Skip to main content
Photograph of the Vatican in Rome.

Photograph of the Vatican in Rome.

A Risky, Hospitable Synod is Fine

As conceived by Pope Francis, a synod is not a gathering of like-minded people who agree with one another; it is a common space of listening, dialog, and discernment.

The much-anticipated month-long Synod on Synodality, which officially begins Oct. 4, was preceded by two events: an ecumenical prayer vigil and three-day moment of silent prayer by all the participants. These opening events signal the direction that Pope Francis intends the synod to take, that is, a path of prayer.

When Pope Francis announced this initiative of synodality he intended to set the church on the road to conversion, reform, and renewal. Several striking aspects were genuinely innovative, including, for example, the insistence on making it an ecclesial assembly rather than an episcopal event. The latter would include only ordained clergy and bishops, while the former will gather all baptized faithful or People of God, as Vatican II (1962-65) envisaged the church to be. In the vision of Francis the synod is a gathering of the people, by the people, and for the people of God. The composition of this synod reflects this vision, comprising bishops, clergy, and laity.

Another interesting feature is the methodology. Unlike the practiced approach of speeches and protracted rounds of voting on prefabricated texts, participants will work in small groups of mixed compositions and listen to one another in spiritual conversation. Such an approach promises to ensure that the outcome is a discerned consensus on the way forward.

This auspicious moment in the life of the church stirs up hope for many reasons. First, the voices at the synod will be representative of the entire community of the church. Such inclusivity is new in a church where clerical privilege has tended to determine whose voice is heard or left out. There are young people on the list of participants, as there are lay women and men. These people come with their competence and giftedness to enrich the synodal conversation and process.

Second, the process is more important than the outcome. This gathering is the first of a two-part process. But it is neither the beginning, nor will it be the end. Already, the synod was preceded by two years of intense preparation involving consultations and conversations among the local churches and regional church groupings. From these preparatory stages emerged matters of critical importance to the life of the church in the world – all of which will be items for discussion and conversation. The space between the first and the second gathering would offer yet another opportunity for the discussion and conversation to percolate to the local levels of the church community, so that in October 2024, a much richer conversation can be had, in order to identify imperatives and establish directions for the church. This process is not meant to end with the synod; it opens up a path to a new way of being church, that is, a listening church. In this sense, synodality is not just an event; it is a path to be walked, a journey to be undertaken as a community. We make the path by walking, says an African proverb. The outcome is not predetermined.

Third, from the outset, Pope Francis has expressed his wish for the synod to be an experience of hospitality, one that would allow people who feel alienated from the church or banished to the peripheries of the church’s pastoral care to rediscover a place where they can call home and feel they truly belong. There are many Christians who fall into this category – alienated, excluded, and marginalized on account of their status, station, or situation. The synodal process offers an opportunity to create a large-tent community where all are welcome, valued, and respected as members of the body of Christ.

Unsurprisingly, controversy has dogged this path to the synod. There are discontented and disaffected people and the number includes many in the leadership of the church at the Vatican and notably in North America. Some have expressed fears that Francis is dabbling dangerously with the core values and teachings of the church by allowing for an open conversation that includes the masses of Christians. In several instances the opposition has been vehement, strident, and outright ugly, creating a divide between those who are pro-Francis and those who are anti-Francis. Opposition and dissent aren’t necessarily bad, for the simple reason that synodality is not the preserve or prerogative of a few. Authentic synodality is an inclusive experience of what it means to be a diverse community where even those voices of dissent and disaffection should be heard.

As conceived by Pope Francis, a synod is not a gathering of like-minded people who agree with one another; it is a common space of listening, dialog, and discernment. The most important protagonist in this space is the Holy Spirit, just as the most important disposition is a prayerful and respectful attentiveness to what the Spirit is saying to the church as a community of discernment. Hopefully participants will excel in exhibiting this disposition.



Faculty, Global, Jesuit, JST, Leadership, Social Justice, Spirituality

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

More articles by this author
Follow us on Instagram
Follow us on Flickr
Follow us on Linkedin
Follow us on Vimeo
Follow us on Youtube