Pope Francis kicks off historic 2-year Synod of Bishops

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Pope Francis greets a man in a wheelchair during an audience with members of the “Foi et Lumière” movement at the Vatican Oct. 2, 2021. Everyone, but especially the least and most fragile, is loved by God and has a place in the church and the world, the pope told members of the movement. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

It has the potential to unleash the biggest renewal effort in the church for 60 years, but you’d be forgiven if you missed the big announcement.

A worldwide synod process is to be opened by Pope Francis in Rome on Oct. 10 and then begin properly with local synods in every diocese across the world starting a week later. After two years of listening, discussion and discernment, bishops will gather in Rome in October 2023 for the culmination of the process. All of this is unprecedented: never before has a synod sought input from every Catholic in the world.

While Francis has blown the whistle for the Renewal Express train to leave the station, it is unclear who is getting on board for the ride. On the ground, responses to the synod have been mixed.

Yet the lack of hype might be a positive sign for a process that is all about listening to the Holy Spirit. As the prophet Elijah discovered, God was not found in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the still, small voice.

In other words, the synod looks like it will be a slow burn, starting off without much fanfare but slowly reaching a crescendo. The next two years are only laying the foundations for a “synodal church,” one that is more closely rooted in early Christianity, and that seeks to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council.

A deep reform in the church has also become urgent in light of the clerical sexual-abuse scandals, a pandemic that has upended pastoral models and the environmental and post-pandemic social crises.

The synodal process is trying to bring about a new way of being the church, giving greater participation of ordinary Catholics, overhauling unsustainable governance styles, focusing on missionary evangelization and serving those on the margins. The emphasis on listening also shows that synodality seeks to overcome the polarization inside the church and politics.

Although the process has huge potential, there is still uncertainty about what any of it means. In an important address to his Diocese of Rome, the pope set out some “dos and don’ts” of synodality. He stressed that any synod must hear from as broad a range of voices as possible, including the poorest in the community. Yet it cannot be reduced to a parliament where unrepresentative groups push through an agenda.

“We need to pass beyond the 3 or 4% that are closest to us, to broaden our range and to listen to others; at times they may insult or dismiss you, but we need to hear what they are thinking,” he said.

“The Holy Spirit in his freedom knows no boundaries or tests of admission. If the parish is to be a home to everyone in the neighborhood, and not a kind of exclusive club, please, let’s keep the doors and windows open.”

The pope pointed to the biblical roots of the synodal process, and that the church is a pilgrim community on a journey “that began with the first apostles and has continued ever since.” Synodality envisages all the people of God taking responsibility for the church’s mission, bringing an end to clericalism, which detaches bishops and priests from their flocks. And he warned against rigid forms of thinking, which he described as a “perversion” and a “sin against the patience of God.”

While Francis sets the direction and offers warnings about the pitfalls, it is up to each local church to devise its process. The pope is not seeking to enforce a one-size-fits all process from Rome, but instead encourage renewal from the bottom up.

It means things are going to get turbulent and a bit messy. Different local synods have already begun.

On the one hand, we have the German synodal pathway, which has opened discussions on a range of disputed questions on human sexuality and the role of women, and has faced heavy criticism in some quarters. Then there is the plenary council in Australia, which is no less ambitious than the German synod but is a more formal process whose recommendations will be ratified by the Holy See.

Other synods have been announced in Ireland and for the entire continent of Latin America. All of them will feed into the global process.

The hope is that out of the “mess” something new will emerge and Francis, who turns 85 on Dec. 17, has started a process that will go on well beyond his pontificate.

Rather than a theory about synods, what matters  is the practice of trying to collectively discern a future for the body of Christ, which is likely to have lasting effects on the life of the whole church. Anyone prepared to seriously engage in synodal reform should expect some surprises.


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