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Synodality, the prophetic option

Through the call to synodality, Pope Francis seeks to structure the Church around its prophetic dimension. The International Theological Commission document stresses this objective nine times in Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.

In the first paragraph, it states, “By the gift of the Holy Spirit, ‘the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father’ and bears witness to the Son (Jn 15:26), all of the baptised participate in the prophetic office of Jesus Christ, ‘the faithful and true witness’ (Rev 3:14)”, 1.

About the integral nature of the Church, where hierarchy and laity participate in the threefold office of Christ, the Commission states:

The importance of the sensus fidei in the life of the Church was strongly emphasised by the Second Vatican Council. Banishing the caricature of an active hierarchy and a passive laity, and in particular the notion of a strict separation between the teaching Church (Ecclesia docens) and the learning Church (Ecclesia discens), the council taught that all the baptised participate in their own proper way in the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. In particular, it taught that Christ fulfils his prophetic office not only by means of the hierarchy but also via the laity, 4.

This understanding of Church does not dismantle the hierarchy or the laity or remove either role. It instead speaks about co-responsibility. It is important to see the dynamic relationship between hierarchy, laity, and primacy as guaranteeing the Church’s mission. Each, by playing its proper role, opens the space where the Holy Spirit works and transforms the Church and its people.


The prophetic dimension

In our time, the Church’s prophetic dimension is being carried by primacy—in a dramatic and sometimes troubling way for many who want to conserve the tradition.

Pope Francis has pushed us to rethink how we see marriage and family, ecology, fraternal relationships, and the human as having infinite dignity. He has pressed us to see an integral ecology, where people and planet, the poor and the next generation are all in a vital, delicate relationship, requiring the decisive action of Church and all humans.

Locally, in the Archdiocese of Port of Spain, we have experienced the prophetic dimension in the charismatic communities that moved from prayer groups to ecclesial communities, witnessing to the power of the risen Christ through their relentless ministries to those on the margins.

A prophetic word was spoken, other prophets confirmed it, and leadership received and interpreted the word for the community.

Sometimes, the prophets spoke, and the leadership could not hear or act. At other times, when the prophets spoke, other prophets discerned it was not from God. Then, there were moments when the prophetic utterance broke through the deafness of the community, and its leaders moved into action and mission.

This threefold interaction is analogous to hierarchy, laity, and the primacy in the universal Church. The guarantee of the Holy Spirit is not in one element of the Church but rather in the dynamic, open, honest interaction of the laity, consecrated lay and religious, priest, and deacon—all seeking God’s will—working in communion with the bishop to discern and bring about whatever God is asking.

In the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG), Vatican Council II said:

The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which He unified in communion and in works of ministry, He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits. By the power of the Gospel He makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. Uninterruptedly He renews it and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse. The Spirit and the Bride both say to Jesus, the Lord, “Come!”, 4.

Synodality is in the service of the prophetic dimension of the Church, an ecclesial structure given by Vatican II, so the Church can “keep the freshness of youth”. It is how we ensure the Church remains a listening and teaching Church, always on the path of “penance and renewal” (LG, 8).

The prophetic dimension usually comes from the periphery and the margins. But we have a Pope from the periphery, from the so-called Third World. He intentionally ministered in the periphery of the Argentinian Church, often filling in for priests who needed a break from the slums.

In other times, the prophetic dimension, which pushes us towards justice, towards inclusivity—towards the centrality of God’s message—might have come from theologians, activists, religious, priests, or bishops. We are in a quite different age when the Holy Father promotes the prophetic dimension, and many a bishop and theologian are reacting against this impulse.


Resistance to union with God

Here, we need to see synodality as a permanent structure to awaken the Church’s prophetic dimension, not just for our time but, like a slow-release pill, a medicine for our ultimate ailment—resistance to union with God.

In his book Discernment in Prayer: Paying Attention to God, William Barry SJ calls resistance to union with God a deep spiritual challenge, a virulent strain (Ch 6).

Barry sees this resistance in Lucifer’s refusal to serve. It is this virulent strain that Jesus confronted during His ministry. He continues to confront it today.

Remember Jesus’ words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21).

Pope Francis reflecting on The Parable of the Good Samaritan gives us a sober reminder:

One detail about the passers-by does stand out: they were religious, devoted to the worship of God: a priest and a Levite. This detail should not be overlooked. It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others. The guarantee of an authentic openness to God, on the other hand, is a way of practising the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters (Fratelli Tutti, 74).


Synodality, a medicine

For the first 500 years, the Church struggled with Christ’s identity. Was He God or man? Then, for 1000 years, we struggled with the Church’s nature. Now, we struggle with human nature.

The Church cannot give an adequate answer to the questions of our time if it cannot enter into deep dialogue and listen to all of the social sciences; philosophy and theology alone cannot bring us to the right answer.

Without listening deeply—with the ear of our heart—to the other in need, without allowing the opinions and ideals of those different from us to confront us, we may not follow Christ and do the will of the Father.

We may not address the most urgent prophetic task of our time: the family, fraternity, and integral ecology, the nature of the human.