Image credit: Leo Sorel

Catholics have been hearing the word “synodality” thrown around a lot in recent years, and especially in recent months as the global church gears up for a month-long, international gathering at the Vatican this October called, of all things, the “Synod on Synodality.” (The title calls to mind the character of “Major Major” in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.)

But even if the word is odd (it is Greek for “walking together”), and a Synod on Synodality seems bizarrely redundant: synodality is at the heart of the pontificate of Pope Francis. He has made this kind inclusive, consultative style of ministry the key to a Catholic Church that builds on the legacy of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) rather than thwarting the council’s vision. 

This year’s Synod on Synodality will take place in Rome in October and is the first of a two-part phase—a second Synod on Synodality will take place in October 2024. Critics of synodality—and there are many, especially among conservatives in the United States—say this whole thing is confusing and therefore dangerous—though they don’t seem interested in clarifying matters, only sowing fear. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Confusion begets confusion.  

So what is this synodal process? One place to start is with this Q-and-A in America magazine with the great Jesuit church historian, John O’Malley, who died last year. 

But just the other day, in a meeting with Italian journalists, Francis himself—Jesuit and educator that he remains, at heart—gave a wonderful off-the-cuff primer on the “why” and the “what” of synodality. The pope conceded that synodality “may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, of little interest to the general public.” As he explained:

“[W]hen there is much talk and little listening, and when the sense of the common good is in danger of weakening, the Church as a whole has embarked on a journey to rediscover the word together. We must rediscover the word together. Walk together. Question together. Take responsibility together for community discernment, which for us is prayer, as the first Apostles did: this is synodality, which we would like to make a daily habit in all its expressions.”

“Precisely for this purpose, in just over a month, bishops and lay people from all over the world will meet here in Rome for a Synod on Synodality: listening together, discerning together, praying together. The word together is very important. We are in a culture of exclusion, which is a kind of communication capitalism …“

“I am well aware that speaking of a “Synod on Synodality” may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, of little interest to the general public. But what has happened over the past year, which will continue with the assembly next October and then with the second stage of Synod 2024, is something truly important for the Church.”

“It is a journey that Saint Paul VI began at the end of the Council, when he created the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, because he had realized that in the Western Church synodality had disappeared, whereas in the Eastern Church they have this dimension. And this years-long journey – 60 years – is bearing great fruit. Please, let us get used to listening to each other, to talking, not cutting our heads off for a word.”

“To listen, to discuss in a mature way. This is a grace we all need in order to move forward. And it is something the Church today offers the world, a world so often so incapable of making decisions, even when our very survival is at stake.”

“We are trying to learn a new way of living relationships, listening to one another to hear and follow the voice of the Spirit. We have opened our doors, we have offered everyone the opportunity to participate, we have taken into account everyone’s needs and suggestions. We want to contribute together to build the Church where everyone feels at home, where no-one is excluded.”

“That word of the Gospel that is so important: everyone. Everyone, everyone: there are no first-, second- or third-class Catholics, no. All together. Everyone. It is the Lord’s invitation.”

Amen, and you can read it all here

David Gibson is a journalist, author, filmmaker, and Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.