Truly, Fratelli Tutti: Conciliar Friendship and the Ecclesiological Revolution

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

When I first met Gerard Mannion, I had just been admitted to Georgetown. He and I were fast friends. I asked him, “Do you want any coffee?” to which he replied he was a tea drinker. That made sense and always made me chuckle as I reflected on it. It was clear after only a matter of minutes of talking that we saw eye to eye on many things, from religious pluralism to the political climate and challenges of our times. I saw in him a younger mentor, someone in whom I could trust and someone I could emulate and follow. Professor Mannion would quickly become my advisor for coursework, I would continue on as his teaching and then research assistant, and then ultimately as his doctoral advisee. I knew, for certain, I was in good hands; Gerard Mannion was someone who truly cared for those around him and that care radiated beyond his immediate circle and into the world. It was clear to me he did not just think of conciliarity in theory but also lived it out in practice.

 In 2015, Pope Francis said, “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” This path of synodality is, to Pope Francis, “an essential dimension of the Church,” already present in the very word itself. To Gerard Mannion, after having many conversations with him on the subject, this was not taken lightly. Synod, according to the document Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (2018), was an ancient and venerable word in the tradition of the Church, which held both patristic and biblical relevance. Biblically, the word synod was composed of the word συν (with) and the noun όδός (path), indicating the way in which the People of God walk together. It refers, according to the document, to Jesus who presented himself as “the way, the truth and the life,” (John 14:6) and that Christians themselves were called to be “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2, 19; 9:23; and many others). But in patristic terms, the document refers to Saint John Chrysostom, also referenced by Pope Francis in 2015, who held that synodos (σύνοδος) was that the Church is a “name standing for ‘walking together.’” Professor Mannion made it clear he truly believed this was essential in the future of the Church.    

Generally, it seemed to me Professor Mannion preferred the anglicized term conciliar or conciliarity to refer to this synodal sense of walking together. Not only was this rooted in what I perceived to be his commitment to the teachings and spirit of the Second Vatican Council, but to an even deeper commitment of the Church being a place for deep fraternity and conciliar friendship. The document itself makes it clear, the distinction in the Church between the words synodus or concilium was a new one and that their meanings effectively converge. This conciliar friendship, requiring us all to walk together, meant fraternity of all humanity especially committed to accompanying those at the margins—something he spoke of nearly at every chance he got. Precisely in this way, this sense of synodality—of conciliarity—was drilled into his students and those around him. It became, in a true and real way, the heart of the message for the Church in the third millennium. It became, more personally, a commitment to a form of conciliar friendship.    

We do not yet know what is in Fratelli Tutti, the latest papal encyclical set to release very soon. It is said to be about a deep commitment to social friendship and, using our imaginations, applying that friendship to the difficult times we are in. I imagine further that, given Professor Mannion’s deep appreciation for the ecclesiological vision of Pope Francis, it may well reflect the deeper commitment to a conciliar friendship—the kind of friendship which requires us all to walk together and especially hold close those at the margins of society and those most impacted by hard times. In his reflection on Evangelii Gaudium, Mannion wrote:

“As we strive to emerge from a period of dark and divisive times for the church, a dispositional framework that accentuates the openness of the church, its welcoming, compassionate, and loving character by default has now come to the fore in the ecclesiological vision of Pope Francis. A marked shift away from the punitive and legalistic centralization of recent decades has clearly begun and gathers pace. Many will not like that, but it was inevitable and desperately necessary” [1].

I imagine a sense of conciliar friendship will be at the heart of the Church in the third millennium. And beyond it being brought to the fore of ecclesiological visions for the papacy, it was at the fore of the ecclesiological vision of the great man for whom we mourn a year after his passing. Truly, humanity is one fraternity, and this will hopefully be made clear as dark and divisive times envelop not only the church universal, but the social fabric in which we all live.     

I wish dearly that Professor Mannion was here in these dark and divisive times. His was a voice we desperately need and will be worse off without. His was a message of hope and unity; a message of universal fraternity and friendship. His was a message of conciliarity, synodality, or good old-fashioned solidarity. His was a message of accompanying those at the margins, but also one which offered forgiveness and reconciliation for those who might have placed them there. There is a revolution of love occurring in the world at the same time as its opposite and, on the other side of that revolution, Gerard Mannion’s vision of a just society, institutions which are moral and upright, and people who strive to love their neighbor as themselves are there to be claimed. At the center of the revolution of love is, walking all together in friendship, the Church. As he sagely said, “the ecclesiological revolution has indeed begun.”

  1. Gerard Mannion, “Francis’s Ecclesiological Revolution: A New Way of Being Church, a New Way of Being Pope,” in Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism: Evangelii Gaudium and the Papal Agenda, ed. Gerard Mannion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 121.
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