June 11, 2021



“Of the words that keep coming up along this journey of the bishop of Rome and the people of God together—mercy, joy, discernment, formation, dialogue—the most misunderstood is ‘synodality.’ By now, ‘synodality’ is a word closely associated with this papacy.”

Those are the words of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the former Archbishop of Indianapolis. On May 3, he spoke about Pope Francis’ vision of synodality at the annual Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause lecture series sponsored by Loyola University Chicago, and his talk was also published in the June issue of Commonweal magazine.

“Synodality” shouldn’t be a scary word. It simply describes how Pope Francis has been governing the Catholic Church. Since the beginning of his papacy, he has called for a more decentralized Church marked by collaboration and consultative decision-making. During the eight years of his papacy, there have been five meetings of the Synod of Bishops.

Cardinal Tobin contends that synodality is “the model of Church that the Lord expects from us in this millennium.”

Pope Francis didn’t just suddenly decide on this model. We can easily trace it back to the Second Vatican Council, as Pope Francis did when he convoked a Jubilee Year of Mercy. It was St. Pope John XXIII who recognized the need for a less centralized exercise of authority in the Church and said that the Church prefers the medicine of mercy to the spirit of severity.

Pope John was succeeded by

St. Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council, and it was he who instituted the Synod of Bishops, which has now held 15 ordinary synods and numerous special assemblies.

But let’s hear how Cardinal Tobin described what has happened since the mid-20th century: “John XXIII read the signs of turmoil and destruction of the first half of the 20th century and saw that the Church had to be as intentional and missionary as it possibly could with its witness—and that the way to achieve this was through a council. In effect, he called on the council to create a blueprint for the engine that would power the Church for the third millennium. John cast a vision: this is what we need to build. Vatican II produced a blueprint. Paul VI set to work constructing it. John Paul II made sure it kept to the exact specifications required. Benedict XVI added the finishing touches, and now, Francis has put it into action.”

Throughout the history of Catholicism, the Church used councils, a form of synodality, to condemn heresies or define particular dogmas. Cardinal Tobin now believes that “we have entered a new stage of the journey. Acts of synodality no longer function as sweeping dogmatic declarations, but rather are used to fine-tune how the Gospel is applied to the signs of the times. And with that comes the next important point of Francis’ long game: conversion.”

By “conversion,” he said, he means the Church’s own conversion, a new way in understanding and approaching how we carry out the Church’s mission. “You can’t show up with an imperious attitude, as if you have all the answers,” he said.

Cardinal Tobin said that there is one more point in what the he calls “Francis’ long game”: the conversion to mercy. This, too, has always been an important part of this pope’s papacy as he has encouraged the Church to reach the peripheries of the marginalized and oppressed. And, Cardinal Tobin said, “We can see signs of this synodality-fueled conversion to mercy all around us in the Church today, if we’re looking for it.”

One of the most recent synods was the 2019 Synod on the Amazon. Among other things, it recommended ordaining to the priesthood married men of “proven virtue” in remote areas where priests are scarce. Pope Francis rejected that recommendation, and Cardinal Tobin found the reason fascinating because it was not theological but process-oriented. He said that the synod had displayed a “parliamentary logic” rather than authentic group discernment.

The Church will soon have a synod about synods: “For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission.” Originally planned for October 2022, it has now been postponed by a year because Pope Francis has requested more participation from lay people at diocesan, regional and national levels. We will be hearing much more about this in the coming months.

—John F. Fink

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