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Journeying together: Synod, Synodal Church, and the Synod of Bishops

The forthcoming Synod of bishops is Synod with a difference: This call of the Holy Father is to all the dioceses across the world. All are called upon to be part of the synodal process. With a special Holy Mass celebrated in all the dioceses on 17th October, 2021, every local Church is expected to commence the consultations, deliberations and sharing by different sections of the Church, the People of God. Holy Father, Pope Francis wants this Synod and the synodal process over the next two years during which, the whole Church participates: “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which “is more than simply hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (Jn14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev. 2:7).

Holy Father spelt out his intentions and plans for this synodal process on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops on 17th October, 2015. He said, “We must continue along the path. The world in which we live and are called to love and serve, even with the contradictions, demands that the Church strengthens cooperation in all areas of her mission. It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church in the third millennium .” (Address of Pope Francis, on 17th October, 2015). This was followed by the release of the Apostolic Constitution, “EPISCOPALIS COMMUNIO on the Synod of Bishops. In this document the entire purpose and plan for this unique Synod of the Church and the whole process during next two years, 2021 – 2023, were dealt with.

After a period of more than five decades since the close of the II Vatican Council and the publication of all documents, the Catholic Church has travelled a long way. Many reforms and changes have happened in the life of the Church while the commitment to the “Evangelizing Mission of the Church” remains, then and now, the same. But, the challenges from the ever changing face of the society and the world at large are also numerous, pressing, and demanding response from different sections in the given society. Naturally, response is expected from the Church, local and universal, of course, without compromising on the Gospel of Christ. What makes the situation even more complex and complicated is that the traditionally stable and strong cultures are also affected by the onslaught of the dynamics of the daily events and activities in modern world – its politics, its economics, its technology, its business and trade, This world scenario, we know, is not also homogenous across the world. This is on many accounts, due to the varying economic strengths and weaknesses prevailing in different countries and continents. Church has to strive to be present and at the same time be faithful to her faith in the Triune God and carry on her mission in this world of today! It is the journey which commenced on the first Pentecost and the journey continues! How is this journeying together now, in the local Church and in the Universal Church? We have to become aware of the truth of the situation and the truth has set us free!

Let us clarify the words “synod” and “synodality” - Meaning of the word synod is “assembly” or “council.” Syn=with, odos=path; it connotes the meaning, ‘on path together,’ of journeying together. As an assembly or as council, the members come together to deliberate, to look at the past and the present, and to move forward into the future. One of the major outcomes of the Second Vatican Council, among many others, is the establishment of the ecclesial institution, namely, the Synod of Bishops. Synod of Bishops is “composed of Bishops, appointed for the most part by the Episcopal Conferences, with our approval (Holy Father’s), will be summoned by the Roman Pontiff, according to the needs of the church, for consultation and collaboration, for the general good of the Church, he deems it opportune.” This is why over the past fifty years, several times the Synod of Bishops was called for and the fruits are shared with the rest of the Church. Synod is a journeying together as a people, there is a purpose and there is a goal to achieve or reach. In this journeying together there is a lot of listening: The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (Jn14:17), in order to know what he (the Spirit) “says to the Churches” (Rev. 2:7).

Holy Father wants this synod commencing on 9th and 10th October in Rome, to be different in the sense that the Synodal process goes on for two years during which the whole Church, and he intends that not just a representative body of bishops and invited delegates deliberate and discuss but the People of God should participate in the whole process — dioceses, different regional and national council of bishops, and finally the Holy See (Vatican). That is why, after formal inauguration of the Synod on 9th and 10th October, 2021, the process of consultation at the diocesan and regional level will take place. The intention of the Holy Father is that “the Synod of Bishops must increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God.” (Episcopalis Communio, no 6).

In this background for the Synod of Bishops, all the dioceses should have a celebration of the opening of the Synod in every diocese. For a fruitful outcome of this process of looking back we have to “listen to the various voices in the Church” to know “what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” local and universal, at this most significant time of human history.”

After the inaugural Mass of the Synod on 17th October, 2021, each diocese is expected to have Synodal process at various levels and in different sections of the Church, the People of God. The Holy Father in his document put the following three aspects of the Synodal process: Communion, Participation and Mission
1. Communion. In communion with the Triune God and in communion with the “whole People of God,” that is, communion with one another as members of the Church, we have to be engaged in “listening” and responding about our journeying together as People of God.
2. Participation has to be from all sections of the People of God. The People of God including priests, men/women religious and, the lay faithful — families, groups, associations, different age groups, those in the pastoral councils, pious associations, ecclesial movements, etc have to participate in the Synodal process. “Only to the extent,” the Holy father reminds us, "that these organizations keep connected to the “base” and start from people and their daily problems, can a Synodal Church begin to take shape: these means, (these refer to ecclesial canonical structures), even when they prove wearisome, must be valued as an opportunity for listening and sharing.” (Pope Francis’ Address on 17th October, 2017).
3. Mission: Here I quote from the text of the preparatory document from Rome: "Synodality is at the service of the Church’s Mission, in which all her members are called to participate. Since we are all missionary disciples, how each Baptized person is called to be a protagonist in the mission? How does the community support its members committed to service in society (social, and political commitment, in scientific research and teaching, in the promotion of social justice, in the protection of human rights, and in caring for the Common home, etc.? How do you help them to live out these commitments in a logic of mission? How is discernment about misson-related choices made, and who participates in it?" At the heart of the whole synodal process is the life and mission of the Church, mission ad intra and mission ad extra. Therefore, if the Church is missionary by its very existence, this particular synod and synodal process should strengthen the members of the Church to be more joyful and committed missionary disciples and strengthen the whole Church to be concerned and actively involved in the mission of the Church. Synod and synodal process is to help the Church to discern “the way forward!’

We conclude with the account of the first meeting of the Apostles and others to listen and to continue their journey as people on a mission: The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter.

"After much debate had taken place. Peter got up and said to them, “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the Gospel and believe. And God, Who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they. The whole assembly fell silent, and they listened while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15: 6 – 12).

† Prakash Mallavarapu, Archbishop of Visakhapatnam