By Patrick Schmadeke
“What is a synod?” might be the most common question asked right now among Catholics online, in newsprint and in everyday conversation about the church. We are about to get a formal and thorough introduction because the upcoming synod, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission,” will kick off in Rome on Oct. 9 and then in every diocese around the world on Oct. 17.
“Synod” comes from the Greek word synodos: the prefix “syn” means with or together, and “odos” means road, way, or journey. Put it all together, and “synod” means something like journeying together or walking with each other. Throughout our history, it’s been used to refer to gatherings of the church to “walk with” one another and with the Holy Spirit, to read “the signs of the times” and discern in a spirit of prayer how the church is being called to respond.
In recent history (since Vatican II, 1962-65), synods have referred to regular gatherings of bishops from around the world with the Bishop of Rome. Most of these synods have been “ordinary” — taking place on a regular basis; some have been “extraordinary” — called to address an urgent issue. Through these synods, the Holy Father hears from bishops from around the world, consults with them on important matters and joins with them in prayer and discernment to better guide the church.
Now Pope Francis has chosen to call the entire church to enter into a synodal journey together and delayed the scheduled World Synod of Bishops from 2022 to 2023 to allow for this more inclusive process. A synodal church is the people of God journeying together in a posture of ongoing discernment about the direction to which the Holy Spirit is calling us. This is a very grassroots approach. It takes seriously the idea that the Holy Spirit is at work among us. Evangelization is an essential component of this journey, whereby we witness to the good news of Jesus through word and deed in a way that people are prepared to receive it.
Through the synodal process, Pope Francis wants each of us to focus on what it means to be a synodal church. The Holy Father points out that “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the church of the third millennium.” The church, the people of God, is a people on the move, and Pope Francis is asking us to be intentional about the moving. Having personally missed out on Vatican II by a few decades, I see this synod as having the potential to be the most important ecclesiastical event of my lifetime. Openness to the Holy Spirit throughout the synodal process is essential.
While the planning process for the upcoming synod in our diocese continues, the first step is celebration of our diocesan Mass on Oct. 17 at 9 a.m. in Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. It will be livestreamed on YouTube and accessed through the diocesan website (davenportdiocese.org).
The emphasis on evangelization is clear in the synod handbook from the Vatican, which says, “The Church exists to evangelize. We can never be centered on ourselves. Our mission is to witness to the love of God in the midst of the whole human family. This synodal process has a deeply missionary dimension to it. Its intention is to enable the church to better witness to the Gospel, especially with those who live on the spiritual, social, economic, political, geographical, and existential peripheries of our world. In this way, synodality is a path by which the church can more fruitfully fulfil her mission of evangelization in the world, as a leaven at the service of the coming of God’s kingdom” (Synod Handbook, 1.4).
While the synod is of a communal nature, it does not forgo personal, individual involvement. The “Synodal Process is carried out through listening to all the baptized … special care should be taken to involve those persons who may risk being excluded … no one … should be excluded from sharing their perspective and experience” (Synod Handbook, 2.1). We need to be intentional in listening and speaking in the context of communal discernment. This will coalesce towards greater attentiveness to the Holy Spirit in our faith communities.
A key aspect of evangelization is taking one’s faith beyond the four walls of the parish and into our family, work and social lives. We can incorporate faith into everyday conversation, and we do so first by listening in order to understand our conversation partner. This humble listening discerns where our conversation partners are at in their respective faith journeys. Only then can we speak with them, not at them, about faith.
The upcoming synod is a natural occasion to bring faith into the mix of everyday conversations. We will hear about the synod at the local and international level over the next two years. But its impact can continue long afterward. Let us hope that a spirit of synodality is sown into our hearts, and that this spirit may set the course of the church for the third millennium.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)