For this US Bishop, Synodality Is Aimed at One Thing: Mission

If it can avoid ‘self-referentiality,’ Bishop Kevin Rhoades believes that the Church’s ongoing synodal process can contribute to the communion needed to evangelize the world.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, is interviewed by EWTN during its coverage of the Synod on Synodality Oct. 25 at the Vatican.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, is interviewed by EWTN during its coverage of the Synod on Synodality Oct. 25 at the Vatican. (photo: EWTN News)

VATICAN CITY — The instrumentum laboris that has guided the ongoing Synod on Synodality in Rome, set to close tomorrow with a final Mass, contains more than 27,000 words describing hundreds of themes and focal points that have been discussed since the assembly opened Oct. 4. 

But for Bishop Kevin Rhoades, there’s one word in the synod’s working document that stands out above all the rest: “missionary.”

“I think that’s probably where a lot of my heart is at,” the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend bishop told the Register during the assembly’s closing week, prior to the finalization of the synod’s summary text.

Missionary evangelization has been a focus for Bishop Rhoades throughout his own priesthood and episcopal ministry. It’s a dimension at the heart of the ongoing Eucharistic Revival in the Catholic Church in U.S., which the Indiana bishop has taken a lead role in championing, and it’s what inspired him to lead a group of 270 young people to World Youth Day in Lisbon this past August.

It's also something that he says could be a real fruit of the Church’s ongoing synodal experience — if it can avoid getting “sidetracked.”


Missionary Synodality

Bishop Rhoades described his own experience at the synod as something of an education “in the importance of our communion and solidarity with one another.” Not for the sake of self-referential navel-gazing, which he points out Pope Francis warned against in his 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). But as a prerequisite for the Church “going out and spreading, as St. Paul said, the fragrance of Christ in the world.”

“That’s what we’ve been baptized and confirmed to do,” said Bishop Rhoades, who is chairmen-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops religious liberty committee. “So to me, it’s important we not lose that aspect.”

Bishop Rhoades says that he has experienced this missionary-orientated-communion during synod proceedings in a multitude of ways.

For one, he has met and prayed with fellow Catholics from around the world, an opportunity Bishop Rhoades has had perhaps more than others, given his participation in both English and Spanish-speaking working groups. He reflected on the significance of hearing from Catholics facing an array of different contexts, from rapid growth in African dioceses to reality of war and persecution in the Middle East, but all animated by the same commitment to living out the Gospel.

“There has certainly been a spiritual solidarity that I’ve felt in being together,” he said, adding that many of his casual conversations with other participants have been a chance to learn “about what ways of evangelization are affective” in other parts of the Church.

Bishop Rhoades also highlighted the synod’s emphasis on respectful dialogue during small-group discussions, animated by the “conversation in the Spirit” methodology, which requires members to silently listen to each other and pause their discussions for regular intervals of prayer. 

Despite the differing views among participants on important questions, Bishop Rhoades believes that this approach has helped the synod avoid the all-to-present danger of polarization, which he said has “sadly entered the Church” and “does not serve the cause of evangelization.” 

“When things degenerate into angry blogs and all kinds of personal attacks on others, not only is that not love, that’s not the truth of the Gospel,” which calls for Christian to “love one another.”

In contrast to polarization, he described synodality as a call to continual and communal conversion, oriented toward mission.

“That’s part of what the whole synod is all about,” Bishop Rhoades told the Register. “We journey together and it’s a journey where we try to help each other to grow closer to Christ, to grow in goodness and virtue, and ultimately to help each other get to heaven” and be open to the grace needed for the journey.


Not Getting ‘Sidetracked’ 

Of course, there are traps of self-referentiality to avoid if synodality is to contribute to the Church’s evangelizing mission.

Bishop Rhoades stressed that “the way to fruitful evangelization is not accommodation to the spirit of the age,” he said. “Every time that happens, the Church declines. … That is not the path of the Spirit.”

Some in the synod assembly have called for a reconsideration of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Others have pushed for the attempted ordination of women, which one participant told the Register was animated by contemporary secular views of power and equality, not a Catholic understanding of womanhood.

Bishop Rhoades acknowledged that “there are some hard truths” in the Catholic faith, especially for people of this age to accept, but that that doesn’t mean “watering down Christ’s teachings.” Instead, it means “imitating Christ,” who ate with sinners, “but brought many to conversion because of the way our Lord treated them.”

“We don’t help people by affirming error,” he said. “But we also don’t clobber them. We have to love them, be patient, listen, but also guide and teach. It’s not either-or, it’s both-and.”

Bishop Rhodes also said that any discernment of the Holy Spirit’s call, a key theme at the synod, needs to be guided by what God has already told the Church. 

The former head of the USCCB’s doctrine committee underscored the importance of remaining in continuity with established Church teaching, citing St. John Henry Newman’s account of how doctrine can develop as a reliable guide.

“It’s not like the Holy Spirit is saying one thing in one age and another thing in another age,” Bishop Rhoades said, explaining that doctrine develops authentically as the Church penetrates “more deeply into the mysteries of our faith.” 

He also underscored that the value of synodal listening is in its ability to help enhance the Church’s pastoral effectiveness and outreach, noting that “great ideas can surface,” such as how to spread the Gospel to young people via digital means. But he cautioned that “we can get sidetracked or do get sidetracked when something comes up in more of a doctrinal area.”

Bishop Rhoades also emphasized the importance for Church leaders exercising their authority as servant-leaders, not dictators, and spoke about the need for bishops to engage in genuine consultation with the faithful in their diocese — a major theme at the Synod.

“If I’m making a decision, I’d be stupid not to consult,” said the bishop. “I mean, I’m consulting all the time.”

At the same time, the Fort Wayne-South Bend bishop noted that consultation in the Church needs to be practiced in a way consistent with “the special charism” members of the episcopacy have received through the grace of their ordination to govern, sanctify and teach. 

That charism, Bishop Rhoades said, is “ignored” in some people’s understanding of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the nature of the Church. But a bishop who shirks these God-given responsibilities and his irreplaceable role in decision-making, Bishop Rhoades said, “wouldn’t be a true leader” and would not be contributing to authentic Catholic unity.

“The Pope himself has talked about how we’re not talking about the democratization of the Church,” said the bishop.


Fostering a Synodal Culture

While creating new synodal structures in the Church has been a topic at this month’s assembly, Bishop Rhoades believes that the needed institutions and practices for genuine consultation and participation in decision-making are already in place — at least in the United States.

“We have consultative bodies and we use them,” he said, highlighting the importance of his own diocesan pastoral, finance, and presbyteral councils, his bishops’ cabinet, and the insights of lay advisers, like his diocesan assistant for pastoral care, a woman. Bishop Rhoades also pointed out that laypeople, including women, hold important leadership positions in Fort Wayne-South Bend, such as in Catholic education.

But Bishop Rhoades said that he has learned through the synod assembly how to “use some of these consultative bodies better,” and hopes to bring the “conversation in the spirit” methodology back from Rome to northeastern Indiana.

“A more spiritual approach is really important,” he said, noting that the importance of listening to people and including the participation of the laity have been some of the key themes at the synod.

Overall, Bishop Rhoades described the synod as an experience of “the communion of the Church, the solidarity that we need to have for the sake of the mission, for extending the kingdom of Christ in the world” — and he hopes it will have an impact well beyond Paul VI Hall.