Moira McQueen’s new book, Walking Together: A Primer on the New Synodality, aims to explain the history, meaning and relevance of synodality as the Church undertakes a two-year process of discernment. Below, McQueen, Executive Director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, delves into an overview of the synod’s structure and the laity’s role in the process.
What is a Synod?
From the beginning of the Church, councils and synods were gatherings of the bishops to discuss important or disputed matters. These gatherings fell into disuse after the Reformation, but synods were revived after Vatican II as a way for the bishops to ‘journey together’ (the meaning of the word ‘synod’). They provide a place where representative bishops from each country, together with the Pope, can discuss matters of importance to the universal Church, listening to each other, sharing concerns and helping shape Church teaching. Lay people and observers from other Christian denominations are now also invited to these synods and they participate in the proceedings.
Why does this matter to ordinary Catholics?
Although the term ‘synod’ still seems new to many Catholics, we are beginning to become more familiar with the concept. It’s important that we pay attention, since the structure of synods is gradually evolving and some of these changes affect the laity. Vatican II’s description of the Church as ‘the People of God’ brought about a different approach to the composition of the Church, no longer divided into clergy and laity in separate tiers. Rather, the Church is seen in a more encompassing manner where all – clergy and laity – are recognized as members of the One Body of Christ in which every member is important, albeit with different gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church.
Just as the bishops expressed their desire at Vatican II to have their voices heard and to have more participation in Church matters, so it became apparent that laity, as members of the body, should also have a voice. Lay people invited to synods now join in discussion of topics in small and large groups with the bishops, contributing to the proceedings in cooperation with them. A further change is that they are now invited to speak to the general assembly in the same way as the bishops. For example, at the Synod on Marriage and Family in 2015, each lay person was allotted the same amount of time as each cardinal and bishop to speak on a topic relevant to the synodal theme at the general assembly.
These changes are important for the role of the laity in the Church. Their role is being widened by Pope Francis, whose vision involves a restructuring of how the Church functions. This is not about changing the authority of the bishops, but about operational changes. Pope Francis emphasizes a spirit of discernment and the importance of listening to each other – lay and clergy – and he frequently reminds us that if the Church is to proceed properly, it needs to be aware of what all its members are saying. Too often there is a disconnect. Partly to remedy that, he began the use of questionnaires in each diocese in 2014, so that each diocese would have a better idea of what individual members of the Church think about the way in which their membership is exercised and to hear their thoughts on how that could be improved. Otherwise, without a place for lay voices to be heard, how can the average person in the Church express his or her likes, dislikes, longings, preferences or creative suggestions? There is no doubt this has been lacking, and these new moves, while perhaps a challenge logistically, will change the profile of lay participation in the Church.
What kind of an influence can local participation have on the future of the Church?
While much attention is currently focused on synods in Rome, they can also be local and parish based as well as being held at diocesan and at national levels. (To participate in the Archdiocese of Toronto’s synod survey, please click here.) They have already occurred in Canada (e.g., several years ago in the dioceses of Winnipeg and London) and have recently taken place in Australia, England, Ireland and Germany.
Results are likely to have impact once people find their voice and are able to state their values, concerns, dreams, complaints, preferences and wishes in an atmosphere of listening, discerning, praying and collaborating with their bishops and pastors with the aim of achieving some goals important to that locality.
Pope Francis stresses ‘communion, participation, mission’ as necessary components of the synodal way. Discussing, suggesting, listening, discerning together with clergy at this level has not been the experience of most Catholics, and recognition that they actually have the capacity to participate in these ways might take some time to register, since it is a major change for the majority of the laity. Think of the impact they could have once mobilized for action – action they see as necessary and possible in their own area as well as in the global Church.
What advice would you give a person before they offer their feedback as part of the Synod process?
I’ve given a few talks on synodality and have discovered that many people have not had the concept and its background explained properly to them. My advice is to read more, find articles and podcasts about it, and then reflect on what synodality could mean for you as an individual and as a member of the Body of Christ. You will discover that the Pope is calling the laity to participate in a real way at many levels. He emphasizes listening to each other and discerning the path in the light of the Holy Spirit. Good advice!
What are some of the issues the Synod seems to be especially focused on?
‘Communion, Participation and Mission’ is the theme for the current synodal process we are engaged in, culminating in Rome in October 2023. The components of the theme ask us to meet, to listen to each other as we walk together and to try to discern paths forward for the Church. They invite us to invoke the wisdom and strength of the Holy Spirit, to think locally about where our own parish could start: what local mission can it discern that might serve people locally, and in doing so furthering the Church’s mission?
The themes envision dioceses gathering to look at their aims, to discern what Catholics believe needs to be done and how those aims can be achieved. They recognize that a ‘from below’ approach is new in the Church and that it might take considerable time in some places to turn matters around. The newer concept of ‘synod’ is not about acquiring power or about being a threat to the authority of the hierarchy in the Church. It is meant to be about communion and collaboration – we are to think about our responsibility as members of the body of Christ and about the common good. Those responsibilities remind us of Catholic Social Teaching, with its insistence that we recognize the preferential option for the poor. They have even less of a voice than most but somehow that voice must also be included in any synodal path.
If a parish were to undertake the synodal path, then the process of deliberating and discussing among parishioners, even apart from completing the questionnaires, could raise endless possibilities: for example, to a greater awareness of lay responsibility, greater lay participation in local action, and perhaps to more activity at the diocesan and national level. Each parish would assess its own local situation and discern what parishioners can do in collaboration with the pastor. It does not matter if the synodal process is slow to start, as long as it starts. Once parishes and dioceses embark on the synodal way under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we pray that it will further the mission of the Church in the world!
The Walking Together: A Primer on the New Synodality e-book is now available in Canada on the Novalis website and hard copies will be available at the end of January 2022 (https://en.novalis.ca/).
To hear McQueen speak on the topic of Synodality at a virtual event sponsored by Novalis Publishing on February 16, please visit: https://bit.ly/WalkingTogetherAsaChurch.