Pray, and Then Participate in the Synod on Synodality

EDITORIAL: How should Catholics respond to this synod?

Pope Francis inside the Synod hall during meetings on the Synod on the Family in Vatican City on October 21, 2015.
Pope Francis inside the Synod hall during meetings on the Synod on the Family in Vatican City on October 21, 2015. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

“Ambivalence” seems like the best way to characterize how the faithful regard the Synod on Synodality, which will begin next month. And understandably so: There are reasons both to look forward to the synod and also to be concerned about how it might unfold.

On the one hand, “synodality,” in authentic Catholic tradition, is a beautiful aspect of the Church’s understanding of itself as “one body, but many parts.” It underscores both that the Holy Spirit is present in the heart of every baptized believer and also that the Church is inherently hierarchical, with some called and ordained to positions of authority. 

Therefore, “journeying together,” Pope Francis’ preferred way of describing synodality, does not imply a kind of bland egalitarianism that erases any distinctions — the Holy Father himself has made clear that a synod is “not a parliament.” Instead, it indicates that the differentiated vocations in the life of the Church are a source of incredible dynamism, precisely when they cooperate in a way that upholds their distinctiveness and, therefore, their complementarity. 

Informed by this fruitful “both/and” understanding, synodality — and the associated practice of consulting the laity — doesn’t replace or weaken episcopal authority; it actually strengthens and aids it, as it has in dioceses across the U.S. where local synods have been or are currently being held. A bishop’s (or pope’s) capacity to teach, govern and sanctify in accord with the Holy Spirit is enhanced when he can hear how that same Spirit is working among his people. If the upcoming synod can help develop this understanding of synodality, and come to practical conclusions about how it can be more fully incorporated into the life of the Church, it will be a welcome contribution. 

On the other hand, there are reasons to be concerned that this desired result will not come about, in large part because some involved in managing this synod seem to be operating with a different — and flawed — understanding of synodality, one that’s not consistent with magisterial teaching, such as the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium

For instance, the synod’s vademecum, or handbook, presents a concerning concept of the sensus fidelium, on the one hand stating that the synod is primarily an act of the baptized, but then calling for the inclusion — and even prioritization — of the voices of non-Catholics and even non-Christians, with no clear indication how the contributions of those who belong to the Church will be distinguished from those who don’t. These deficient accounts of synodality are nothing new. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has criticized some recent Vatican expressions of the concept as giving the impression “that the Church is a freewheeling democracy, making up its principles and teachings as it goes along.” It also can’t be ignored that “synodality” has been weaponized by the German episcopacy for the expressed purpose of breaking from fundamental moral doctrine. 

As Stephen White has written, the term “synodality” is something of an “empty vessel,” and “there are reasons to be skeptical of the way some might misconstrue [it] in an attempt to deconstruct doctrine, undermine tradition, and jeopardize ecclesial communion.” 

Then, of course, there is the track record of recent Vatican synods, which were characterized by a sense that “the deck was stacked.” Contributions in support of some positions — frequently orthodox ones — were often excluded from final reports in order to advance what seemed like a predetermined outcome. This pattern is disturbing and, ironically, anti-synodal. There is no “journeying together” when the voices of some participants are excluded because they didn’t fit the desired agenda for change. 

Judging by recent history, there’s reason to be concerned that this same dynamic will mark the Synod on Synodality as well. 

So how should Catholics respond to this synod? 

Simply put, we should pray and participate. And in that order.

First, we should turn to God in prayer. We should ask him to protect his Church and to guide those involved and responsible for the synod, but we should also pray for ourselves. 

We should pray that our trust in the Lord — our conviction that he loves us and will never leave us — is profoundly deepened. We should assume a posture of complete dependence upon the Father, allowing him to give us his peace that surpasses all understanding. We should meditate upon the truth that the Church will always prevail against the gates of hell, that Christ has already won the battle, and that the weight of the world does not rest upon our shoulders.

This kind of prayer is always important, but it’s especially important now, when there is among many Catholics a very heightened sense of concern over the direction of society and the Church. Through the internet, social media and 24/7 news cycles, our unfettered access to information, which is often sensationalized to produce anger and anxiety, often robs us of peace and trust in God. It engenders the false and prideful burden that “everything depends upon us,” and too often we respond not in cooperation with God and his grace for handling the challenges of the moment, but out of despair, animated by the reptilian instinct for self-preservation. This is not of God.

If the Synod on Synodality results in discord and confusion, God will not hold you accountable for not single-handedly preventing it from your engineering firm in Plano, Texas, or from the K-8 school in Staples, Minnesota, where you teach. In fact, we’re far more likely to err in the other direction: neglecting our actual God-given duties by fixating upon a problem that we can do very little to actually address.

So pray for trust and humility and to know your part. Pray to be reminded that God is a Provident Father. And then, because of that truth, participate in the synod.

God’s providence is not an excuse for apathy or inaction. Instead, it’s the foundation for our ability to participate in his work — including the synod — with a profound peace and confidence, and with the clarity to see what he is asking us to do and what he is not. The lives of incredible reformers and defenders of the faith — saints like Athanasius and Teresa of Avila — are a testament to this. We are not called to imitate the grandeur or external form of their accomplishments, but rather the holiness and trustful participation that undergirded and inspired their apostolates.

More so than most matters of universal Church governance, the Synod on Synodality is open to widespread participation. Although it will open in Rome on Oct. 9 and close there with a gathering of bishops in 2023, significant portions of the synod involve diocesan and regional consultation with the laity throughout the world. The faithful are invited to join in these consultations, to participate in ways that are reasonable for each state of life. Now is the time to find out the schedule for diocesan meetings and how to sign up. It’s also time to prepare by studying the topics and questions and prayerfully discerning with the Lord how to respond. 

The day belongs to those who show up. Thoughtful and prayerful participation is needed to exercise the kind of synodality Pope Francis envisions. This involvement isn’t done simply out of fear for what might happen if the “other” side prevails, but rather motivated out of sincere eagerness to share in God’s plan for the Church and society.

Of course, widespread prayerful and thoughtful participation in the Synod on Synodality will not necessarily guarantee that it will be an apparent success, a fruitful contribution to the life of the Church. We should participate anyway. As St. Teresa of Calcutta reminded us, God has called us not to be successful, but to be faithful. Our trust is in God, who has promised to remain with his Church always.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.