‘Listening is more than simply hearing’: Pope Francis and synodality

Declan Marmion SM explores how the ancient practice of synodality can be the path to the Church of the future.

For the next Synod of Bishops meeting in 2022 Pope Francis has chosen the topic of synodality. Already there are synodal processes underway in various countries and dioceses throughout the Catholic world – including Germany, Italy, the UK, Australia and Ireland. So, what is synodality and why does Francis consider it so important?
At a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops in 2015 Pope Francis spoke of a synodal Church as ‘a Church which listens, [and] which realises that listening “is more than simply hearing” (cf. Evangelii gaudium 171). 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” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).’ This is Francis’ vision: ‘It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.’1 Since 2013, Francis has organised four synods: the first two in 2014 and 2015 on the family, the third in 2018 on youth, and the most recent in 2019 on the challenges facing the Amazon region.
Synodality, however, is a contested topic. Some feel the term can be misinterpreted and presented as a kind of parallel authority, separate to the hierarchy, whereby vox pops or majority opinion rule the day. This is not Francis’ intention. For him, the synodal process is the concrete form of a decentralised ecclesiology of communion marked by a participatory style and real debate. It is not about finding ‘exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties’ facing the Church; nor is it about demonising those with whom we disagree, for ‘even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked’ (EG 236). This means living with the tensions and conflicts and allowing mature solutions to emerge over time rather than yielding to the temptation of the quick fix. In the final document of the Amazon synod, Francis laid the groundwork for reform. If he disappointed some by side-stepping (for now) the hot-button issues of women deacons and the ordination of married men, neither did he silence the discussion. He puts greater faith in the local Church and does not insist the magisterium must intervene to settle every doctrinal, moral and pastoral dispute. At the same time, in a recent letter to the German bishops, who are also engaged in a synodal process, he underlined two points: i) the synodal path of personal and ecclesial renewal must be linked to the Church’s central task of evangelisation and be guided by the Holy Spirit; and ii) any process of synodal renewal must guard against the twin dangers of polarisation and fragmentation by means of a strong sensus ecclesiae and connectedness to the universal Church.

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