By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published October 14, 2021 | En Español
On the Solemnity of the Conversion of St. Paul, Jan. 25, 1959, Pope St. John XXIII made one of the most important announcements of his papacy that continues to have consequences in the life of the church today. He announced a diocesan synod for Rome and an ecumenical council for the universal church. He emphasized that the purpose of the initiative was not to change doctrine, but rather to open the windows and let the Holy Spirit in.
Throughout church history, ecumenical councils have been important moments in the life of the church. In the early centuries of Christianity, these councils were called by the emperor. Sometimes, they were called to condemn heresies and to formulate articles of faith. As time went on, they were convened to address topics such as liturgy, clerical discipline and papal infallibility. There have been 21 ecumenical councils held in the history of the church.
While the concept of an ecumenical council was well known, Pope St. John XXIII’s approach was clear from the beginning. The church must read the “signs of the times” and be able to address the concerns of the modern age. Bishops from around the world met in St. Peter’s Basilica over the course of several years. Pope St. Paul VI solemnly closed the Council in 1965, promulgated the various documents that had been prepared and established the Synod of Bishops to make greater use of the assistance of bishops from around the world in providing for the good of the universal church.
On Oct. 17, 2015, our Holy Father, Pope Francis made an important address at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops. He stated that from the beginning of his papacy, he “sought to enhance the Synod, which is one of the precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council.”
The Synod of Bishops is a group of bishops chosen by the pope from around the world to assist him in his role as universal pastor, while at the same time fostering closer unity between the Holy Father and bishops throughout the world. The word “synod” is a combination of two Greek words—sun (meaning “with”) and odos (meaning “path”). It signifies a journey by companions marked by fellowship and sharing and corresponds to the image of the church as a pilgrim people.
Central to the notion of synod is listening. In the words of Pope Francis, “A synodal church is a church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing.’ It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ in order to know what he ‘says to the churches.’”
In today’s society, so much emphasis is placed on debate and discussion. Everyone has an opinion, from religion to politics and everything in between. The most vocal persons are often the only ones who are heard. Rhetoric becomes charged and common courtesy and respect are all too often excused. This can also happen within the church and can lead to division and resentment. This is why the Holy Father has stressed the importance of listening. To listen is to respect the dignity of every human person and their rights to express themselves and to be heard.
Synodality is a term that Pope Francis has used in several talks throughout his papacy, and so it came as no surprise when he announced that the theme for the 2023 assembly of the Synod of Bishops was: “For A Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”
The synod on synodality
Pope Francis, in an address commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, stated that “the world in which we live, and which we are called to love and serve, even with its contradictions, demands that the church strengthen cooperation in all areas of her mission.” To this end, he issued an invitation to all of the People of God to participate in the 2023 Synod. He has initiated a consultation process throughout the church, first in parishes and dioceses; then in national and regional bodies, culminating in the Synod of Bishops gathering in Rome in October 2023.
The Holy Father has framed the synod as listening to the cry of the poor and reaching out to those who are on the margins of society. Two very detailed documents have been issued by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. The first, a Preparatory Document, contains a theological reflection on synodality. The second text, a Vademecum (or handbook) is intended for those leading the consultation process in the diocesan phase from October 2021 to April 2022.
The first phase of the journey is to gather the lived experience of synodality in the local church. It is a time of “listening” guided by the Holy Spirit. The three dimensions of the synod’s theme are: communion, participation and mission. According to the Preparatory Document, these dimensions are profoundly interrelated.
Communion has at its roots the love and unity of the Trinity and is expressed in God’s covenant with his people. Participation is a call for all of the People of God to engage in listening deeply and respectfully to one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Finally, mission implies evangelization. We are all called to bear witness to the love of God in the midst of the world.
The archdiocesan phase
The archdiocesan phase of the Synod will begin with the celebration of a solemn opening Mass at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 17 at the Cathedral of Christ the King, in Atlanta. The consultation process will continue through April 2022, and the idea and questions that will guide the process are:
“A synodal Church, in announcing the Gospel, ‘journeys together.’ How is this ‘journeying together’ happening today in your local Church? What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our ‘journeying together?’”
In reflecting on this question, we are invited to consider what the Holy Spirit is asking of us in our local church. This includes an acknowledgment of any difficulties, obstacles and wounds that have affected us. Listening and discernment are at the heart of the synodal process; these require the courage to speak and the humility to listen. The process will consist of listening sessions whereby everyone who wishes to speak about any topic that relates to the church and its ministry is free to do so. The secretary of the Synod Committee will take notes at each of these listening sessions. Everyone is invited: some people will be specifically invited because of their roles within the church, while others will be generally invited.
We have been asked to reach out especially to those who feel alienated from the church. The comments from the listening sessions will be compiled in the archdiocese and then sent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a document summarizing the comments made throughout the United States will then be reviewed and sent to Rome.
The synod is an invitation for every diocese to embark on a path of profound renewal as inspired by the grace of God’s Spirit. The synod guidelines remind us that:
—The goal is to ensure the participation of the greatest number possible, in order to listen to the living voice of the entire People of God.
—This is not possible unless we make special efforts to actively reach out to people where they are, especially those who are often excluded or who are not involved in the life of the church.
—There must be a clear focus on the participation of the poor, marginalized, vulnerable and excluded, in order to listen to their voices and experiences.
—The synodal process must be simple, accessible and welcoming for all.
The upcoming synod is a graced moment in the life of the church. It is an opportunity for all of us to experience a new Pentecost. I invite you to participate fully in the consultation process that is about to begin. I ask the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of Atlanta to pray for the church as it prepares for this important spiritual endeavor.
It is my hope, as archbishop of this archdiocese, that we will all fruitfully participate in and benefit from the synod at the archdiocesan level, listening to one another as we share our “stories,” experiences and hopes for the church at this exciting time in its history. I will continue to keep you informed as plans develop.
Come Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!