What is synodality?

Professor Marco Vanzini offers an explanation of the concept of synodality in the Church. Pope Francis has invited all the dioceses of the world to reflect on this issue and in October 2023 the final phase of the synod will take place in Rome.

Marco Vanzini-September 8, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

For the Church, the first form of synodal journey is to listen to history, in dialogue with and in Tradition. The Church is a caravan that brings together successive generations with their baggage of experience, of faith understood and lived. Trusting in the aid of the Spirit of truth, the Church knows that Tradition is the place where God continues to speak to her, enabling her to offer the world a doctrine that is always alive and relevant.

The Church has always been conscious of being on a journey: on the Way, as the Christian faith itself was called in the first centuries, recalling the words of the Gospel in which Jesus declares that he is "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6). Christianity is the way by which man can walk in order to attain life in the truest sense, that which is found in God himself, in the Father's embrace. Christ leads us to him on that journey which is our life on earth and whose steps are essentially interior: the steps by which our spirit comes out of its confinement and understands that the meaning of life is love, communion with every person, recognized as a brother or sister in Christ, a son or daughter of the Father himself. 

The Church has always been aware of being on a journey: on the Way, as the Christian faith itself was called in the first centuries, recalling the words of the Gospel in which Jesus declares that he is "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6).

The goal of man's journey is not to immerse himself in an individual and "private" relationship with God; nor is the journey to be made alone, but together, in the communion that already exists - even if not fully - in the Church. It is a syn-hodos, a synodal journeythat we are making. And indeed, on this journey the Church wants to accompany every man and every woman, the whole human family of which she herself is a part and whose toils, sufferings, desires and hopes she shares. 

What the Pope wants

The Church, in fact, 'is made up of men and women who, gathered together in Christ, are led by the Holy Spirit in their pilgrimage towards the Kingdom of their Father, and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for all. That is why this community feels itself truly united to the human race and its history by the deepest of bonds' (Gaudium et Spes, 1).

It is this fundamental awareness that Pope Francis wants to revive in the Church, giving impetus to the reflection on synodality. But if it is true that from her very origins the Church has known that she is walking together with the world on the Way which is Christ, then the first awareness that has to be revived is that of her own history as a place of synodality. Indeed, since the day of Pentecost, the Church's very raison d'être has been to bring Christ to the world and the world to Christ. And she has done so through the life of believers, through their witness, through their charity lived and nourished in the Eucharist, through the proclamation of the Gospel and through its actualization in every era of history. 

The lives of Peter and Paul, of Lawrence and Agnes, the theological genius of Origen, Augustine and Thomas, the progress in the understanding of the mystery of God and of man witnessed by the Magisterium in the Councils and in its various expressions, the spiritual depth of Teresa and Ignatius, the humility of Francis and the luminous charity of Joseph Cottolengo and Maximilian Kolbe: these are expressions of the inexhaustible richness and vitality of Christ and of the Gospel. Without these expressions, that richness would remain confined to the past. 

These expressions are the Church's mediation between the Gospel and the life and culture of the people in every age. They are what is called Tradition and, taken together, they constitute a perennial patrimony of the Church, a symphony of voices through which she has made the Word of Christ audible in every age and makes it audible in today's world. The Church, basing herself on Christ's promise, is convinced that the Holy Spirit coordinates and arranges these voices so that the Word is heard in all its richness, faithfully, without distortion. 

For this reason, the Church advances on her journey above all by listening to these voices, constantly drawing on this heritage and bringing it up to date. Otherwise, it would run the risk of remaining anachronistically anchored in the past or of falling off the path, abandoning the 'Way' which is Christ to follow misguided directions. 

Synodality is a historical synodality

To borrow an expression dear to Pope Francis, the Church is a caravan of solidarity that brings together successive generations with their baggage of experiences, of faith understood and lived. In this sense, we can say that the Church's synodality is above all historical: in the Church, today's Christians walk alongside those of yesterday and prepare the way for those of tomorrow. And this is thanks to her living Tradition, capable of preserving and making present the Word of God, in order to illuminate with its light the problems and questions of mankind today. 

Listening to one's own history - Tradition - is neither easy nor can it be taken for granted, just like dialogue between generations in a family and in society. But in the Church it is something indispensable, even more than in a family or in society. Indeed, what is at stake is faith in the indefectibility assured by Christ to the Church in her mission of transmitting the truth, with the assistance of the 'Spirit of truth' (Mt 16:18; Jn 16:13).

Christian doctrine has a development because it is the doctrine of a subject, the Church, who lives in time and faces the contexts of each time and place. And because the mystery from which it is nourished - the God revealed in Jesus Christ - is inexhaustible, as is the mystery of man, which is illuminated by this doctrine. But, as St John Henry Newman shrewdly explained, it is a development that does not reject the past, but knows how to appreciate it and to return continually to it as a guarantee of true historical continuity. 

In this way, the Church can manifest in her journey a perennial vigor and a never-failing capacity for renewal. Thus a true deepening of the truth can take place at any time - not merely a transposition of the teachings of the past into more current terms and concepts. New aspects of truth, previously unexpressed or even hidden, can emerge under the stimulus of a new historical and cultural context. New insights illuminate previous ones - by which they were always prepared and anticipated to some extent, and thus the coherence, unity and fruitfulness of Christian doctrine and made manifest.

Listening to and dialoguing with Tradition and in Tradition is an essential modality of the synodality that the Church needs today. This listening-dialogue is the guarantee that what we intend to offer to the world as a community of believers in Christ will not simply be a solution based on human wisdom to the anthropological, ethical and spiritual challenges that the changing times present us with. Rather, it will be a human word in which is expressed - is incarnated - the divine Word, the only Word capable of truly illuminating, in all its depth, the mystery of man, the meaning of his life, and the goal of his journey together with the entire human community.

The authorMarco Vanzini

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