For many Catholics, Pope Francis’s decision to call for a synod on synodality is akin to the boss calling a meeting to discuss meetings, more likely to earn a yawn or an eye roll than enthusiasm. And while the term “synod” is not new to the Church, it is safe to say most Catholics also give very little effort to understanding what a synod is, much less synodality – the process of such consultation and discernment.
Yet for two years, the Church has been preparing for exactly this: a bishops’ synod on synodality. It has involved input from hundreds of thousands of individual Catholics, Catholic organizations, parishes, dioceses, nations and continents. It is assembling several hundred participants in Rome not only in October 2023, but also October 2024. And if precedent matters, there will be a final papal document perhaps sometime in 2025.
If you have not been paying attention so far, you are likely to be inundated soon with media coverage, both religious and, occasionally, secular. There have been scads written on the synod already, with sometimes hysterical warnings that it will bring down the Church, as well as wish lists for its agenda by nearly every interest group with pet causes – LGBT rights, women priests, divorced and remarried, Traditional Latin Mass.
This build up has given the impression that the Pope is assembling a parliament of sorts – an impression he and synod leaders have gone to great pains to deny. The Church is not a democracy with doctrines up for votes, but some advocates for the synod as well as its detractors could easily leave you with the impression that this is in fact what will happen.
Synods have an ancient history and have traditionally been gatherings of bishops to discuss a specific topic. In our Western Church, there have been a series of noteworthy synods since the Second Vatican Council. These synods consisted of certain bishops elected by their peers in each conference as well as additional bishops and various observers chosen by the Pope. This synod will be different in that some lay people will also be voting members.
In my experience, synods are often criticized before, during and after their occurrence. Some critics don’t like the preparatory documents, some don’t like to amount of information allowed to be made public during the synod, and some don’t like the final document written by the Pope after the synod is over.
Pope Francis from early in his papacy made it clear that he was not a fan of how previous synods had been run. This synod may be his clearest effort to implement his vision of “a gathering of the faithful in order to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church and asking her to be and to do.”
It reflects the Pope’s oft-expressed concern for how the Church is to engage the modern world and pursue its mission. The synod itself could perhaps resemble a spiritual strategic planning session: Bringing God’s people together in prayer to listen and to pray much more than to speak, as they discern possible paths forward.
As described, this is a leap of faith, and suspicious minds worry that there are hidden agendas at work. Recent synods, in fact, have seen competing factions machinating behind the scenes for various goals. I suspect this is nothing new in Church history.
My advice for Catholics in these coming weeks and months is two-fold: Take a deep breath, and pray.
There will be a lot of people promising too much or fearing too much, and there will be media coverage that will exaggerate even more. So, take a deep breath and avoid getting caught up in every “what if” scenario and every leak.
And second, pray for all the participants. At this troubled time in human history, facing all of the challenges temporal and spiritual before us, pray that they (and we) are listening for the whispers of the Spirit.
Greg Erlandson is an award-winning Catholic publisher, editor and journalist whose column appears monthly at OSV News. Follow him on Twitter/X @GregErlandson