Did you know Pope Francis personally invited you to contribute to a worldwide conversation and consultation in the Church?
In May of 2021, Pope Francis did an amazing and unprecedented thing—he called on every member of the Church around the world to become participants in the “Synod on Synodality.” The official name of this synod is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.”
What is a synod?
“Synod” is not a familiar word. What does it mean? A great biblical point of reference for the reality of a synod is found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:13-35). Cleopas and another disciple are walking together seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the day of the resurrection. As they walked “they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them” (Luke 24:14-15).
Later in the encounter, after the disciples had recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they recounted, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way?” (Luke 24:32). Walking together, discussing, welcoming and recognizing Jesus, who is present with us, letting him speak to our hearts and set them afire, these are the essential elements of the reality we call a “synod” in the Church.
The word itself is a compound Greek word: “soon” meaning “with” and “odos” meaning “path.” Hence the root meaning of synod is something like “to walk together.” The rich Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-led conversations and personal interactions of “walking together,” seen in the Gospel passage of the road to Emmaus, is what the Church means when she talks about a synod.
The Synod on Synodality is engaging a truth and two principal questions. The truth: the Church, in announcing the Gospel, “journeys together.” The questions: (1) How is this “journeying together” happening today in our diocese? (2) What steps does the Holy Spirit invite us to take to grow in “journeying together?”
A little history of the Synod of Bishops
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (commonly known as Vatican II) was a gathering of all the bishops of the world in four fall sessions from 1962-1965. Each session lasted from eight to 12 weeks. The bishops recognized many blessings that came from meeting together and asking the Holy Spirit to lead their discussions on matters of concern for the Church and the world. When Vatican II finished, the bishops wanted a way to be able to continue to receive the blessings of sessions like these, and so the Synod of Bishops was born.
There have been 16 ordinary Synods of Bishops since 1967, occurring every three to four years on average. At these gatherings, a selection of bishops from around the world gather together to pray and discuss, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a matter of importance for the life of the Church. In addition to the bishops, other theologians, philosophers, and subject-matter experts are often invited to contribute to the discussions.
The participants summarize their discussions in order to offer counsel to the pope. Frequently, the Holy Father will take these contributions and compose a letter to the Church, called a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.
A few examples include the Synod of Bishops of 1974 who addressed the topic of “Evangelization in the Modern World,” after which Pope Paul VI composed “Evangelii Nuntiandi.” After the synod of 1987 on “The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World,” Pope John Paul II wrote “Christifideles Laici.” The Synod of Bishops of 2005 discussed “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church,” and Pope Benedict XVI wrote “Sacramentum Caritatis.”
Pope Francis wrote “Evangelii Gaudium” in response to the 2012 Synod of Bishops who reflected on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” Those documents are important standards for the present day life and mission of the Catholic Church and were shaped in an important way by the blessings and inspiration that came from the conversations of the synods.
Communion, participation, mission
With the history outlined above, we can understand better why Pope Francis has called for a synod on the topic of synodality. The official title of the synod is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” This helps us understand the Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-led conversation the Holy Father is inviting the entire Church to undertake.
Pope Francis wants every diocese to have a family conversation about some really important things: How can each of us grow in our communion with Jesus, and grow together as families, as parishes and as a diocese? How can we invite and foster greater participation in the life of our local church, to grow the spiritual family of the Church in scope and depth? Together in Christ and deeply involved in the life of the Church, what is God calling us to in our mission to serve all people with the love of Christ? Instead of relying exclusively on a selection of bishops and some experts in these topics, the pope’s desire is to engage as many people as possible, inviting them to reflect on these important questions together as beloved children of God.
The Synod and our diocesan vision
Pope Francis providentially coincides beautifully with the effort to advance our diocesan vision of building a culture of Lifelong Catholic Missionary Discipleship Through God’s Love. To move forward with our diocesan vision, we need opportunities to have intentional, Christ-centered and Holy Spirit-inspired conversations as Catholic families, parishes, schools and organizations that focus on growing in communion, participation and mission as a response of love to God’s infinite, personal and unconditional love for each one of us.
To borrow the headline questions of the Synod on Synodality: How are we “journeying together” today in our diocese toward greater Catholic missionary discipleship? What steps does the Holy Spirit invite us to take to grow in journeying together in lives of Catholic missionary discipleship? The work to engage as broad an audience as possible to contribute to a discussion on those questions will advance both our diocesan vision and the desire of the Holy Father for the church universal.
What is being asked of us?
The basic task of our diocesan participation in the worldwide Synod on Synodality is (1) To gather together in our local communities with as many people as possible; (2) To ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with his love and give us wisdom, understanding and right judgment; (3) As we prayerfully reflect and visit with one another about (a) how best to grow together as a spiritual family-communion, (b) building that communion in our parishes, schools, organizations and institutions-participation, (c) to more effectively be instruments of God’s love in action in our broader community and the world-mission.
We will then gather the fruits of these conversations and pass them along with dioceses around the country to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who will send representatives to the worldwide assembly at the Vatican in 2023.
The diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality began in October of 2021 and will conclude by April 1, 2022. We have established a diocesan steering committee to organize our diocese’s consultation, and have identified a calendar of major milestones. Your parish pastor has those details, and they will be available on the diocesan website (sfcatholic.org) in early December.
The steering committee’s main tasks will be (1) to identify the specific questions we are inviting local groups and parishes to consider; (2) to determine the best means of involving as many people as possible in the consultation whether by local or regional meetings, in person or online, via surveys, discussion after Mass or other gatherings, or some combination of all of the above; (3) to help each pastor conduct the consultation in the way that works best in their parishes and collect the responses of participants.
Where can I find out more?
To understand the process going on around the world, the Vatican has released a very helpful “vademecum” or instruction. It gives many details of the history, theology, vision and practical details of the Synod on Synodality. The organizers have done a good job of anticipating many questions regarding this unprecedented undertaking. For example:
- Characterizing the whole process: “One listening to others, all listening to the Holy Spirit.”
- Defining the hoped for outcome: “We aim to be attentive to how the Spirit speaks through the People of God.”
- Emphasising the focus on Christ and seeking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “Synodality is not a corporate strategic exercise. Rather, it is a spiritual process that is led by the Holy Spirit.”
- Assuring that the process is not only spiritual but ecclesiological: “Synodality does not exist without the pastoral authority of the College of Bishops under the primacy of the successor of Peter, as well as the pastoral authority of each diocesan bishop in the dioceses entrusted to his care.”
- Recognizing that the process is definitely adaptable: “The aim is not to overwhelm dioceses and parishes…Each listening phase will be adapted to local circumstances.”
You can find a link to the vademecum and additional information about the synod process worldwide and in our diocese by visiting sfcatholic.org/synod. We look forward to your involvement and the particular inspirations God may give you to help our diocese grow together as a spiritual family in service to others as Lifelong Catholic Missionary Disciples Through God’s Love.