The Ecclesial Synod: Practice for a Dialogical Church

By: Julia McStravog

November 3, 2023

Synod of Encounter? Addressing Divisions in the Global Catholic Church

In the middle of a global COVID-19 pandemic—and soon after releasing an encyclical on human friendship and fraternity, Fratelli Tutti—Pope Francis announced what would be the largest attempt at consultation in history: the 2021-2024 Synod, For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission. It is a continuation of the Holy Father’s vocation and charism to engage the hearts and minds of the people of God in a spiritual formation process of encounter, listening, dialogue, and discernment. As the Preparatory Document states, “This journey, which follows in the wake of the Church’s ‘renewal’ proposed by the Second Vatican Council, is both a gift and a task: by journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has been made, the Church will be able to learn through Her experience which processes can help Her live communion, to achieve participation, to open Herself to mission” (#1). This pivotal process, or pathway, is another advancement in living out the vision of the Second Vatican Council and engaging the theological practice of dialogue rooted in Catholic teaching and tradition. The preeminent goal of the Synod is participatory practice in being a “listening Church,” which is an essential element of dialogue that leads to vibrant and life-giving faith communities.

Some may note the International Theological Commission’s 2018 document Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, which calls for “clear theological principles and decisive pastoral orientations” (#8). The goal of the current Synodal project is to enhance the Catholic theological tradition of dialogue. That is, the goal is to deepen the experience of a culture of encounter in order to maintain a posture of true catholicity that is widely embraced in the multiplicity of spiritual traditions that exist within the Catholic Church. Pope Francis called for a synod that is inclusive of the whole of the people of God.

The Synod is the latest example of the Church’s ongoing implementation of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, using a theological praxis—dialogue—that is still relatively new in the history of the Church. There is much to be developed, discovered, and disseminated regarding synodality within the local churches as the Church community embarks together on this journey toward deeper ecclesial and spiritual understanding of one another.

The Synod picks up where Fratelli Tutti—a vision of how to address a world in need of alternate ways of contending with violence and division—leaves off. The encyclical is focused upon external relationships and the role of the Church within a world greatly in need of dialogue. It lays out all of the elements necessary for a successful social dialogue of life, including the necessary dispositions and habits that build such a social reality. However, in the current Synod, Pope Francis has taken the dialogical project a step further, beyond a culture of encounter, beyond relationship-building with other religious traditions and the world, to apply the lessons and skills of externally honed dialogue inward in order to cultivate a synodal Church.

The Synod is an ecclesial formation process in the spiritual practices of listening and dialogue. Through the Synod, hundreds of thousands of Catholics throughout the world participated in listening sessions within the context of sacred space. Conversations in the Spirit was the encouraged methodology for encounter and listening during the Synod. Pope Francis asked the Church to be in dialogue with itself in a new way and, in turn, grow as a people and as an institution whose natural reflex is to seek meaningful relationship, dialogue, and encounter as a means of upholding the humanity and dignity of every person.

In some of the commentaries on the Synod, there has been much distrust and misinformation. While topics that were discussed in the listening sessions included pains and joys, the end goal was not to rectify any disunity within the Church through promulgations, but for the Church to grow to be a “community of practice.” The Synod is a Church-wide process through which the people of God are naming wounds and beginning the steps of discernment to address and heal those wounds, as indicated in the United States National Synthesis and the North American Final Document. The Synod does not have a set agenda for how to address deep and weighty issues that are on the hearts of the people of God. Rather, the 2021-2024 Synod is a process through which the people of God are developing the practical and spiritual skills to have the difficult conversations that come with addressing the wounds and failures in and of the Church.

Dialogue is an essential part of the vitality of a faith community gifted with diversity of ethnic and cultural identities. The lessons of the Synod will be generated from the deep listening of the people of God, accompanying one another and recognizing in each other the fullness of their humanity.

Dialogue is crucial for maintaining the energy that engages such an enriching, diverse faith community. This “generational project” comes about 60 years after the opening of Vatican II. Theologians often muse that it takes 100 years to fully embrace the spirit of a council into the life of the Church. The Synod offers an inflection point, a new trajectory, an unprecedented opportunity to live out the vision of Vatican II. The Synod aims to amplify the theological clarity and the pastoral orientations needed for a Church that is truly in dialogue with God, with itself, and with others.

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