Our previous synods have focused on one dimension of the Church—youth, family, pan-Amazon region. This synod focuses on the Church, as a whole; more specifically, on how we are walking together as Church.
It is concerned with the quality of our journeying together: our relationships. This is very different; it opens a way for internal reflection on the Body of Christ, the Church, one that will chart the way forward for us as a People of God.
A Different Process
This synod 2021–2024 began with listening at the level of parish and communities. Each parish or community produced a synthesis. These were collected and synthesised into the Archdiocesan Synod Synthesis.
All the diocesan syntheses of the AEC region were collated to form one synthesis. Then all the syntheses of Latin America and the Caribbean were summarised into the Synthesis of the Continental Stage of the Synod in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Continental syntheses from around the world were then collected to produce: “Enlarge the space of your tent” (Is 54:2): Working Document for the Continental stage. This document was discussed at all the levels again and feedback went back to Rome and, with this, the Instrumentum Laboris (the working Document for synod 2023) was written.
Compared to former synods, this synod process involved a lot more consultation. But, the difference is not just in the level of consultation and its frequency, the real difference is in the theology which has guided it.
At the heart of the Synod on Synodality is a theological principal called sensus fidei, which was defined in the Vatican Council II document, Lumen Gentium, this way:
The holy people of God share also in Christ’s prophetic office… The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when, “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful”, they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals (12).
This is a theological foundation that is at the heart of synodality. The entire body shares in the prophetic office of Christ. By so sharing, they are influenced by the Holy Spirit to move the Church to truth and deeper response to the will of God. This is a different model of Church, but one that was familiar in the New Testament.
A different model of Church
To hold the sensus fidei as a foundation means giving greater prominence to the whole body. In the current code of Canon Law, the mission is entrusted to the Bishop. Canon 375 (2) states: “Through episcopal consecration itself, bishops receive with the function of sanctifying also the functions of teaching and governing; by their nature, however, these can only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.”
The emphasis here is on communion with the head and members of the college, the pope, and other bishops. The thinking is that the bishop receives a threefold mission from Christ: Teaching, Sanctification and Governing, a mission in which priests and deacons share.
The old model is hierarchical. The pope, bishops and priests make all decisions. This model of hierarchy sees the gifts residing only in some members of the body. St Paul sees the Church differently.
Many times, he lists the variety of gifts that each member receives. Ephesians 4:1–16 is an important example of Church as the body of Christ. There, St Paul exhorts each member of the community to live in a way worthy of his or her vocation (4:1).
He then stresses the unity in the body (v 4) and the individual gifts (v 11) and their purpose: “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (v12). He ends the section by saying: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (v16).
The text makes clear that hierarchy is just one charism within the body and along with all the charisms it must be offered “to equip the people for works of service”. In this model, the Church is a living organism, where every baptised Christian is a minister in this Church, working together to build up the body of Christ.
An integral model
Church as institution is a dead building: Church as Body of Christ is a living organism. There is a fundamental difference. Every part of the body needs to do its work or the whole body will suffer. The synod is not just doing a different consultation process, it is calling forth a new model of Church.
It is important to recognise that all parts of the body have their function. We are not replacing the hierarchy with a clerical laity. The Holy Father is asking hierarchy and laity to journey together towards Christ.
This is synodality, all the parts of the living body of Christ working together in harmony for mission. Each part doing its work.
When defining the Church in its true nature, Lumen Gentium says:
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element (8).
Remember, paradox is the highest form of truth. The Church is at once a hierarchy and a mystical body. This means that its members are “chosen and precious”, called to be “like living stones” and to be “built into a spiritual house” (cf 1 Pet 2:4–5). The image here is the temple as made up of living stones. If this is so, then synodality is vital to the good functioning of this organism.
We have known a Church where the hierarchy was large and in-charge, and a laity who prayed, paid and obeyed. Now, we are moving to a Church where the priest is an equipping pastor who prepares God’s people for taking full responsibility in building up the body of Christ.
Each part of the body is vital; it is necessary for each person to engage fully, actively, and consciously in its liturgy and life.
Synodality is a process of conversation in the Spirit, in which the whole Church is invited to communion, mission and participation. It is not just a different consultative process. It is a different model of Church.
Reflect on your participation in the life of grace, your prayer, study, generosity, and passing on the faith. Are you available for ministry and mission in the Church? Bring this to God in prayer.
Eph 4: 1–16