Pope Francis shared his vision of a “synodal” church during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the synod of bishops. He defined a synodal church as, “a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing. It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.” Synodality, he said, is “walking together — laity, pastors, the bishop of Rome.” It is “an easy concept to express in words, but is not so easy to put into practice.”
The difficulty of being a synodal church was made glaringly apparent during the recent synod on the family. Stories of battling bishops and murmurings of synod rigging made daily headlines. The unprecedented media coverage gave the synod the feeling of a political campaign with heated debates and predictions of who would win.
If you are familiar with church history, or watched The Borgias, you know that episcopal wranglings are nothing new. What is new is the transparency and openness that Francis has brought to the synod process. Whether knowingly or not, he helped expose not only the polarity but also the nastiness of some synod members. And this nastiness did not go unnoticed by the pope.
In his closing remarks to the synod, Francis spoke of “laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide behind the church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.” He praised the “rich and lively dialogue” while observing that opinions were not always expressed in “entirely well-meaning ways.” One wonders how many bishops were squirming in their seats at these words.
The final document was, in some ways, anti-climatic. There was no earth-shattering change in doctrine or pastoral practice. Opening up the possibility for divorced and remarried Catholics through the internal forum merely stated what was already happening in many parish communities. Sadly, there was no movement toward changing the language used in church teaching on homosexuality. In some ways, the synod could be seen as a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Maybe the promise of much-needed reform is not to be found in the document but in the synodal process itself, a process that Francis clarified as ongoing and inclusive of all the People of God; a synodal church, not just a synod of bishops. If this is the case, then it is a brilliant move by Francis.
The world has already been introduced to Pope Francis, the man of simplicity, mercy and compassion. The world is now being introduced to Pope Francis, the astute and skilled leader. He has been preparing us for change with a consistent message decrying clericalism and careerism in the church. In homily after homily, speech after speech, he has promoted decentralization and the need to go to the fringes of the church and society to take on the “smell of the sheep.” He ceaselessly speaks of the need for deep, respectful listening and dialogue among all God’s people.
Words have power to move hearts, and Francis moves hearts each time he speaks. It takes courage to transform words into action.
It takes courage to promote dialogue, especially within a tightly knit group of cardinals and bishops used to a culture of unquestioning orthodoxy and obedience. It takes courage to allow this dialogue to seep outside of synod halls, where it can be continued in the media, online discussion boards, and in parishes and homes around the world. It takes courage to challenge those in the upper echelons of ecclesial leadership whose doctrinal zeal sometimes mirrors that of the Pharisees of Jesus’s day. Again, in his closing address, Francis reminded the bishops that, “The church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”
The actual meeting in Rome may be over, but the workings of this synod will continue. The next step in the process belongs to our pope, and he has proved over and over that he is a pope of surprises.
Moyer blogs at http://catholicdialogue.com/ and also writes for the National Catholic Reporter blog, NCR Today. She lives in Gimli, Man., with her husband David. They have five adult children and four grandchildren.