Growing as synodal Church: Walking together or walking behind?

The first phase of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will take place from Oct 17 to April 2022.

Oct 15, 2021

n Sr Shalini Mulackal is a professor at Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi. She was also the first woman president of the Indian Theological Association.

By Sr Shalini Mulackal
The first phase of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will take place from Oct 17 to April 2022. Preparations are already underway for this. The Preparatory Document (PD) and the handbook (Vademecum) that accompanies it for conducting the first phase in each local Church (diocese/eparchy) give a clear picture about the overall aim, purpose, objectives and process to be followed from the inaugural phase to the implementation phase of the Synod.

I felt happy and satisfied to know the purpose of the Synod as stated in PD, 32. It is not to produce documents, but “to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands” (FRANCIS, Address at the Opening of the Synod of Bishops on Young People (Oct 3, 2018).

Going through the PD and the handbook, and understanding the overall process of this Synod filled me with joy and hope even before the first phase started. Ever since Pope Francis started his Pontificate in March 2013, he has been calling the Church to follow the Jesus of the Gospels. For example, he invited the pastors of the Church ‘to have the smell of the sheep’ and to include everyone, especially women and other marginalised groups, during the foot washing ritual on Maundy Thursday. He himself showed the example by washing the feet of prisoners, including women and people of other faiths. Through his addresses at various occasions, apostolic exhortations, encyclicals like Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti, he has been continuously calling the entire Church to renewal and a radical living of the Gospels. The call of the present Synod is another milestone in the direction of Church renewal and revitalisation. ‘Synod’ is not a new concept — it is an ancient word and an ancient idea. It refers to the path along which the people of God walk together. It was Vatican II that brought back synodality by emphasising the nature and identity of the Church as People of God (Lumen Gentium (LG) chap 2) and not so much by the hierarchical structure; brought about a shift from a pyramidal Church to a participative one. However, the Church still has a long way to go to realise this ideal in the life and mission of the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church has not made much progress in implementing the call of Vatican II for a participative Church, even after 56 years.

The identity of the church as People of God denotes a particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church. Her nature as People of God emphasises the concept of journeying together as a pilgrim people (LG, chap 7) and gathering in assembly, summoned by the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel. Though this is the inner reality of the Church, a big gap exists between this theological conviction and the day to day functioning of the Church.

“It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium,” said Pope Francis, in his address for the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops (Oct 17, 2015). This common journey together is both a gift and a task. It is a call to reflect together on the journey that has been made so far. It is an occasion for diverse members of the Church to learn from one another. Through this listening, God calls us towards a deeper communion, fuller participation, and greater openness to fulfilling our mission in the world.

The long-term vision of this Synod is that the whole Church gradually enters a new way of being Church, a Church that is participatory, egalitarian, and inclusive; a Church where the baptismal equality is lived in every aspect of the Church’s life and mission; a Church where everyone participates in the life and mission of the Church as equal disciples of Jesus. How can this vision be achieved?

The PD gives sufficient guidelines to involve all the members of the local Church in reflection and sharing. The questions given are clear. The first phase of the Synod is the listening phase at the local level, listening to the Spirit of God speaking through diverse members of the Church with varied experiences. One has to wait and see how each local Church is going to engage the membersboth ordained and non-ordained, men and women, single, married, widowed, religious and clergy, members of various age groups and professions, in this listening process.

The patriarchal culture of our country does not expect a man and a woman to walk together. In most places, the woman is expected to walk behind the man. Within the Church too, we have the hierarchical structure which can easily collude with the patriarchal structure, if one is not careful.

Even though the PD and the handbook give clear guidelines and a clear rationale for moving into a Synodal Church, there may be struggles in walking together, as men and women, ordained and non-ordained within a structure that is not so flexible. The gap that is there between ordained and non-ordained, between men and women, is rather wide. However, I am hopeful that if each local Church earnestly tries to put into practice the listening phase in a planned and systematic manner so that maximum number of members get an opportunity and help to reflect on their experiences of being the Church, then the Synod on Synodality will help the Church take a step forward towards being a Synodal Church, as Pope Francis

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