On Sunday, the 17th of October, Dioceses all over the world [including our own] will inaugurate the Diocesan phase of Sixteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, it is the first phase of the synod that will conclude with the Bishops Synod in Rome in October 2023.
Fr Cedric Prakash SJ reflects on this momentous exercise
On 11 October 1962, good Pope John XXIII (now Saint!) opened the historic Second Vatican Council, fully convinced that it was time to “throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.”
At the canonisation of John XXIII on 27 April 2014, Pope Francis said, “In convening the (Second Vatican) Council, John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the church a pastor, a servant-leader. This was his great service to the church; he was the Pope of openness to the spirit.”
It was not easy for Pope John XXIII to throw open the windows of the Church, but he did so courageously, in the face of much hostility from within. Today, some sixty years later, the Catholic Church with Pope Francis at the helm, is on the cusp of yet another watershed moment to throw open not only the windows but also the doors of the Church and to allow the fresh air of the spirit blow through and renew the Church.
The ‘journeying together’ ahead is certainly not going to be an easy one!
The Synod’s website (https://www.synod.va/en.html )states, ‘The Church of God is convoked in Synod. With this convocation Pope Francis invites the whole Church to question itself on synodality: a decisive theme for the life and mission of the Church’.
The theme is “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.”
The Journey Ahead
The journey leading to the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops began with a day of reflection on 9 October, followed by a Eucharistic Celebration in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on Sunday 10 October, presided over by Pope Francis, at which the Synodal process was formally launched.
The process will have three phases (including the launch of the Diocesan phase on Sunday 17 October) and will conclude with the Bishops Synod in Rome in October 2023.
Pope John XXIII (and later, Pope Paul VI) had plenty of opposition to the reforms of Vatican II; sadly, that opposition continues even today!
Since Vatican II, the world (and the Church) has changed much more: the increasing abuse/misuse of information technology, the onslaught of consumerism, the insensitivity to our common home and the ascent of right-wing totalitarianism and xenophobia are among the serious roadblocks in the vision of Pope Francis to journey together!
There are some who are angry with his direct and unequivocal ways in emphasizing that authentic witness is the essence of discipleship; “not all who say Lord, Lord…!” besides, at the other end of the spectrum, there is another group who feel that he is not doing enough to reform the Church. This Synod comes as a moment of grace!
The word ‘synod’ has deep roots within the Church’s tradition.
It is a two-part Greek word meaning ‘with’ and ‘path’. Putting the two together, the meaning of walking together along the way is conveyed. Jesus often taught His disciples as they walked “on the way” (best illustrated in the walk to Emmaus).
This concept was so deeply rooted in the first Christians, that they became known as “followers of the Way”. In 1965, Pope Paul VI launched the modern-day Synods.
Pope Francis: What he said
Addressing the ceremony Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops on 17 October 2015, Pope Francis said that, “The Synod of Bishops is the dynamic point of convergence that calls for mutual listening to the Holy Spirit at every level of the life of the Church” …The articulation of the different phases of the synodal process will help to make possible a true listening to the People of God to ensure the participation of all in the synodal process”. The Synod therefore “is not just an event, but also a process that involves in synergy the People of God, the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome, each according to their proper function.”
On 18 September, addressing the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, Pope Francis described the upcoming Synod as a journey in which the whole Church is engaged saying, “Synodality expresses the nature of the Church, its form, its style, its mission…It is the blueprint for the Church contained in the Acts of the Apostles, which shows the early Christian community walking together….Allow everyone to enter… Allow yourselves to go out to meet them and allow yourselves to be questioned, let their questions be your questions, allow yourselves to walk together: the Spirit will lead you, trust the Spirit. Do not be afraid to enter into dialogue and allow yourselves to be disturbed by the dialogue: it is the dialogue of salvation,”
The logo for the Synod is a powerful one, which sums up the inter-related dimensions of a meaningful process: “A large, majestic tree, full of wisdom and light, reaches for the sky. A sign of deep vitality and hope which expresses the cross of Christ. It carries the Eucharist, which shines like the sun. The horizontal branches, opened like hands or wings, suggest, at the same time, the Holy Spirit. The people of God are not static: they are on the move, in direct reference to the etymology of the word synod, which means “walking together”. The people are united by the same common dynamic that this Tree of Life breathes into them, from which they begin their walk. These 15 silhouettes sum up our entire humanity in its diversity of life situations of generations and origins. This aspect is reinforced by the multiplicity of bright colours which are themselves signs of joy. There is no hierarchy between these people who are all on the same footing: young, old, men, women, teenagers, children, lay people, religious, parents, couples, singles, healthy, disabled; the bishop and the nun are not in front of them, but among them…”
New Way of Being Church
From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has been insisting on ‘a new way of being Church.’ Beginning with his first Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (November 2013) and with his two path-breaking Encyclicals ‘Laudato Si’ (May 2015) and ‘Fratelli Tutti’ (October 2020) Pope Francis has not minced words.
In ‘Evangelli Gaudium’ he says, “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”.
He reiterates this in ‘Fratelli Tutti’, “the Church is a home with open doors, because she is a mother”. And in imitation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “we want to be a Church that serves, that leaves home and goes forth from its places of worship, goes forth from its sacristies, in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be the sign of unity… to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation”
In a similar vein, six months after opening Vatican II, Pope John XXIII on 11April 1963, ‘shook the earth’ through his Encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ (Peace on Earth). This was his last Encyclical which he gave the Church and the very first one by any Pope to be addressed “to all men of goodwill”.
The Encyclical was written in the context of the turbulence and conflict, which had seized several parts of the world: the Cold War, the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Vatican II and his Encyclical were like two sides of a coin: the Church and the World- both inseparable and needed opening up with a thorough cleaning! Pacem in Terris has a more elaborate title, “On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Freedom”.
The four pillars: Truth, Justice, Charity and Freedom are in a sense the sum and substance of the Encyclical. It observes that real peace needs to be based on an order “founded on truth, built according to justice, vivified and integrated by charity, and put into practice in freedom”. We desperately need this today!
Opportunity for the People of God
This Synod, with its powerful theme is a grace-filled opportunity for the people of God to go through a conversion experience and to journey with Jesus for a more just, inclusive, fraternal, free, equitable and peaceful world. Communion, participation and mission are the buzzwords not merely as empty rhetoric but to be actualized in every facet of our daily lives
Communion: is about common sharing, fellowship. For a Christian, it has a much more powerful meaning: the courage to ‘break bread’, to recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread and to share it with others. The Sacrament of the Eucharist. The two disciples with whom Jesus journeys with, on the road to Emmaus are able to recognise him only in the ‘breaking of the bread’. Once the bread is broken it needs to be shared. At the Last Supper, Jesus also gives communion to Judas – whom he knows is about to betray him. Communion is the grace to transcend our narrowness, bigotedness, selfishness, exclusiveness – to reach out to others particularly the lost, least and last. It is the openness to realise that all are my sisters and brothers. This is a Synod for all God’s people – not excluding anyone!
Participation: is about realising that you are an indispensable piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The picture is never complete without ‘me’ and ‘you’! From the time Jesus opens the scroll in the Synagogue and reads from the Prophet Isaiah, he makes it amply clear what his mission his and invites us to participate in it. It is not been easy to do so. The Church is very clerical and patriarchal. The Synod, like Vatican II, is envisaged to be a bottoms-up approach. This will be relegated to mere words if those inside (particularly Bishops and priests) do not have the audacity to dare and to open the windows and the doors which they have locked from the inside! True participation takes place only when others are given the opportunity to enter.
Mission: is going forth and also to send! It is a journey we are all called to undertake. To go out of ourselves: our Church Compounds, rituals and rites, our divisiveness and discriminatory attitudes, our arrogance and aggressiveness, our hate and violence. We are called to go forth: to build bridges rather than walls, to heal and not to wound, to love and not to hate! Mission is about journeying together for a common home in which justice, liberty, equality, fraternity, love, joy and peace are the rights of all! The journey will have difficulties – but one must continue walking it – till our pilgrimage here on earth has ended!
The Synod therefore is an opportune moment for every single family to come together in sharing and caring. It is the ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (the Joy of Love) Year. Families deepening bonds of nurturing and accepting each other. For the clergy, in creating an atmosphere of listening, dialogue and discernment in the parishes in the institutions. To ensure that there are participative and effective Parish Councils not as mere ‘rubber stamps or cosmetic appearances! The same needs to take place at the Diocesan Level.
The synodal process calls for an enhanced role of the laity (the logo depicts it) and particularly of the place of women in the Church. There is so much more to be done. On this score, well-known feminist and theologian Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala says, “the world is gearing up for the Synod on synodality, called by Pope Francis. (India still has to get off the bat.) I am wondering however, how there can be “synodality” when only one woman has the vote!! It is common knowledge that Women fill the pews, hold up the parishes, and minister to the lost, lonely, unwanted and forgotten, especially in places where the Church would never reach if it were not for the women. Synodality presumes a discipleship of equals which is sorely lacking in the androcentric, patriarchal, hierarchical church. True synodality can only happen when the People of God plan synods and I am happy to say that this has already started. Here is a link https://www.rootandbranchsynod.org/all-our-talks to one such synod initiated by women that was inclusive and cut across geographical boundaries. Maybe the bishops will get more than they bargained for and a taste of true synodality! A statement which is incisive but very apt and much needed for our times and for the Synodal process!
On 3 May 2021, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark USA, gave an excellent ‘Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Address’ at Loyola University Chicago.
Speaking of the forthcoming Synod he said, “one thing that synodality and a world turned upside down have in common is that both afford us what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the view from below.” One way we could look at this: the election of Pope Francis opened up the rest of the world to the rich theological ferment of the Church in Latin America, with its strong sense of mission, encounter, peripheries, and mercy. Another way to understand Bonhoeffer’s “view from below” is to think in terms of the peripheries of the marginalized and oppressed. Pope John famously said he called the council to open a window. We always associate this with letting in fresh air, but something else happens when you open a window: you can hear what people outside are saying. When we invite people in to reflect and weigh in on the hard questions, we’re going to get answers we as a hierarchy, or even an entire Church, find difficult”.
In journeying together in communion, participation and mission, the Synod on ‘Synodality’ is undoubtedly a mandate to listen and to learn, to love and to live, to let go and to let God! The journey has begun: there is no turning back! We must open the windows and doors now!