Scrutinizing ‘Synodality’: Vatican to Conduct Seminar to Examine Concept

The secretary general of the secretariat discussed the matter, and other issues related to the two-year family synod process, in a Dec. 30 interview with L’Osservatore Romano.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

VATICAN CITY — The Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops is to hold a seminar with specialists in ecclesiology and canon law to help attain a better understanding of synodality, the secretary general of the secretariat has said.

In a Dec. 30 interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri said the seminar, to take place in February, would aim to “build a discussion, or at least initiate further studies, starting from the doctrine and research that already exist.”

He said there is a “need to give greater impetus to the study of ecclesial synodality on the part of theological and legal experts.”

The news follows Pope Francis’ landmark Oct. 17 address at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, in which he outlined his vision for a more collegial, decentralized and “listening” Church, based on the concept of synodality.

The Holy Father stressed the importance of listening to the sensus fidei — the sense of the faith, or of the faithful — in preventing a “rigid separation” between the Church and the Church’s teaching. The flock, he said, has an “instinct” to discern the “new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.”

Cardinal Baldisseri, who said he believes that address has “become one of the most powerful” of Francis’ pontificate, said it placed “special emphasis on the role of episcopal conferences,” something that was first hinted at in Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World).

“The Pope had talked about the reform of the Curia and also the relationship between the Petrine primacy and the collegial body of bishops,” Cardinal Baldisseri said. “The episcopal conferences play an important role in this perspective.”


‘A Somewhat Different Path’

He noted, now that the second synod on the family is over, the institution has “started on a somewhat different path than in the past.”

He recalled that Pope Francis has demanded a “renewal” of the synod since the beginning of his pontificate, as part of his wider renewal of the Roman Curia and other Church institutions.

The 50th anniversary commemoration on Oct. 17 allowed for a retrospective look at the synod, he continued, recognizing that it is “an institution of great importance for the life of the Church, but at the same time in need of an overhaul.” Referring to what Francis said early on in his pontificate, Cardinal Baldisseri said the synod had become a little “static” and lacked “dynamism.”

By contrast, he said the Pope wants collegiality “to be deepened,” to follow a “circular path, from the bottom to the top and top to the bottom.” It is a “way of conceiving the Church as a living organism that moves at different levels, with no stagnant compartments,” he said.

The vision is one of “a Church that lives an effective communion, neither identifying itself only with the summit nor just with the base, a Church in which all members of the people of God are called to ‘walk together,’ each starting from the gifts and designated tasks received.”

In particular, he continued, “synodality is the horizon within which to understand the functions and institutions responsible for the leadership of the ecclesial body. It is on this level where the discourse on episcopal collegiality lies, a theme closely connected with synodality but not identical with it.”

Collegiality, Cardinal Baldisseri explained, “refers to the authority that all the bishops, assembled in a college, exercise in the Church cum et sub Petro.” But synodality, he went on, “involves the entire people of God, understood not as a passive subject, but active, according to the functions, the charisms and ministries of each person.”

“One speaks here also of the sensus fidelium,” he said, which is an expression highlighting “the participation of all members of the people of God, as baptized, in the Church's discernment and the work of evangelization.”


Methodology Changes

Asked about the two synods on the family, Cardinal Baldisseri said the change in methodology “initially caused certain difficulties” because it was new. Although “in theory it seems easy, in practice it inevitably leads to problems related to the need for experimentation,” he said. “All in all, we anyway registered a good success.”

The cardinal then spoke of the “methodological renewal” over the two-synod process, which “needed to stretch out reflection over time” and included a questionnaire distributed worldwide to help examine the pastoral challenges facing the family in the context of evangelization. The responses were then included in the lineamenta, or guidelines for discussion, at the synods.

Regarding methodological innovations, he said the first was the expanding of the drafting commission of the synodal document from three members to seven, to include members of the various continents. A second innovation was to have a final document in the form of a text, or relatio synodi, rather than propositions. After the extraordinary synod in 2014, the Pope decided to turn that document into the lineamenta for the second phase in 2015.

At the same time, the Holy Father “called for a deeper discussion of the document” through some questions from the ordinary council of the synod secretariat that were placed in the margins of the text. The answers to these questions, which came from all the episcopal conferences, resulted in the instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family that took place in October, which the Pope designated as the basis of the text to work from for that synod.

Other innovations were introduced at the synod that included dividing the work of the assembly into three parts, in line with the three sections of the instrumentum laboris, in order to arrive at “one text and not simple propositions.”

“This division allowed clear reflection on the issues, without confusion or repetition, both during the general congregations and during the sessions of circuli minores [small working groups].”

Cardinal Baldisseri added that the increase in number of those groups allowed more time to “freely intervene and to prepare texts” in view of the final document.

“Altogether, this new methodology gave more space for the fathers to make interventions,” he said. “Also if, in the aula [the main synod hall], bishops had three minutes, instead of four, as in the past, to give their prepared interventions, in the small groups and in the hour of free discussion at the end of the day, they could speak with greater scope.”

Further innovations included expanding the drafting committee of the final document for the second synod from seven to 10 members. “The commission released a draft final report, which was submitted to the synod fathers for the latest changes,” the cardinal recalled, which was then given to the Pope.


Positive Overall Assessment

As to his overall assessment of the synod, Cardinal Baldisseri said, “It was a great work in which we recognized the seriousness and the spirit of communion that, despite the natural differences of opinion, allowed everyone to arrive at a consensus on different issues.”

He added that the Pope was an “enormous help” in this, reminding the synod fathers that the assembly “is not a parliament, but a space in which one must let the Holy Spirit work.” The Italian cardinal said the synodal discussion “really added to the basic text” given to the Pope at the end, and the fathers “exchanged opinions, working together with sincerity, seriousness and honesty, without deception, even if the media speculated on certain aspects.”

Regarding the letter of the 13 cardinals sent to the Pope expressing some concerns about the process at the beginning of the ordinary synod, Cardinal Baldisseri said that “must be seen and understood in this perspective.”

“Some synod fathers showed their difficulty in accepting the new methodology and wanted to express themselves, getting a timely response,” he said in reference to the letter. “Their doubts were cleared up the following day. I, myself, delivered a clarifying intervention [talk], and the Pope took to the floor in person, offering important clarifications. So everyone was pleased.”

As for the future, the synod secretary general confirmed the Pope will write an “apostolic exhortation relating to the synodal path just ended.” He said there will be a meeting of the new ordinary council of the synod secretariat in April, during which the secretariat “will present a summary of the synod fathers’ and bishops’ conferences’ proposals relating to the next meeting.” The February seminar will also be used to look at further ways to revise the synodal process, he said.


The Merciful Family

Asked if there is a connection between the family synods and the Jubilee of Mercy, Cardinal Baldisseri referred to the Pope’s closing speech of the last synod, in which he said, “Without ever falling into the danger of relativism or of demonizing others, we sought to embrace, fully and courageously, the goodness and mercy of God” in order to “enter and live this synod in the context of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy, which the Church is called to live.”

“We can say that the synod offered a prelude to the jubilee, indicating in mercy an essential pillar on which we build the concrete life of families and family ministry,” the cardinal said.

“The family is a privileged place for the exercise of mercy: In it, members are called to exercise consistently the art of mutual forgiveness, going beyond the wrongs and shortcomings,” Cardinal Baldisseri said. “This is a reflection that from the [Church] family extends to the Christian family and the whole human family, in the knowledge — often repeated by the Pope — that our time has a special need of mercy.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.