Synod on Synodality: Journeying Together
I hope that you, the reader, will instantly recognise the words in the title since they are the theme for preparing the Church for the Synod on Synodality. Questions for reflection have been shared with members of the Church throughout the world; bishops have been charged by the Holy Father to give feedback on this theme over the next 18 months.
The notion of a “Synod on Synodality” sounds a bit like a political joke in which time is wasted having “meetings about meetings”. But 30 years ago, South Africa was brought back from the brink of civil war by a series of “talks about talks”, so we should not be too dismissive of this approach.
What is a synod anyway? I would define “synodality” as an approach in which decisions are made by a group of people (not just by one) through a process of discussion, reflection and constructive disagreement — rather than the issuing of orders from on high.
Pope Francis is deeply concerned about how we, as a Church, live up to the challenge of “synodality”. The epitome of synodality in modern times was the Second Vatican Council which opened almost 60 years ago. This in turn led to the rediscovery at a local level of diocesan synods: Archbishop Denis Hurley convened the first South African one in Durban in 1968.
Pope Francis, like his immediate predecessors, has used the model of a synod to draw together voices from around the world — mostly bishops but not exclusively — to look at issues such as family life, youth and the Amazon region. So what better way to look at synodality than through an actual synod?
What is unique about this one is that the pope has given the Church two years to prepare for the synod in October 2023. And we are all invited to participate!
So the second word in the theme “journeying together” has huge significance. Every member of the Church is being invited to participate through reflection and sharing so that the final synod draws on the whole Church not just on those bishops (and others) who will be present in Rome in October 2023. Now, in November and December, you should be hearing through your parish about the different ways in which you can participate. This is going to be quite a journey!
And December is a good time to reflect on journeying: we are on our way towards Christmas, and we are conscious of the journey taken by the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
The Synod Express
But I am intrigued by the image that “journeying” brings to mind. There is one image that for some of us might be the instant one and which has merit but also some drawbacks. It is the image of the Church journeying together on a train: the bishop is the train driver, keeping to the timetable published by Rome, and we are all settled in our carriages chugging along behind. It might be a comforting image until we start asking deeper questions. When we imagine that train, we do see all of us on it together, but perhaps we have immediately put people into different carriages.
Subconsciously, we seat the priests up in 1st Class, closest to the driver, enjoying the best view, the most comfortable chairs and the free snacks! The nuns are in 2nd Class, perhaps these days joined by the ecclesiocrats (those lay people in our organisations and schools who, like me, are paid to work for the Church and so have some privileged access). And then the remaining 99% of the people of God are in 3rd Class — in the train certainly, but with few of the comforts, a bad view of where we are heading, and very little contact with the train driver. Not surprisingly, this is sometimes referred to as “cattle class”.
As we are invited to share on what it is like to be “journeying together”, this train image poses some significant problems in producing good reflection: there will be conversations, but most of them will take place within each carriage. There might be some notes passed up the train from 3rd Class to 2nd and from 2nd to 1st — but what gets lost on the way? A few lucky people might get a temporary upgrade and get to sit in a higher class, but everyone still feels like a passenger. At the end of the journey the train driver might or might not respond to what the passengers are saying, and in any case he is limited in what he can do by the tracks and the points that have been set by Rome.
Moreover, there are a lot of people who are not on our train but could be. Is the “together” of our “journeying together” only for the people who have the right ticket? What about those who feel that they are not welcome on the train or cannot access it? The homeless, the disabled, the youth. What about those who had a ticket but lost it? The baptised Catholics who, because of a personal situation, find that their ticket is no longer valid.
Or those who have tickets for trains that are running alongside us on similar tracks? Our “separated brothers and sisters” (to use the Vatican II phrase) who are members of other Christian communities. Do we have to wait till they hitch their carriages to our train before we ask their opinions?
Christ among us
Metaphors are helpful because they can help us identify what is working in a model, but they also help us spot what is not working. So I want to offer a second metaphor, to go alongside the train image but from a different perspective. The image is drawn from the picture of Christ walking while he is surrounded by other people, with people on the peripheries — Zaccheus in the sycamore tree; the woman with a blood disorder — reaching out to him. It is a fitting metaphor because it has roots in the Gospel stories.
If our “journeying together” looks like this, it feels very different. There is no need for a ticket — people can join the crowd of walkers as they wish. It is Christ who is the focus of the group of walkers — not any one human being however holy — and it is Christ who sets the direction and the pace. Some are walking upright, some with sticks, some in wheelchairs. Some of us are on the journey from beginning to end; some join late or (for whatever reason) decide to leave early, or even leave and come back later.
And each of us can find the place that suits us in the crowd of walkers: at the centre or at the peripheries, taking a lead or holding back, close to the important people or alongside those who are overlooked. And because we are not contained in our carriages, we are free to talk with whomever we find ourselves alongside. We can talk in groups or, more intimately, share in twos and threes.
So, as we use this month to reflect and share on the preparation questions for the synod, let’s take a moment to think about whom we are sharing our journey with. And, like those on the journey to Emmaus, be prepared to be surprised by who actually is with us on the journey.
This article was published in the December 2021 issue of The Southern Cross magazine