This Wednesday, Pope Francis will preside at the opening mass of the fifteenth synodal assembly of bishops since the founding of the synod more than fifty years ago. The theme of this meeting is "Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment". It will last three and a half weeks until Sunday, October 28th.
During this time, I will try to share with you regularly my reflections on this major event in the life of the Church. I will do so thinking of the diocesan synodal process that I recently announced and which will be inaugurated on Thursday, October 11 on the occasion of the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, patron of our Archdiocese of Gatineau.
Although the theme of the synod of bishops and that of our diocesan synodal process differ significantly, the approach that the bishops will follow may inspire ours. In this regard, I draw your attention to the effort made by Pope Francis to make the Synod of Bishops more ... synodal.
This may seem paradoxical: is not the synod of bishops, by its very nature, synodal? Is it not the perfect example of what is meant by the expression “a synodal Church”?
In fact, many bishops who have participated in the synods of recent decades have complained about the method and spirit that seemed to prevail there. Some felt that everything was settled in advance, that they did not have the right to raise certain issues or to propose certain solutions. The preparatory consultations were rather superficial and limited; the working papers abounded in generalizations and commonplaces.
Francis started changing this situation with the two synodal assemblies on marriage of 2014 and 2015. The first assembly, labelled as extraordinary, gathered a smaller group than usual: a hundred bishops from across the world (presidents of episcopal conferences) plus the cardinals of the curia. This first assembly "prepared" the second by clarifying issues and suggesting ways to move forward. It itself was preceded by a vast consultation of the people of God, explicitly desired by the pope. At the first session of this special assembly, he invited the participants to speak openly, with courage and conviction ... and to listen with humility and attention. In other words, he sought to free up the participants’ interventions.
During the second synodal assembly on marriage, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of this institution. (I had the grace of attending both Synodal Assemblies as President of the CCCB and then as a delegate of the Canadian Episcopate.) On this occasion, Pope Francis shared his vision of the synod.
Here are some key phrases from this speech:
- A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “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” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
- For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to reproduce the image of the Ecumenical Council and reflect its spirit and method. Pope Paul foresaw that the organization of the Synod could “be improved upon with the passing of time”. Twenty years later, Saint John Paul II echoed that thought when he stated that “this instrument might be further improved. Perhaps collegial pastoral responsibility could be more fully expressed in the Synod”. We must continue along this path.
- It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.
- The sensus fidei prevents a rigid separation between an Ecclesia docens and an Ecclesia discens, since the flock likewise has an instinctive ability to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.
Let me explain this last sentence. The sensus fidei is the intuitive flair of believers for what, in life and in history, corresponds to the Gospel or, on the contrary, contradicts it. It is a collective flair shared by women and men who follow Jesus and open themselves to his Spirit. Bishops and priests cannot monopolize this flair or pretend to dictate it: their role is to discern it, to recognize how the Spirit speaks to the Church today through its members.
Pope Francis affirms that this sense of faith, shared by all the faithful, prevents us from seeing the Church as being composed of two groups: a first (the clergy) in charge of teaching (the Ecclesia docens) and a second (the laity) whose role is to listen and obey (Ecclesia discens). On the contrary, the clergy must listen to the Spirit who speaks to the Church in the life of the laity. This conviction brings about a radical change in how to discern the voice of the Spirit in the Church. This change, desired and encouraged by Francis and many bishops, causes great resistance in others: hence the interest of following this new synod, whatever its theme.