Cardinal Grech: The Church is synodal because it is a communion

Interview with the Secretary of the Synod of Bishops: “Synodality is the form that realizes the participation of all the people of God in mission.”

Jul 22, 2021

Pope Francis at the Synod of Bishops in 2019


By Andrea Tornielli
The Vatican dicasteries continue their service even during the summer period. However, there is one working group that has been in the eye of the storm for weeks: the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, called to draft the preparatory document and to help the local Churches on a new path, one in which Pope Francis wants true participation from below. We spoke with Cardinal Mario Grech, the Secretary of the Synod of Bishops.

Your Eminence, how is the preparatory work progressing?

To create a synod one must be a synod! Before the publication of the document on the synodal process, we listened to the presidents of all the assemblies of the continental Bishops' Conferences, together with the president of the US Bishops' Conference and the president of the Canadian Bishops' Conference. Then, immediately following the publication of the document, we extended an invitation to the presidents of all the bishops' conferences, their permanent councils, and general secretaries for a fraternal conversation during which they had the opportunity to comment, make suggestions, and even ask questions. In all, we held eight meetings divided by language. Two other moments of consultation were one with the Patriarchs of the Oriental Churches and the other with the Major Archbishops. In addition, we accepted the invitation of the Bishops' Conferences of Brazil, Burundi and the Antilles who asked us for a meeting specifically with them.

How did these first meetings go?

I must say that this has been a much appreciated and fruitful exercise in episcopal collegiality. With this approach we wanted to communicate the message that the synodal involvement of everyone is important even at this stage of the project launch. We have also undertaken a similar approach with the Curia, through conversations with various dicasteries. We have created four commissions to support the work leading up to the Synod: one for theological study, another to help us grow as a Church in the spirituality of communion, a third for methodology, and finally a fourth that will be dedicated to the aspect of communication.

What can you say about the state of work regarding the theme of the next Synod?

I know the sea and I know that for a long voyage by ship, everything must be carefully prepared. The attention we are putting into the drafting of the preparatory document is part of this careful preparation. Of course, we must also agree on the reason for the journey. The Holy Father has assigned the theme of synodality to the 16th Ordinary Assembly. It is certainly a complex theme, because it speaks of communion, participation and mission: these are aspects of synodality and of a "constitutively synodal Church," as he said in his address on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod. "For a synodal Church": it is towards this that we must go, or rather, that the Spirit asks us to go.

The Pope has repeatedly stressed the importance of synodality. Why?

I would like to clarify a misunderstanding. Many people think that synodality is a "fad" of the Pope. I hope none of us shares this thought! In the various preparatory meetings, it became clear that synodality was the form and style of the early Church. The preparatory document clearly highlights this; and it highlights how Vatican II, with the movement of "return to the sources" - the Ressourcement - wanted to recover that model of the Church, without renouncing any of the great advances of the Church in the second millennium. If we want to be faithful to Tradition - and the Council should be considered as the most recent stage of Tradition - we must boldly go down this path of the synodal Church. Synodality is the category that best comprises all the conciliar themes that in the post-conciliar period have often been opposed to one another. I am thinking above all of the ecclesiological category of the people of God, which unfortunately has been opposed to that of hierarchy, insisting on a Church "from below", democratic, and instrumentalizing participation as a claim, not far from that of the trade unions.

What risks do you see in this interpretation?

This interpretation frightens many. But we must not look at interpretations, especially if they intend to divide: we must look at the Council, and the gains it brought, reconstructing only the juridical, hierarchical, institutional aspect of ecclesiology with the more spiritual, theological, historical-salvific one. The people of God of Vatican II is the pilgrim people moving towards the Kingdom. That category has made it possible to recover the totality of the baptized as an active subject in the life of the Church! And it did not do so by denying the function of the pastors, or of the Pope, but by placing them as the principle of unity of the baptized: the bishop in his Church, the Pope in the universal Church. The Church is communion, the 1985 Synod reiterated, initiating the well-known ecclesiology of communion. The Church is constitutively synodal, we are called to say "we". The two statements are not contradictory, but one completes the other: the Church-communion, if it has the people of God as its subject, is a synodal Church and it cannot have another! Because synodality is the form that realizes the participation of all the people of God and of everyone in the people of God, each according to his status and function, in the life and mission of the Church. And it achieves this through the relationship between the sensus fidei of the People of God - as a form of participation in the prophetic function of Christ as indicated in Lumen Gentium 12 - and the discernment function of the pastors.

The centrality of the People of God sometimes seems to struggle to be understood and shared in concrete experience. Why?

Perhaps we need to confess that we have a clear, and perhaps even dear,  hierarchical and magisterial function, in the sense that we willingly affirm and defend it. It is not so much the function of the sensus fidei. To understand its importance, however, it is sufficient to underline the theme of baptism and how the sacrament of rebirth not only enables one to live in Christ, but also immediately integrates one into the Church, as members of the body. The preparatory document emphasizes all this well. If we know how to recognize the value of the sensus fidei and how to move the people of God to become aware of this capacity given in baptism, we will have set out on the true path of synodality. For we will have planted not only the seed of communion but also that of participation. Through baptism, all the baptized participate in the prophetic, priestly and royal function of Christ. Therefore, by listening to the people of God - this is what consultation in the particular Churches is for - we know that we can hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. This does not mean that it is the people of God who determine the path of the Church. To the prophetic function of the whole people of God (including pastors) corresponds the pastors' task of discernment: from what the people of God say, the pastors must grasp what the Spirit wants to say to the Church. But it is from listening to the people of God that discernment must begin.

There are those who say they are frightened by the amount of commitment that the synodal path will entail for the local Churches. Are there concerns about the risks of complicating the ordinary life of the Church?

All this is not really a process that complicates the life of the Church. Because without knowing what the Spirit is saying to the Church, we could act in a vacuum and, even without knowing it, against the Spirit. Once we have rediscovered the "pneumatological" dimension of the Church, we can only adopt the dynamism of prophecy-discernment, which lies at the heart of the synodal process. This is especially true when thinking about the third term at play: mission. The Youth Synod spoke of missionary synodality. Synodality is for mission, it is listening to how the Church becomes itself by living, witnessing and bringing the Gospel. All the terms proposed by the title are connected: they stand or fall together! Let us also ask to be deeply converted to synodality: it means converting to Christ and his Spirit, leaving the primacy to God.––Vatican News

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