Synod ’17, Synod ’22 … and now a Synod on Synodality?

Right now, as has occurred many times in the past, there is a Synod occurring at the Vatican, with Catholics from around the world gathered in meetings to reflect on a particular theme. The word “synod” comes from the Greek and expresses the idea of “walking together.”

Pope Francis has called together a wide range of cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, theologians and laity. Their goal is to “walk together” and reflect on the theme: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” This is a synod on synodality itself: a conversation regarding whether and how we are walking together as a Church.

The dominant goal of a synod is to listen to Christ Himself. Pope Francis’ prayer for this month reminds us that the model for walking together is the road to Emmaus, where the disciples walked with and listened to Christ: “This is a journey we will travel, like the disciples of Emmaus, listening to the Lord who always comes to meet us.” Authentically listening to Christ occurs in the context of the revealed Word of God and the deposit of faith entrusted to us by Christ Himself.

A synod is not an ecumenical council – a gathering of all the bishops in the world with the Roman Pontiff  – which has occurred rarely in the history of the Church, most recently at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Unlike a synod, an ecumenical council has an authoritative role in reflecting on the doctrine of the church.

In a recent interview, the newly-named Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio (“Pope’s ambassador”) to the United States, described the role of the synod:

“(The synod) is not to change the doctrine of the Church. A lot of people are afraid about synodality; they say, ‘The pope will change everything.’ No, that’s not true. The pope wants us to work together at all levels: in the family, in the parish, in the diocese, as a national Church, as a universal Church. And for that, we need to make an effort to listen to one another, and also to listen to the Holy Spirit.”

The current synod has drawn much media attention. My advice is to read any synod media coverage with prayerful discernment – and look beyond simple headlines. Some voices want great changes in the Church, not just in our pastoral style – but in our very teachings. They may try to amplify any point of controversy which can cause confusion. Other voices might prematurely presume outcomes of the synod and begin criticizing something that hasn’t even occurred. We live in a very divided world in which advocates for all sides of all issues try to dominate the headlines.  

The fact is that any outcome of a synod is advisory to the Holy Father himself. This synod will unfold over two years – with gatherings in October of 2023 and 2024. After that, the common pattern is for the pope to issue his own pastoral response to what he has heard. Such an apostolic letter would likely not occur until 2025. That means that any understanding of the synod will be fragmentary and incomplete for quite some time. During this time, it’s far better to channel our energy into prayer to the Holy Spirit to guide us and ask for the Holy Angels to protect us.

Are there potential dangers and pitfalls along the way? Most certainly. The evil one wants to divide and confuse. We should pray against any influence of the evil one. And we should pray for the Holy Spirit to guide all those participating that they will be led by the voice of Jesus.  Cardinal Pierre sees the synod as an antidote to division: “The synod … is a moment to examine if and how the Church at the local level is actually working together and trying to offer to a divided world something new.”

As we focus on the synod in Rome, it’s timely to reflect on our own recent local synods. Under my predecessor, Bishop Donald J. Hying, Synod ‘17 resulted in eight mission priorities as outlined in his pastoral letter, “Go Make Disciples”. I am so very grateful for the themes that emerged from that synod, which helped me to understand the collective wisdom of our local church when I arrived to serve as your bishop. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted much of the work initiated as a result of Synod ’17.  

In 2021, Pope Francis called upon all the dioceses in the world to hold local synods. This was a great blessing to our local church and to me personally. Synod ’22 allowed us to refresh and reinvigorate the work of Synod ’17. It further streamlined our focus regarding the call to be disciples and to be missionaries, and inspired my pastoral letter, “We Proclaim Jesus as Lord”. The outcome of our own synod was then forwarded as a report to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as part of the preparation for the current synod in Rome.

My experience with local synods has been very positive. They have renewed our focus regarding the needs of the local church in light of the current times in which we live. Our priorities have been made clearer through the synod process. Parishes and our pastoral center team have been renewing pastoral plans in response to the priorities that emerged from these synods. We remain committed to building upon those many voices heard in our Synod ’17 and Synod ’22.  

One particular message that emerged from our recent local synods is the need to evangelize a hurting world. We need to continue to explore how to love others and share the Good News more effectively, especially to our young people.

I encourage all of us to pray for the current phase of this universal synod. My prayer for the synod is that all of those participating and all of us affected by this time of listening will be drawn closer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As we listen to His voice and hear from others how Jesus has touched their hearts, our lives become renewed and we learn more about how to share His love. Our world needs to know the love of Jesus and respond to his invitation to draw closer to Him. We need repentance, renewal and healing. We need Jesus.

Your servant, 
Most Reverend Robert J. McClory 
Diocese of Gary