The Synod currently convened in the Vatican is addressing three priority issues: communion, participation, and mission. These priorities were determined following an unprecedented two-year dialogue involving those planning the Synod and rank-and-file Catholics around the globe. Following these priorities means the Synod will seek to advance communion, or unity, among members of the Catholic Church and society at large. To promote such unity it will address how processes, structures, and institutions can promote greater participation in Church governance and in social, political, and economic life. And it will reflect on the Church’s mission to advance communion and participation by sharing its gifts in response to the Gospel.

These goals set a very large agenda before the 364 voting members of the assembly. The fact that enhanced communion and participation are priorities is surely the reason that Pope Francis has appointed 54 women as voting members. And though the event is still officially called a Synod of Bishops, more than a quarter of all its members are not bishops. Achieving the Synod’s goals will depend on realizing communion and participation in the assembly itself. It will need to be a Synod that is effectively characterized by serious dialogue among the participants. It should be a Synod itself in dialogue. Initial reports suggest this goal is being realized.

The broad agenda and participatory preparation for the Synod have stimulated both notable hopes for creative achievement as well as some fears among Church members. The hopes have led some to see analogies between what the Synod might do and the accomplishment of the Second Vatican Council. This has led the well-informed, Vatican-based journalist Gerard O’Connell to write that “The synod is not Vatican III. It’s Pope Francis’ implementation of Vatican II.” Indeed, there are considerable similarities between the Synod’s agenda and the goals of Vatican II. For example, the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, no. 42), echoing the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, no. 1), declared that the Church should be “a sacramental sign and an instrument of intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race.” For the Council, the unity the Church seeks in its own communal life is a sign or sacrament of the solidarity that God wants realized in the life of the entire global community. The mission of the Church, therefore, is to promote both unity among its own members and solidarity in the social, political, and economic life of civil society.

On the eve of the Council, the importance of renewal in both the inner life of the Church and the life of the larger secular society was stressed in an important note submitted by Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens to Pope John XXIII in March 1962. The note presented the cardinal’s overall vision of what he called “A Plan for the Whole Council” [in Alberic Stacpoole, ed., Vatican II Revisited by Those Who Were There (Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press, 1986), 88-105.] Central to this plan was Suenens’ conviction that the Council would respond effectively to the hopes it had generated only by addressing a double range of subjects: the Church ad extra, that is the Church as it looked outward and engaged the larger world of its time, and the Church ad intra, the Church as it reflected on its own inner life.

Suenens stressed that the Council’s treatment of the inner life of the Church should not be simple introspection. Dealing with internal issues should enable the church to respond more adequately to its mission in the larger world. He highlighted his desire that the Council be above all “pastoral” and “apostolic.” This meant that the whole Church should be in a state of mission to the larger world and that this ad extra commitment should shape the life of the Church at all levels: laypeople, clergy, bishops, and Roman congregations.

As the Synod has convened, commentators have often raised the question of whether it will address some of the more controversial issues that have arisen in the internal life of the Catholic community today. The press often calls these hot-button issues. They include the possibility of married priests, the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and the response to LGBTQ members. These are surely key issues. They are controversial because Church tradition, more conservative theology, and the cultural values of Catholics from the Global South make it hard to envision the possibility of change.

Pope Francis’ response to these matters, however, has at times suggested that the door to change might be opened. This impression was strengthened when, in his homily at the Mass launching the Synod, Francis quoted Pope John XXIII’s speech opening the Second Vatican Council. Pope John had affirmed that the Church “should never depart from sacred patrimony of truth” received from tradition. Yet, by itself, tradition would make the Synod unlikely to bring significant development on the controversial issues in the Church’s internal life. But Francis also quoted Pope John’s insistence that the Church “must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues.” Francis went on to insist that this openness to new things means that the Church should not succumb to the temptation of becoming a “rigid church . . . which arms itself against the world and looks backward.”

Francis is convinced that the emphases both on tradition and on innovation are essential. He suggests that tradition and innovation can be combined through a spirit of dialogue and encounter. Indeed, the organization of the Synod’s own conduct is marked by dialogue and encounter among the participants. The very physical layout of the hall where the meeting is being held indicates this style. The voting members of the Synod are seated at a large number of round tables to enhance the conversational mode of their exchanges, rather than being lined up in rows that face an elevated podium, as was common in past Synods.

Indeed, when Pope Francis gave his opening address to the Synod he did so from his place at one of the tables, as if he were just another one of the participants. It is not surprising, then, that in his homily opening the Synod Francis quoted Pope Paul VI’s wish that the Christian community might become “a Church that makes itself a conversation.” Francis stresses that through the listening to others that is essential to conversation, the Synod participants will become open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who must be the central protagonist of the Synod’s work.

Pope Francis sits at a round table with other Synod attendees (Source: Vatican News)
Pope Francis sits at a round table with other Synod attendees (Source: Vatican News)

This conversational mode may be more suited to dealing with internal Church unity and with issues concerning participation and governance in the life of the Church itself than to dealing with larger social issues. On internal matters, the dialogue among Church members taking place at the Synod can have a rather immediate effect. On issues in the larger society—such as efforts to overcome war and assist its victims, to alleviate the struggles of the poor, or to help migrants and refugees—dialogue within the Church itself can have less direct effects. Does this mean that the promotion of dialogue will be less effective in addressing issues of justice and peace in the social, political, and economic life of civil society? Pope Francis does not think so. His stress on the importance of engagement among the diverse groups in civil society as a key to greater justice and peace indicates his conviction that dialogue is important not only in the internal life of the Church, but also in the larger institutions of civic and global interaction.

Through the dialogue taking place among participants from around the world, the Synod will gain insight into how the institutions that extend well beyond the Church itself might be transformed. In this way, the dialogue and encounter at the Synod will help move the Church from its mission to renew its own life ad intra to the mission to pursue a more just and peaceful world ad extra. It is hoped that in this way, the Synod in dialogue might help promote greater dialogue and harmonious interaction in the larger world. Fulfillment of this hope would make a significant contribution to the life of the Church itself and to the world the Church has a mission to serve.

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