The pope’s challenge for the church to be ‘more synodal’


Bishop Dennis Sullivan has called for a gathering of representatives from each parish in March to hear the voices of the faithful and to plan for the future of our church here in South Jersey. The “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in South Jersey,” as Bishop Sullivan has shared with the priests of the Diocese of Camden, is an opportunity that, “gathering together, listening to each other, and sharing our experiences will have a profound effect by renewing our sense of hope and dispelling the spiritual malaise that wears us down.”

In the midst of so many troubling news stories relating to the sex abuse crisis and concomitant cover up by some bishops, this opportunity to gather as the People of God here in South Jersey and discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit are needed more than ever! Certainly Bishop Sullivan was ahead of the curve in the calling of this gathering of the people entrusted to his spiritual and pastoral care to employ the ancient synodal process for the good of the church.

Pope Francis issued an apostolic constitution this week, “Episcopalis Communio,” (Episcopal Communion) to encourage a greater expression of the synodality among the bishops of the world. He is calling on bishops to enter a deeper dialogue with those entrusted to their care and for listening to the “sensus fidelium” (sense of the faith), bringing into greater focus the call and challenge of the Second Vatican Document, “Lumen Gentium,” (Light to the Nations) which called for “the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”

This is no novel call, for in the Catechism of the Catholic Church it adds, “By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority … the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. … The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.”

For Pope Francis it is an expansion of the views of previous popes. Pope Paul VI in 1965 established the Synod of Bishops and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 revised the teaching on the synodality of bishops in his document “Ordo Synod,” (the regulations governing the Synod).

Pope Francis since his election as the Successor of Saint Peter has called and challenged the Church Universal to become more synodal at every level. In 2015 the church celebrated the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s establishment of the notion of synod as the way in which “bishops chosen from various parts of the world are to offer more effective assistance to the supreme shepherd (the pope).”

Pope Francis seems to want to expand this lofty task to all members of the church. He has taught that all members by virtue of our baptism and confirmation are imbued with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and when we are all in communion with one another, after discernment and consensus we share in the infallible proclamation of the deposit of faith and morals entrusted to us by Christ. He said that “The ‘sensus fidei’ (sense of faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate the ‘ecclesia docens’ (teaching church) and the ‘ecclesia discens’ (learning church), because even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new paths that the Lord is opening up to the church.”

Synodality is the mainstay in most of the separated Christian churches in the world. Listening to the voice of the faithful is a constitutive part of the world of Orthodoxy, as well as the ecclesial bodies born of the Reformation. Pope Francis hopes by following the course of the synodal way, it will “in its own way contribute to the restoration, of unity among all Christians, in accordance with the will of the Lord.” It may also strengthen the ties with the wider Christian world in coming to a consensus on how the Bishop of Rome can facilitate unity in the whole church. As Pope John Paul II said in his encyclical, “Ut unum sint.” (That They May Be One), the church must “find a way of exercising the (papal) primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

May our holy conversations with one another, our holy listening to one another, channel the voice of Christ, calling us to be one in him.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.