Chris Vipers introduces ‘For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission’
In October 2023, Bishops of the worldwide Catholic Church will gather in Synod in Rome. The path towards this Synod began in October 2021, in a worldwide invitation from Pope Francis to all the faithful to reflect on a theme that is decisive for its life and mission, the path of synodality. The Synod of Bishops Office in Rome puts it boldly: “The Church of God is convoked in Synod”.
‘Synod’ is a rich word in Universal Church history, and in our own island story (think Whitby, for one); its meaning draws on the deepest themes of our faith. It comes from two Greek words: ‘συν’ (with) and ‘όδός’ (path), and it indicates the path along which the People of God walk together. The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35) is the path’s guiding light. ‘Synodality’ is the process of ‘journeying together’, a way of being the Church as envisaged by the Second Vatican Council (cf Lumen Gentium 12), journeying forwards in mission, together in communion where everybody has a part to play. Synodality ought to be expressed in the Church’s ordinary way of living and working. (Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality). The Holy Father has affirmed this: A synodal Church is a Church which listens… the faithful People, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, and It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium (on the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops by Pope St Paul VI).
This synodal journey is happening at a time of unprecedented global challenge. While the pandemic has in so many ways exacerbated already existing inequalities, this global crisis has revived our sense that we are all in the same boat, and that one person’s problems are the problems of all (Vademecum). The Synod calls us in this generation, as urged by the Second Vatican Council, to ‘scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel’ (cf Lumen Gentium 4). It is a time of attentive listening, described by Pope Francis as the ‘dynamism of mutual listening’; a ‘listening with the heart’, as we hear each other speaking ‘from the heart’. We listen to one another, including those on the margins and those who have drifted away from the Church. We listen to voices outside the Church, paying special attention to the cry of the poor and excluded, and the cry of the exploited earth. Ultimately, all our listening leads to personal and communal discernment, a sifting through what we are hearing to detect the voice of the Spirit indicating the way ahead and forming a harmony in which diversity is not divisive but enriching as we respond to our common baptismal call to be missionary disciples.
In my own Diocese of Westminster, in parishes, schools, colleges and universities, young adult communities, social justice and peace networks, LGBTQ+ communities, among those with learning disabilities, our deaf community chaplaincy, in prisons, in group and one-to-one conversations, and in wider ecumenical and even inter-faith listening events, we have shared our experience of travelling together in a time of profound challenge and change, and our wider experience of journeying as the Church, alongside others journeying in the world. We have spoken and listened with the conviction that each one, each voice, has something to contribute and something to learn from others. We have shared openly and honestly, not ideas or theories, but our lived experience of Church life and mission – the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, the successes and failures. And as I write this I can report that the take-up has been mind-blowing, and the insights both humbling and inspiring. The course set at the outset – If listening is the method, and discerning is the aim, then participation is the path – is already bearing rich fruit, and suggests bold, creative and fresh expressions to come. This journey has only just begun.
I have to admit that when my own Bishop, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, asked me to help steer the Synodal Pathway in the Diocese of Westminster, my first thought was to ask for a sabbatical! My experience of synodality during my brief but beautiful time in Ministry in the Diocese of London, 1989 – 1996, was hardly likely to encourage me. It is only when I began to dig deep into the Church’s understanding and lived experience of synodality, East and West, from the Acts of the Apostles (described by Pope Francis as ‘the first and most important manual of ecclesiology’) onwards, that I could embrace this bracing and energizing moment and movement of the Spirit in the life of our Church today, a Church ever old and ever new. Exciting times to be a Catholic!
The Synod… is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.
Fr Chris Vipers is a Roman Catholic priest in the City of London and Director of the Diocese of Westminster’s Agency for Evangelisation.