toward a healthy decentralization of the Church (as the pope had already affirmed in EG 32).
The last level concerns the universal Church, where the Synod of Bishops, “representing the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality within an entirely synodal Church.”
Synodality as an interpretative framework for hierarchical ministry
This reflection on the Synod of Bishops outlines the paradigm of a synodal Church, which leads to this decisive statement: “Synodality, as a constitutive dimension of the Church, offers us the most adequate interpretative framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself.” In this context the synodal Church is presented as an “inverted pyramid,” applied to the apostolic college, to each particular bishop and to the Bishop of Rome himself, whose vocation consists in the service of the people of God.[24]
In this logic of service, we must always remember that, “for the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross: […] ‘whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave’ (Matt 20:25-27).” Therefore the pope concludes as follows: “A synodal Church is like a banner raised up among the nations (cf. Isa 11:12) in a world that often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups. As a Church that ‘journeys together’ with men and women, sharing the travails of history, let us cherish the dream that a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of authority as service will also be able to help civil society to be built up in justice and fraternity.”
A final observation: if up to now Francis had spoken of synodality ad intra, reflecting on the internal functioning of the ecclesial community, in the conclusion of his reflection he let its ad extra dimension emerge, that is, the missionary dynamic of the Church in the world.
The missionary dimension of synodality appears in a special way in Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (2021), where he calls for universal fraternity. A synodal Church, in which we walk together, becomes the best reflection of this proposal, its living photograph. Therefore, synodality does not concern exclusively intra-ecclesial issues, but is part of the relationship between the Church and the world, comprising a dynamism that goes from synodality to fraternity, since the people of God, in its historical journey, wants to share with everyone – other religions, beliefs and cultures – the light of the Gospel.
The reform of the Synod of Bishops with ‘Episcopalis Communio’ (2018)
From 2014 to 2017 the International Theological Commission worked on a document on synodality, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, to which we have already referred at the beginning. This text intends to present theological principles and pastoral guidelines for a practicing synodal Church. In fact, “synodality” designates primarily a particular way of living and working in the Church, the people of God on a journey, in fraternity of communion and in co-responsibility, even before taking shape in canonical processes and structures and in synodal events (cf. No. 70).
The order of the chapters follows this pattern: Chapter 1 “goes back to the normative sources of Sacred Scripture and Tradition in order to highlight the grounding of the synodal figure of the Church in the historical unfolding of Revelation”; Chapter 2 deals with the “theological foundations of synodality in conformity with the ecclesiological doctrine of Vatican II”; Chapter 3 offers pastoral orientations “with reference to the concrete implementation of synodality at various levels, in the particular Church, in the communion between the particular Churches in a region, in the universal Church”; finally, chapter 4 offers pastoral orientations “with reference to spiritual and pastoral conversion and to the communal and apostolic discernment required for an authentic experience of a synodal Church.”
This document constitutes an attempt to combine the notion of synodality with the fundamental concepts of collegiality and communion. Synodality, says No. 7 (cf. No. 66), means “the involvement and participation of the whole People of God in the life and mission of the Church,” while “the concept of collegiality” refers to “the specific form in which ecclesial synodality is manifested and realized through the ministry of the bishops at the level of communion among the particular Churches in a region and at the level of communion among all the Churches in the universal Church.” Therefore every manifestation of synodality requires the exercise of the collegial ministry of the bishops.
A few months after the release of this document Francis published the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio, which summarizes his efforts to link synodality and the Synod of Bishops.[25] This text constitutes a revision and updating of  Apostolica Sollicitudo, validating the institution put in place by Paul VI as “one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council,” “new in its institution but very ancient in its inspiration” (EC 1). The renewal of the Synod desired by Francis requires that consultative processes be initiated so as to make the laity and their voices more present. As we have already noted, a synodal Church is “a listening Church,” and every synodal praxis “begins by listening to the people,” “continues by listening to the pastors,” and “culminates in listening to the bishop of Rome.”
If collegiality is at the service of synodality, “the Synod of Bishops must increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God.” Therefore, the consultative process involving all the particular Churches becomes indispensable (cf. EC 7). This must be followed by a “discernment on the part of the pastors” who, attentive to the sensus fidei of the People of God, must be capable of perceiving the indications of the Spirit, distinguishing them “from the often changing currents of public opinion” (EC 7). The apostolic constitution has outlined a new norm, designing synodal practice in three phases: preparation, celebration and application of the Synod of Bishops.
Synodality cannot unfold at all levels without the service of presidency exercised, at the level of the universal Church, by the Bishop of Rome (cf. EC 10). In the course of this review of the pope’s synodal journey, the imprint of a firm will in favor of a synodal and diaconal exercise of papal authority, of “a primacy of listening” in a “constitutively synodal Church” has gradually become clear.[26]
Conclusion: ‘The path is not there, it is to be made by walking’
The pope has set a next goal for the whole Church, which we can express in the famous verses of Antonio Machado: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar (“Wayfarer, the path is not there, it is to be made by walking”). It is the thrust of synodality, which comes from very far away. Some words of Francis still indicate to us the route and the task, the most recent past and the hope for the future: “The Second Vatican Council marked an important step in the awareness that the Church has both of herself and of her mission in the contemporary world. This journey, which began more than fifty years ago, continues to spur us on in its reception and development, and it has not yet come to an end, especially with regard to the synodality that must operate at the various levels of ecclesial life (parish, diocese, at the national level, in the universal Church, as well as in the various congregations and communities).”[27]
Let us conclude by underlining the twofold objective of synodality: on the one hand, along the missionary line traced by Evangelii Gaudium, “the objective of these participatory processes will not be primarily ecclesial organization, but rather the missionary dream of reaching everyone” (EG 31). On the other hand, along the lines of the social diakonia relaunched in the encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti, synodality aspires to form a people, a fraternal and missionary community at the service of the common good of society and the care of the common home.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.11 art. 1, 1121: 10.32009/22072446.1121.4
[1].    First greeting of the Holy Father Francis, March 13, 2013.
[2].    Cf. International Theological Commission, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, March 2, 2018.
[3].    Francis, Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, October 17, 2015.
[4].    E. Bueno, Eclesiología del Papa Francisco. Una Iglesia bautismal y sinodal, Burgos, Fonte, 2018, 203.
[5].    Cf. S. Madrigal, “¿Una nueva fase en la recepción del Concilio?”, in R. Luciani – M. T. Compte (eds), En camino hacia una Iglesia sinodal. De Pablo VI a Francisco, Madrid, PPC, 2020, 49-76.
[6].    Cf. Id., De pirámides y poliedros. Señas de identidad del pontificado de Francisco, Santander, Sal Terrae, 2020.
[7].    We recall first of all the second extraordinary Synod, particularly significant because it was dedicated to the application and promotion of Vatican II (1985). The ordinary Synods under his pontificate also dealt with important themes: The Christian Family (1980); Penance and Reconciliation in the Mission of the Church (1983); The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World (1987); The Formation of Priests in Present Circumstances (1991); The Consecrated Life and its Mission in the Church and in the World (1994); The Bishop Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World (2001). In addition to the general assemblies, special assemblies of a continental nature should be remembered: Lebanon (1995), America (1997), Asia (1998), Oceania (1998), Europe (1999) etc. Cf. D. Vitali, “Sinodalidad. De ‘Apostolica sollicitudo’ a ‘Episcopalis communio’”, in R. Luciani – M. T. Compte (eds), En camino hacia una Iglesia sinodal, op. cit., 33 f.
[8].    John Paul II – V. Messori, Varcare la soglia della speranza, Milan, Mondadori, 1994, 178.
[9].    E. Bueno – R. Calvo, An Iglesia sinodal : Memoria y profecía, Madrid, BAC, 2000, 41.
[10].   Cf. Francis, Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio on the Synod of Bishops, September 15, 2018.
[11].   Cf. S. Madrigal, El giro eclesiológico en la recepción del Vaticano II, Santander, Sal Terrae, 2017, 295-322.
[12].   Cf. C. M. Galli, “La teología pastoral de ‘Evangelii gaudium’ en el proyecto misionero de Francisco”, in Teología, no. 114, 2014, 34f.
[13].   Cf. D. Vitali, “Un Popolo in cammino verso Dio”. Sinodalità in Evangelii gaudium, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2018.
[14].   A. Spadaro, “Interview with Pope Francis”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 465f.
[15].   Cf. S. Pié-Ninot, “La eclesiología del papa Francisco”, in Revista Catalana de Teología 43 (2018/2) 503-526; C. M. Galli, “La riforma missionaria della Iglesia secondo Francesco”, in A. Spadaro – C. M. Galli (eds), La riforma e le riforme nella Chiesa, Brescia, Queriniana, 2016, 37-65.
[16].   “The image of the Church that I like is that of the holy faithful people of God. It is the definition I often use, and it is then that of Lumen Gentium at number 12. Belonging to a people has a strong theological value: God in the history of salvation saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. […] The people is the subject. And the Church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Sentire cum Ecclesia therefore for me is to be in this people. And the whole of the faithful is infallible in believing, and manifests this infallibilitas in credendo through the supernatural sense of the faith of the whole people that walks. Here, this is what I mean today as the ‘feeling with the Church’ of which Saint Ignatius speaks” (A. Spadaro, Interview with Pope Francis).
[17].   Cf. M. Czerny, “Hacia una Iglesia sinodal”, in Razón y fe, n. 283, 2021, 161-174; 168-172.
[18].   D. Vitali, “Sinodalidad. De “Apostolica sollicitudo” a “Episcopalis communio’”, op. cit., 37.
[19].   Cf. L. Baldisseri (ed), A cinquant’anni dall’Apostolica sollicitudo. Il Sinodo dei Vescovi al servizio di una Chiesa sinodale, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2016.
[20].   Francis, Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, op. cit.
[21].   Ibid.
[22].   Cf. O. Condorelli, “‘Quod omnes tangit, debet ab omnibus approbari’. Note sull’origine e sull’utilizzazione del principio tra Medioevo e prima età moderna”, in Ius Canonicum 53 (2013) 101-127.
[23].   “The People of God are responsible for the prophetic moment, the pastors gathered in the synodal assembly are responsible for discernment, insofar as they act as authentic custodians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church; the bishop of Rome has the last word insofar as he is ‘pastor and doctor of all Christians: not starting from his personal convictions, but as supreme witness of the fides totius Ecclesiae’” (D. Vitali, “Sinodalidad. De “Apostolica sollicitudo” a “Episcopalis communio’”, op. cit.).
[24].   Cf. O. Rush, ‘Inverting the Pyramid: The “Sensus fidelium” in a Synodal Church’, in Theological Studies 78 (2017/2) 299-325.
[25].   Cf. A. Borras, “‘Episcopalis communio’, mérites et limites d’une réforme institutionnelle”, in Nouvelle Revue Théologique 141 (2019) 66-83.
[26].   S. Pié-Ninot, “Verso un ‘ordo communionis primatus’ come primato diaconale”, in A. Spadaro – C. M. Galli (eds), La riforma e le riforme nella Chiesa, op. cit., 293-308; M. Faggioli, “From Collegiality to Synodality: Promise and Limits of Francis’s ‘Listening Primacy’”, in Irish Theological Quarterly 85 (2020) 352-369.
[27].   Francis, Letter to the People of God on the Way in Germany, June 29, 2019.

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