Synodality: let’s try this one more time

There is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding over the term ’synodality’.

Nov 12, 2021

By George Wilson SJ

There is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding over the term ’synodality’. It is a word that is recurring regularly in Catholic circles now — made ‘famous’ by Pope Francis, to express ... what?

That question is the focus of much commentary. My contribution to the conversation is based on years spent facilitating several synods and many other similar Church gatherings.

Of course, no dictionary will help us in this. The word is too new. As yet, synodality has no definition. We have to use linguistic clues to tease out just what Pope Francis is trying to communicate by coining it. Definition will have to await an experience of this new kind of reality. We will only learn what possibilities it contains, as well as its limits, by actual participation in it. Definition implies naming boundaries. They will be discovered through trial and error — in the same way canonical synods came to be defined over the centuries.

Linguistic usage offers a starting point. When we tack a suffix like ‘ity’ onto an adjective like ‘synodal’, we are usually indicating that the reality we are pointing to bears some resemblance to a canonical synod. On the other hand, it means that the mere convening of a synod does not guarantee that there will be synodality. Otherwise, Pope Francis would not have been compelled to coin the new term.

That leaves us with a further task: to try to search out what characteristics make synodality like a synod, and what makes it point to something other than a synod.

Like a synod
At a minimum we know that development of this new phenomenon will be something positive, something to be desired. Otherwise, the Pope would not be touting it so frequently. That implies, further, that Pope Francis is expressing his belief that achieving synodality is needed if our Church is to respond effectively to our contemporary world.

In his effort to describe something that cannot as yet be defined, Pope Francis uses an image. Synodality suggests a ‘walking with’. That image contains two components. It is not describing a static reality: there is change going on; movement from one state to another. Something new is being birthed. And it involves more than one person. You can’t model synodality by yourself. It is a ‘between’ phenomenon. Achieving synodality will require new behaviours on the part of its participants.

Synodality involves structural change
The most evident feature of a synod is its composition - who is invited to participate and who is not. Synods are composed of bishops and the ordained clergy, whether those of a diocese or of a nation or of the universal Church. One of the features that make the experience of synodality different from that of a synod is the make-up of its participants. Francis clearly desires that the Church’s response to a rapidly changing world will be in the hands of a broader spectrum of believers than the episcopacy alone. At the core of his reform is his conviction that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out on the whole Church. At that level, distinction based on ordination becomes irrelevant. That is the same conviction that Paul VI expressed in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi 47 years ago when he shifted the focus from the power of teachers to that of witnesses. He called all believers to witness to Christ by their living of the Gospel. Synodality characterises a gathering that actively engages all Catholics at that level.

Something more: transformation of fundamental attitudes
Much of the commentary describing what is new in the synodality envisioned by Pope Francis focuses on a change in structure: participation, and responsibility for decisions, will involve more than the ordained. No matter what other features may eventually emerge as synodality becomes normative, the participant base will include laity and clergy. It will be based on the shared experience of the baptised, not simply the limited perspectives of the ordained. The goal is shared responsibility.

But expanding the participant base of future synods, as earth-shaking as that would be, does not seem to encompass the full transformation Pope Francis is seeking. Structures are inert, like empty wineskins. All depends on how they are used, and what is poured into them. And that depends on the quality of interaction on the part of their participants. Appointment to membership does not of itself guarantee shared empowerment.

Hopes raised, then dashed
Examples of structural revision that promised revolutionary change but turned out to be stillborn are easily found. Groups of people previously excluded from membership on various types of boards are finally admitted. Think women, or people of colour. Expectations of equal inclusion are raised. Then the new members discover, to their disappointment, that they remain powerless in spite of their appointment. They learn that they are simply tokens created to burnish the reputation of the institution. They are listed on the group’s roster but they remain powerless. All depends on whose voice is listened to and taken seriously, and in spite of their appointment their voice is screened out.

Reactionary patterns are maintained by all
At this point, it would be easy to fall into the trap of pinning all responsibility for the failure of structures to achieve the empowerment they promised on those presently in power: the ‘old boys club.’

Actually, experience reveals that new members can, quite unconsciously, contribute to their own impotence.

The following personal experience makes the point: I once facilitated the training of a newly established diocesan pastoral council. The new body was composed of an equal number of priests, lay Church ministers, and lay parishioners. The bishop was deeply committed to sharing responsibility. There was much anticipation in the air. After a period of group formation, the council was called to decide future diocesan policy on a matter affecting every parish. The pros and contras of all options had been discussed thoroughly. It was time to test the waters. I called individual members to state publicly where they stood on the question. They expressed a range of responses: highly supportive of one or other option; troubled but ready to trust a clear consensus; broadly satisfied by the way the views of each member had been respected.

Finally, I came to a quiet gentleman who said, “I just want us to do what the bishop wants …” The disappointment of the other members showed on every face. Where had the fellow been?

I tell the story, not to cast blame on the man, but to make the point that cultural patterns — whether the exclusionary ones of the past or the empowering one hoped for from the adoption of new structures — are co-created by the interaction of all the players.

By his use of the term synodality, Pope Francis seems to be pointing beyond structural change to the adoption of a new mentality, a spirituality that celebrates and actively promotes equal participation and empowerment. That will take an uprooting of long-standing cultural expectations, on the part of lay participants, as well as their bishops.

It is clear from the frequency with which Pope Francis excoriates the evil of clericalism that he hopes the cultivation of a synodal spirituality will end that aberration of the Gospel.

Cultural scripts
Only a few short years ago, both the ordained and their lay members came onto the stage with their respective scripts written for them by preceding generations. The laity’s script read “Father knows best” or “Pray for me, Father; you have a direct line to God.” That of the ordained was “We know Scripture and theology; the laity know only their eighth-grade catechism” or “We’re the protectors of their faith; we have to watch over them.” The content of the challenge presented by the development of a synodal spirituality, will be different for each group.

Bishops will be challenged to learn and practice a new way of listening as lay members describe, not merely their beliefs or theology but the way they actually experience life in today’s Church. And that will inevitably include the laity’s honest perceptions of clerical behaviour.

Listening at that level requires a new form of vulnerability. And confession. Newly empowered lay members will have to unlearn scripts developed across the years when they allowed accepted practice to reduce them to being passive recipients of whatever the clerics decided was good for them. To move from passive membership to actively assuming responsibility involves taking the risks of speaking up. The experience can be lonely. Both will be called to embrace the new experience of mutual trust. Conclusion The culture that divided the Church into the teachers and the taught took centuries to develop; it will not be replaced overnight with one that values equally the experience of every member. The process will be gradual, and costly for all. It’s called shared responsibility, after all. --LCI (https://

George Wilson SJ is a retired ecclesiologist.

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