Synod’s Chief Organizer: ‘A More Synodal Church Is a Missionary Church’

Cardinal Mario Grech discusses the initial phase of the Synod on Synodality and addresses concerns the faithful have about the process.

Cardinal Mario Grech leaves St. Peter's basilica after the consistory for the creation of 13 new cardinals Nov. 28, 2020
Cardinal Mario Grech leaves St. Peter's basilica after the consistory for the creation of 13 new cardinals Nov. 28, 2020 (photo: Stefano Spaziani / dpa/AP Images)

VATICAN CITY — As secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech is the chief organizer of 2021-2023 Synod on Synodality that begins on Sunday with a one-year “diocesan phase.”

In this Oct. 6 interview with the Register, the Maltese cardinal answers various concerns about the synod and synodality, including that they might be used as a vehicle to undermine settled Church teachings. 

Pope Francis will open the synod, whose theme is “For a synodal church: communion, participation and mission,” at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday. He will also deliver an address during a day of reflection on Saturday in the synod hall attended by synodal participants. 

On Oct. 17, each of the world’s bishops will launch the process in their own churches, beginning with a liturgical celebration. 

The cardinal’s answers have been edited for style.


Your Eminence, how are the preparations going for the first phase of the Synod beginning next month?

The preparations for this first phase of the Synod are going very well! We have noticed that many areas of the Church are welcoming this Synod with great enthusiasm and joy. These preparations are also occasioning many contacts with (and between) episcopal conferences and local ordinaries.


What is the concrete and long-term goal of this synod and synodality, both at a local and universal level? How will it ultimately help the faithful in terms of evangelization and their own personal salvation?

Many signs point to the realization that the mature fruit of the Church’s reception of Vatican II is a synodal Church. Along the road of the Church’s reception of Vatican II, we are discerning the Spirit’s movement to appreciate and value each of the various ecclesial subjects at various levels (The People of God as a whole, the College of Bishops, i.e. the Successor to Peter who is the principle of unity of all the baptized, all of the bishops, indeed all of the Churches). 

This ability to embrace the interrelatedness of the various ecclesial subjects is a manifestation of synodality. In the local Church, this looks like participation of the people of God with their pastors (i.e. the bishops with their presbyterate).

A more synodal Church is a more missionary Church; a united Body of Christ is credible in evangelization, whereas opposition within the Church destroys unity and also destroys credibility.


The Holy Father has said the upcoming synod on synodality is not about “gathering opinions,” but “listening to the Holy Spirit.” How will participants be able to discern what the Holy Spirit is telling us, and how much will the Church’s teaching and tradition inform that discernment?

Synodality is as old as the Church herself. In the first millennium of the Church’s history, it was taken for granted that the only infallible ecclesial subject was the People of God who, as a whole, could not err in matters of belief; and this because all of the baptized have received the Holy Spirit as gift. 

The sensus fidei runs throughout the Church’s entire history. In fact, in the second millennium, the popes had recourse to the sensus fidei in their definitions of the Marian dogmas.


What does it mean to be the Church of the third millennium? Is it about adjusting the Church to the spirit of the times, or rather having the world adjust to the wisdom of the Church’s teaching? 

The Church of the third millennium cannot be the repetition of the Church of the second millennium, just as the Church of the second millennium could not be the repetition of the Church of the first millennium. As a historical subject, the Church of Christ deepens its own identity through the centuries, in order to draw ever closer to the will of its Founder. 

As Benedict XVI said in 2005, the Church is a subject that always renews itself in continuity. Therefore, continuity and renewal are not opposed, rather they are complementary. The goal of the Church is not to adjust itself to the “spirit of times,” but to listen to this “spirit” to discern within what the “Spirit,” the Holy Spirit, might be communicating to the Christian community in order to be more faithful to Christ. 


Who are the People of God to whom the Synod participants will listen? Are they the baptized or does the group include all groups of people? How can the sensus fidei be authentically identified?

The People of God are the subject of the sensus fidei, making them infallibile in credendo (infallible in belief, i.e. cannot be wrong). As all the baptized participate in the prophetical function of Christ, the Synodal path must listen to all the faithful wherever they are, that is, in the local Churches. Through this listening, the Church’s pastors will be able to identify (discern, really) that which the Spirit is saying to the Church today. This listening, however, cannot be approached in the way we approach consensus at a merely human level, precisely because the sensus fidei cannot be identified with, or reduced to, public opinion; nor can it be confused with sociological surveys. To authentically identify that which constitutes the sensus fidei, it is necessary to “discern” as we listen, that is, “discern” where God is present and where God is absent. Discernment, then, is a deep, spiritual process, without which we cannot authentically identify the sensus fidei. 


The synodal process has come in for criticism over the years. What do you say to each of these concerns? a) Its decentralizing effect is causing doctrinal confusion and “doctrinal anarchy” within the Church b) Synods are vehicles for heterodoxy, a means of introducing liberal teachings and secular values into the Church, mainly because many of those being consulted are poorly catechized c) Synodality is merely a process of Protestantization of the Church — it has been tried in Protestant communities and led to division and disunity.

Pope Francis intends that the Synod no longer be merely an event, but rather a process in which each baptized can be heard. If the bishops do not listen to those who are poorly catechized, we will never know how to heal the poorly catechized through our magisterium. 

As a result, when properly understood and engaged, the synodal process is meant to heal doctrinal confusion and anarchy, by recognizing the specific grace given to each believer and placing this grace in dialogue with the bishops. By will of Christ, this listening process must be led by the Church’s pastors to whom has been entrusted a specific charism of discernment, and above all by the Successor of Peter, who is the principle of unity in the Church. 

Listening to the People of God, therefore, does not mean adjusting to heterodox opinions, but recognizing the voice of the Holy Spirit within the whole of the baptized. In this way, synodality is not the Protestantization of the Catholic Church. 

Each Christian confession has its own way of understanding and living synodality. The Catholic way to synodality is rooted on communion, which is Christ’s gift to the Church; communion lived within the relational dynamic that exists between the People of God, the bishops in their charism of discernment, and the Holy Father’s exercise of his Petrine Primacy. 


Some have already criticized the upcoming synod as too ambitious and unwieldy — how will the Synod Secretariat manage all the input from dioceses around the world and how will that information be processed and analyzed?

The Synod is ambitious, and the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops is called to put forth a great effort out of love for the Church. 

Our method, however, is quite simple. The listening to the people of God within the local Churches will be concluded with a diocesan document that will be delivered to the episcopal conference. Here the bishops, exercising their charism of discernment, will produce a summary that will, in its turn, be transmitted to our Secretariat. 

All the material arriving from the episcopal conferences will serve as the basis for the first instrumentum laboris. This first instrumentum laboris will be the working document for the pre-synodal meetings in the various Continents (second phase). The conclusions of these meetings will then be collected as serve as the basis for the second instrumentum laboris, offered to synod fathers in 2023. 


What do you say to those who suggest this upcoming Synod is a way to hold a Third Vatican Council but without announcing it as such? 

This statement is not rooted in reality. The upcoming Synod is important, but there is an essential difference between a council and a synod: A council is a council, a synod is a synod.


How does the Synod of Bishops recover its credibility after the Pachamama incident, which upset many Catholics? What steps are in place to prevent something like this from happening again?

Respecting a people and their traditions does not diminish the Church’s credibility nor does it compromise its doctrine. Sometimes, during a Synod, things can happen that someone intends to artfully exploit, but the value of a Synod is judged by something else.


Can you assure readers that this Synod is not geared towards achieving a pre-determined result, one that ultimately undermines established Church teaching in order to make the Church seemingly more relevant and conducive to today’s world? 

There are not pre-determined results. Otherwise, it would be senseless to listen to the people of God. The principal goal of the Synod is not to the make the Church more relevant and conducive to today’s world, but rather that the Church be closer to the Lord’s will for it today. 


Will most of the Synod’s conclusions be determined by voting? And if so, what do you say to critics who argue that the Church’s doctrine and practice are not matters of personal preference and majorities, but are rather based on immutable truths, and that the Synod of Bishops, which was only ever meant to be an advisory body for the Pope, has exceeded its mandate originally laid out by Pope St. Paul VI? 

Until today synod assemblies have approved their documents through a final vote. In Apostolica Sollicitudo, the “motu proprio” with which Paul VI created the Synod as an advisory body for the Pope, the vote of the synod fathers is explicitly provided for. This is not new. The history of the Church, in the first and second millennium, testifies that local synods and ecumenical councils used to vote, even when doctrinal truths are involved. There is a fundamental difference between a vote taken in parliament and a vote taken in a general synod. A vote taken in parliament is a merely human action and expresses nothing more than a majority. A vote taken at a general synod is a spiritual action by which the synodal fathers seek to give voice to that which the Holy Spirit is saying here and now.