Synods Exist for the Good of the Church
COMMENTARY: Collegiality is older than you think.
During the synod on the family at the Vatican, Pope Francis made a point on Oct. 17 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the synod by Pope Paul VI during the final days of the Second Vatican Council. At the time, Pope Paul said that he had established the Synod of Bishops in order “to make ever greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church” and to enjoy “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel and the voice of their authority.” Presently, there are 270 bishops and priests who are voting members of the synod.
The members of the Synod of Bishops are drawn from all over the world, but since it is a select group, it is not like a universal or ecumenical council, such as we saw at Vatican II, with all bishops invited to participate. Technically, the synod is considered to always be in session, even if the bishops have gone home to their dioceses. It is the pope who convenes synod assemblies or meetings at the Vatican. Since 1967, there have been 14 ordinary assemblies, three extraordinary assemblies and 10 special assemblies. Over the decades, the synod has tackled topics ranging from social-justice issues, the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of all Catholics and the growth of the Church in Africa to the relationship of the pope with national bishops’ conferences. And of course, at this moment, the synod is discussing the challenges that families confront every day and what role the Church can play in assisting and supporting them.
Long Tradition of Discussion and Collaboration
Since Vatican II, we’ve often heard the term “collegiality,” in which the pope consults the bishops and discusses how best to address ecclesial matters. But there has been collegiality between the pope and the bishops since the first years of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read of St. Peter and the other apostles calling a meeting of all the disciples, where they put forward the argument, “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” The apostles and disciples agreed that the solution was to appoint seven deacons who would care for widows, orphans and the needy, thus freeing up the apostles to perform their primary function — carry the Gospel to all nations. Among the deacons, of course, was St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Over the centuries, bishops met time and again, either in their own countries to thrash out local matters or in an ecumenical council to settle more grave matters facing the Church — typically doctrine, discipline or reform. The famous Council of Nicaea met in 325 to settle the question of what was the true nature of Jesus Christ and what was his relationship to God the Father. An Egyptian priest named Arius had been causing no end of trouble among the faithful by his assertion that Jesus Christ was not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, but a special creation, a kind of superman whom God had sent into the world. There’s a story that, after Arius had explained his heretical ideas to the council fathers, St. Nicholas rose from his seat, walked across the council chamber and slapped Arius across the face. With all due respect to the Rev. Clement Moore, it appears that St. Nicholas was not “a right jolly old elf.” By the way, the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday at Mass was written at the Council of Nicaea to clarify what the Church teaches about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
There are other famous councils, too: the Council of Ephesus in 431 that pronounced that it was perfectly correct to call the Blessed Virgin Mary “Mother of God;” the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which reasserted that Christ was both truly God and truly man; and the Council of Trent, which met on and off from 1545 to 1563. Trent failed to reconcile Protestant dissidents to the Catholic Church, but it did go a long way in purging the Church of the worldliness and other corruptions that had crept into the lives of too many bishops, priests and religious.
On the anniversary of Paul VI’s establishment of the synod, Pope Francis called for the gathered bishops and priests to go on “a journey of synodality.” Perhaps not the most melodious phrase a pope has ever uttered, but it does sum up Francis’ vision of the Church, which he has been expounding at the synod. He envisions a Church where everyone, including the pope, listens to everyone else’s concerns, beliefs and ideas.
“A synodal Church is a Church of listening,” said Pope Francis. “It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn: the faithful, the College of Bishops [and the] Bishop of Rome; each listening to the others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17), to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Revelation 2:7).”
Pope Francis sees the Church as an upside-down pyramid, where the laity make up the bulk of the structure and the clergy and religious are at the bottom, as servants of the faithful. At the absolute bottom is Francis, who likes the ancient papal title “Servant of the Servants of God.”
Francis’ decision to have all viewpoints aired has made some Catholics nervous. There was been a lot of talk about the synod permitting divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive Communion, although Francis’ decision to expedite annulments seems to have derailed that idea, which was advocated by a number of European bishops. And one of Francis’ statements to delegates should reassure those who have worried that the orthodoxy of Church teaching would be compromised: “Act as authentic custodians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, attentively distinguishing it from the often-changing fluxes of public opinion.”
Now that the synod fathers have voted on the final report that has been more than two years in the making, as they return to their usual responsibilities, we hope and pray that the Holy Spirit has inspired them to be good shepherds to the people of God.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of St. Peter’s Bones
and This Saint Will Change Your Life.
He writes from his home in Bethel, Connecticut.