Dan Olsen

Synodality and Christian unity

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The Catholic Church is currently engaged in what some have called the largest consultative process in the history of humanity. After nearly two years of receiving feedback from millions of Catholics from around the world, 364 representatives of the Catholic Church gathered with Pope Francis at the Vatican from Oct. 4 to 29 for the Synod on Synodality.

The lofty goal of this process is to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading the church in its walking together in Christ.

This unique synodal process has involved many firsts: a worldwide, open-ended consultative outreach; diocesan, regional and continental listening sessions; two distinct but inseparable synodal sessions; and a working document that is descriptive in nature, including worksheets with more questions than answers.

Lay involvement has been heightened in significant ways, including the granting, for the first time, of voting rights to laywomen and laymen during the synod. Round-table discussion groups stressed communal discernment over speeches.

All of these historic innovations to the synodal process have led to a more inclusive and representational approach to discernment in the Catholic Church. The church is called to be a listening church in dialogue among its diverse membership. 

What can be overlooked in this synodal approach, however, is the thoroughgoing focus that one finds in the synodal documents on ecumenism, the pursuit of Christian unity. Building on the Second Vatican Council’s declaration that one of its principal concerns was the restoration of Christian unity (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 1), the synod documents have asked Catholics to consider how seriously they are taking the pursuit of unity among all believers in Christ.

The working document for the synod states that “a synodal church is a church of encounter and dialogue. On the path travelled, this aspect of synodality emerges with particular strength in relation to other churches and ecclesial communities, to which we are united by the bond of one Baptism. … Everywhere in tune with the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council, the profound desire to deepen the ecumenical journey also emerges: an authentically synodal church cannot but involve all those who share the one Baptism” (“Instrumentum Laboris,” 24).

There can be no doubt that the ongoing synodal process in the church prioritizes attention to fostering unity among all Christians. The question becomes, then, how are you and other Catholics in your parish and in the archdiocese devoting resources, time and energy toward encountering and accompanying other Christians? How often do you pray with other Christians, seeking to repair past harms and to collaborate on current issues of mutual concern?

Encountering Christians of different denominational affiliations is not meant to be an added task thrust upon Catholics at a time when we are rightly concerned about a growing secularism and diminished attendance at Mass. Rather, other Christians have gifts to share with us to help us better grow into the sacrament of Christ’s presence that we understand ourselves to be.

Of course, Catholics have gifts to share with other Christians, too, but this cannot be done if we do not know each other through dialogue.

It is in this exploration of ecumenism as a “gift exchange” that the synodal working document notes that the ecumenical movement can be seen as a “laboratory of synodality.” Walking together in Christ with other Christians gives us the chance to enact the “methodology of dialogue and consensus-building” (“Instrumentum Laboris,” worksheet B.1.3.c) at the heart of the synodal process. This laboratory of synodality, then, can be a rich source of inspiration and provide a model for how to dialogue within the church itself.

Pope Francis recently stated, “The path of synodality, which the Catholic Church is on, is and must be ecumenical, just as the ecumenical path is synodal” (see “Instrumentum Laboris,” B.1.4). Our credibility as missionary disciples, therefore, is tied to our oneness in Christ. 

This unity must be seen visibly in the Catholic Church, which is a core concern of the ongoing synodal process. Let us not forget, however, that this oneness extends to all who believe and are baptized into the body of Christ. To be a truly synodal church requires us to integrate the insights of all Christians into our communal discernment and ongoing life as a church.



  • ecumenism
  • synod