The role of synodality in a responsive Church
The synodal focus of Pope Francis is best understood in light of his call for an evangelizing Church; it is a practical extension of this plea for the Church to embrace a style of ecclesial life that opts for mission over maintenance and outward extension over inwardly turned complacency. Evangelii gaudium is the charter, so to speak, framing this prioritization of the mission.
In EG 23, Pope Francis says:
The Church’s closeness (intimidad) to Jesus is part of a common journey (intimidad itinerante); “communion and mission are profoundly interconnected.” In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance (asco) or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.
The evangelical impulse is rooted in the closeness (intimidad) of the Church to Christ and implies conforming ourselves to his example. Jesus’ style is the model of the Church’s activity. Thus it is an “itinerant intimacy” (intimidad itinerante). The universality of the mission is a going out “to all”; and within the Church it is the responsibility of all the baptized: “no one can be excluded.” Already in Evangelii gaudium we see clearly expressed the three principal elements governing the synodality of the Church: communion, mission, and participation.
To understand synodality, it is important to begin with the source of the mission. The impulse to synodal enactment is the same impulse that animates the mission of the Church. And the source is Christ. In EG 264, Pope Francis says: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him.” The experience that gives birth to the Church is the experience of being saved (ser salvados). Christ’s work is an act of saving, and it is this saving work that also urges us (nos mueve) to respond through a missionary movement outward.
This experience defies complete analysis from outside the grace of faith experienced. And even within the faith experience of the Church and of each of the baptized, we can only speak of it more or less descriptively. What is essential here is our faith in a love that acts to save while in some way pulling us into the experience of and participation in that very love. The experience of that love initiates in us a move (nos mueve) to love him “always more” (siempre más).
This way of expressing the move of love to Christ is both profoundly Johannine and eminently Pauline: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10); “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Here Thomas Aquinas can help us appreciate the depth of this dynamic. In the treatise on the life of Christ (ST III, 46, 3, c.), Thomas provides a simple and comprehensive theological account of what Pope Francis describes. It appears as the first of five reasons Thomas offers to shed light on the theological convenience of the Passion of Christ.
Given that God could choose any number of ways to save us, Thomas asks, “Why the Cross?” To respond, he searches the scriptures to locate the convenience, or fittingness, of the salvífic work. Thomas articulates how it is suitable to God’s aim and purpose to remedy our needs, that Christ should suffer the Cross. Thomas gives the following as the first reason:
In the first place, man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred (provocatur) to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says in Romans 5:8: “God commends His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners…Christ died for us.”
The work of Christ is a provocative action, the preeminent example of God taking the first step in our direction. This is what Pope Francis refers to when he invents the word “primerear” to describe the total primacy of God’s initiative toward us.
The Passion and death of the Lord is a great showing that is designed to begin a movement of intelligible recognition and response. The Cross of Christ insinuates into our minds something we did not really know before—namely, just how much God loves us. The citation of Romans is telling because the Vulgate says commendat caritatem suam in nobis, which Thomas takes to imply a movement of God’s love in our direction. We are confronted with it as something coming to us from outside ourselves but which, by our grasping it as love, insinuates itself within us.
In his commentary on Romans 5, Thomas identifies this loving in return with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers, and this constitutes our justification. Salvation is essentially a grace initiated in the act of faith, culminating in a participation in the love Christ has shown and in which we have believed. Enacted by the gift of the Spirit, this amounts to human participation in Trinitarian life.
Faith is an act that by grace understands something: “In this we have believed,” John says in his first letter, “that God has loved us first.” The intellectualism of Aquinas (if you want to call it that) is resplendent here: the grace of faith believes in this love, precisely because it is perceived by the senses and understood by the person as an act of self-giving love given when we had no grounds to ask for it, while we were yet sinners. Pope Francis points to this aspect of the Mystery when he says that “the primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received.”
Similarly, when Pope Francis says that “the experience of salvation urges us (nos mueve) to ever greater love of him,” he is describing what Thomas identifies as the finality of faith that aimed at provoking a response of love in return. This responsive move to love in return is the wellspring of the evangelical impulse, and indeed of any authentic Christian impulse to act. Thomas describes this responsiveness to the love of Christ as an act on our part, made possible by the Holy Spirit, that constitutes the perfection of our salvation.
This is as classic a Catholic expression of justification and of being saved as you will find. And it is a summation of the received Scriptural tradition. Faith does not save unless it is allowed to open us to a participative move into the very love animating the move of Christ towards us. Further, the mystery of our salvation and the mission of the baptized are both bound up in the movement to in some way respond to Christ’s love with a love that flows back to him.
Thus, the preeminent question of salvation and mission for us is: “Where are you, Lord, that we might respond to you?” Francis, echoing Scripture and the Catholic tradition of preaching, tells us that in reality Christ is not that hard to find. There is in fact a more pressing question for the Church: Are we really looking for him?
Later in EG 264, Pope Francis says:
How good it is to stand before a crucifix, or on our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and simply to be in his presence! How much good it does us when he once more touches our lives and impels us to share his new life! What then happens is that “we speak of what we have seen and heard” (1 John 1:3). The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart.
The primordial grace is the manifestation of the Word made flesh. And the conduit, so to speak, between that gift and the gift by which we respond to him is contemplative apprehension of the whole of Christ: his style of interacting with us, his particular teachings, his example, his aims, and ultimately the how and why of his work.
The Christian apprehension of the love God has for us relies on familiarity with the Gospel. This is so because through them we have access to Christ himself. Scripture provides the words that in the Spirit of their writing put us into contact with the Word who authors them. This is a theological truth of grace embedded in human ways of communication. This involves a meditative entering into the particular love manifested in the words of the gospels. This in turn can by grace lead to a gazing upon the summation of all things godly in the image of Christ Crucified, and in the presence of the Eucharistic Christ within the Church. Aquinas speaks of contemplation as a move of the mind from the particular instances of God’s actions to a simple perception of the whole present in the parts.
This is what makes synodality a properly ecclesial act: it is enveloped within the Spirit’s gift of access to Christ. It is the error of an overly aggressive Christianity to propose a program for evangelization that is not rooted in the contemplative gaze, in receptivity to the gift of Christ, in awareness of the manner of his giving. The totality of Christ’s active work conveyed to us by the New Testament is a manifestation of how his love came and continues to come to us, in ways that can make sense to us and that invite love in response. How Jesus does his work is not less important than the what and the why of his teaching. If God chose the means of our salvation with a view to our need, the Church must order her practical mission in view of the same end and in analogous ways.
Here it is also vital to note that the baptized, by instinct of the Holy Spirit, and by contact with Christ and with his people, savor the things of God. They have a sense of how to distinguish between what comes (tastes) of God, and what does not. Aquinas, speaking in consonance with the patristic and earlier medieval tradition, locates this in the gift of wisdom flowing as the connatural effect of charity in the Christian life. This is where the “sense of the faithful” derives its efficacy. The gift of wisdom, in turn, is closely allied with contemplative grace. This gift is a precious resource proper to the Church. It requires discernment, both individual and communal. But we have to hear it first. During the course of my participation in listening sessions, I have been deeply moved and edified by the wisdom expressed by people, especially the elderly, who live and work in close communion with the everyday manifestations of the things of God. To hear this spoken is an unspeakably beautiful gift to the Church.
At the foot of the Cross, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, with the gospels in our minds, and by the witness of the gift of wisdom in the Body of the Church, we learn who has loved us, how he has manifested that love, and how we can offer him an appropriate gift of love in return. Thus, when Pope Francis proposes as one of his principles that “La realidad es más importante que la idea” (EG 231), he is first exhorting the Church to seek the gracefulness of Christ in contemplative gaze. We must let Christ show himself to us as he is. Ideologies of a theological stripe conceive of Christ without bothering to verify the truth of our perception in the meditative apprehension of the Gospel, in an experience of encounter with him in prayer, and within the communal experience of the Church’s life of faith. Our sense of Christ must be in meditative dialogue with Christ himself in the rich variety of ways he shows himself to us.
This leads to my next theme: the metaphysics of dialogue.
There is an analogy here that has wide and deep implications for the whole synodal enactment the pope appeals for. Just as our methods and aspirations in the Church must be informed by a constant return to the actual lived source in Christ present in the Church, so also our enactment of the mission must be informed by an accurate perception of the particular situations we are facing.
Synodality involves a responsive listening to Christ in his person and a responsive listening to Christ in the lived circumstances of his people. The action of the Church, and of each of her members, is entirely animated by receiving the grace of loving him in return, yet it is entirely enmeshed in a world of an almost infinite number of contingent circumstances. And just as God the Father sent his son into the world in a particular way suited to our need, so we must, in our responsiveness to him, act in the world with a realistic assessment of the need. This means knowing the hurts, hopes, anxieties, and aspirations of real people. Thus synodality is a particular enactment of ecclesial pastoral prudence, a use of reason at the service of charitable response to Christ in his people. The response must have the particular circumstances of the Lord’s beloved people in realistic view.
The prominence of dialogue throughout Francis’s pastoral vision is best understood as a call to a constant contact with the real, which is always based on contact with the being of another, beginning with the senses and then elaborated by the mind in practical and speculative ways. “There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities” (EG 231).
Aquinas’s approach to the metaphysics of human knowing has given birth to a number of different epistemological schools. Still, it is safe to say that a bedrock of a Thomist realism is the necessity of a constant turn to the phantasm (the sensible image present to the mind that is then understood as one thing or another by the intellect). This phrase refers to the fact that conceptual, abstract elaboration of the real must involve a return to seek verification in what the senses perceive. This could be called the dialogue between the intellect and reality.
You may think you see a unicorn approaching from a distance and then proceed to elaborate a theory of unicorn being. But if you never again look up at the approaching creature, or touch its forehead, or hear its breathing, you will have produced a beautiful theory with no foundation in the real. This is the point. The idea is based on what reality shows your senses, and what the intellect beholds in a concept. But the concept and the elaboration of it can never prescind from or dispense with the particular sensibility that first manifests itself to you.
Human dialogue is a communicative movement that begins with listening because listening is the sensible attentiveness to the other, a genuine metaphysical opening to let the other express themselves. Without this, we respond to the other, not based on an encounter with a human being in all the mysteriousness of their particular lives and histories, but based on an elaboration of impressions and ideas that may have no basis in the real embodied person in front of us. Dialogue within the Church is thus a turn to realism that makes the discernment of prudential judgment possible. Aquinas describes prudence, be it natural or informed by grace, as necessarily informed both by universal principles and particular circumstances: “Actions are in singular matters: and so it is necessary for the prudent person to know both the universal principles of reason, and the singulars about which actions are concerned.”
As human beings, we simply cannot know how to justly and compassionately respond to other human beings unless we are listening to them. This is necessary along the whole spectrum of human endeavor, from accompanying a person struggling with a situation of divorce and remarriage to a teenager indifferent to Christ and the Church. It also operates in the sociopolitical realm where judgments about the just treatment of migrants, for example, must be based on a realistic account of their lived circumstances. It is ideology-driven political judgment that sees no need to actually ask a migrant family about their life and circumstances before we decide whether to deport them.
Hence the synodal way begins with the realism of the local church in communion with the universal Church, listening to its own circumstance and to the voices of others. It moves along to assemble a basic sense of the challenges and hopes of the members of Christ struggling to bear witness and engage the mission in the particular contingencies of their lives. This kind of movement then informs the realism and judgment of the universal Church.
I believe that the urgency with which Pope Francis promotes synodal enactment in the Church is based in part upon his own wise discernment that ideology and social deafness are among the deepest wounds of modernity. By default we have become divided into groups that only talk among ourselves about “the others.” Only rarely do we speak familiarly with someone who may have a different perspective, a different starting point, a different priority. And so Pope Francis has chosen to plant a series of local seeds, hoping that with the help of the Spirit, local churches can cultivate spaces and times for people to gather and listen to each other. A sense of communion in the Church and of greater solidarity in the world needs the conscious cultivation of real human encounters. This can, with time, accomplish two things: allow the true character of the communion of the Church to manifest itself; and serve as a catalyst for a return to solidarity and realism in the social order.
In some ways our sense of the communion of the universal Church has been reduced to a sound-bite measure of whether this or that person agrees or disagrees with the pope and bishops on this or that point of Catholic doctrine. Hence, synodal emphasis on the vivacity of local communion directs our senses and our minds to concrete and particular manifestations of communion. The Church’s universal communion in faith, hope, and charity expresses itself locally. To experience this helps us to rediscover that the communion of the baptized is much more than what the world reduced to a screen can show us.
Fostering a renewed sense of ecclesial communion, real expressions of Christ-formed charity would seem by this account to be a work that best begins locally. The Church is not a political party, nor a corporation, nor an NGO. And though we know by instinct of the Spirit what we are not, we can do better at consciously expressing more clearly who Christ has made us to be: we are common drinkers from the wounded side of Christ. Within the local communion, we can palpably perceive that there is no “us and them” in the Church. There is just us, trying to limp along in the right direction.
Humanly, we cannot dialogue with an idea of the Church, we can only dialogue with one another in the Church. We cannot love the Church as we wish she were, or imagine she might be; we can only love her as she is. For that is how Christ loves us. Respectful listening is responsiveness to one another in the realism of the charity of Christ, and it is responsiveness to him. The words we throw at each other in the Church are fairly beside the point if they are not responses to one another in the grace of our responsiveness to Christ.
As to the social order and the Church’s responsibilities in this regard, Pope Francis says in EG 99:
In various countries, conflicts and old divisions from the past are re-emerging. I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This was Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father: “That they may all be one…in us…so that the world may believe” (John 17:21).
Our witness of actually loving one another, which begins with listening to one another, is reflected into the wider social context as an alternative to ideological conflict. We hardly have much to offer a world of conflict if conflicts dominate the inner life of the Church.
This love reciprocated to Christ by means of the gift of the Spirit is by necessity a love that moves us out of ourselves. In EG 39, Francis says, “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.” In this regard, synodality in an age of pandemic is a pastoral response to isolation and self-preoccupation. Again, physically going out to encounter someone else, to hear them and to share something of their burden, is a basic responsiveness to the initial grace of having been loved by the Christ who came in search of us. Francis reminds us that responsiveness to Christ cannot be expressed in isolation from other human beings. This is perhaps the forgotten element of the truth that the Church is necessary for salvation. Belonging and responding to one another is the sacramental manifestation of our belonging and responding to Christ.
“What counts above all else,” Francis says in EG 37,
is faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law” [as St. Thomas teaches] is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love.
Francis’s reference to Aquinas’s teaching on the New Law is, I think, an iconic reference. It encapsulates Aquinas’s emphasis on the primacy of charity in the Christian life, and the Spirit’s mission to enact this charity in the world through our attentiveness to the peripheral, the outcast, the disrespected. This amounts also to a diagnosis of what is most needed in the mission today: The challenge before us is not primarily that we engage an age that has lost faith in the truth of Christian revelation; the challenge, more deeply, is that our age has lost faith in the possibility of selfless love. Young people especially find it difficult to believe in love as anything more than a mythologized power-play. This observation, of course, needs to be verified in the particular through a dialogical realism. But if we are talking to those who are indifferent, and to non-believers, I think we know this is a pervasive problem. I think the pope hears this everywhere he goes.
At issue is the credibility of the Spirit’s gift of charity. Two thousand years since the coming of Christ and the world very articulately doubts that the claim we make about his love is in any way real. And it doubts that historical sharing in it is in any way possible.
This diagnosis is not unique to Pope Francis. It is, I think, what Pope Benedict XVI was trying to say when he decided to write Deus caritas est as his first encyclical and then moved toward a treatment of hope and faith. The credibility of faith today rests on the primacy and credibility of charity. The only response the Church can make to this particular malady of spirit is the witness of authentic selflessness. If we think we can conjure such a thing by our ingenuity, we are hapless successors to Pharaoh’s magicians.
The witness of charity, nourished by faith in Christ and by the sacrament of charity, is ordered to action, and action involves right judgment about principles and particulars. The principles are in the contemplation of Christ; the particulars are in listening to people. Right judgment about particulars in turn involves contact with the real. So we are back to the posture of the Christian as listener to human reality and responder to what is heard.
Practically speaking, though, this much seems clear: there are many groups and factions in the Church that do not seem to like each other, and so find it impossible to discern in each other a basic communion of love. And there are many in our local communities distant or outside the Church who perhaps justifiably think we do not like them; thus they find it impossible to imagine that we might actually love them. This is the contemporary log-jam impeding receptivity to Christ. In EG 268, Pope Francis says this:
To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people. When we stand before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realize that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all his people.
In this sense, actually doing the listening is a start to overcoming this reality of scorn and disinterest that many perceive in their relation to the Church.
I have often thought that the world finds it harder to believe that God likes them than to believe that he actually loves them. We tend to think of love in abstract terms, and we think of liking someone in particular terms. We say we love the whole world, but in practice we don’t like or love many of the people in it. Perhaps I speak hyperbolically, but the lesson of Christ’s style is important here. The Gospel clearly conveys that Jesus enjoyed the company of people. Poor people, sick people, desperate people, outcast people, rich people, and people who ultimately decided not to follow him through the narrow gate.
Local synodality already enacts the first thing we need to be doing in the Church: learning to savor the spiritual joy of being close to people, as the Holy Father says, in the messiness of our lives together. The act of gathering is a concrete expression of that desire to be close to Christ by being close to those who are around us, be it in the local parish, the apostolic movement, the soup kitchen, or the loneliness of grief. “We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide” (EG 272).
Pope Francis rather surprised the local churches, and I suspect much of the Roman Curia, with this call for a worldwide synodal action over a three-year period. Everyone asks, what’s the plan? What’s the agenda? What happens when it’s finished? There is often suspicion behind the questions, and this already indicates why a time of local listening and discernment is needed. People in my diocese ask me all the time: What are we going to do? I simply say, I’m not sure yet, we have to do a good amount of listening first, so we can discern and decide what needs attention as we move forward, and make good decisions about how to go about meeting the challenges together. I also tell them we will need the generosity of many prayerful people to help us discern well what we have heard. Many people find this a perplexing answer, but I think it is a true one.
I think Francis acts from a perspective that time truly is more important than space, and that seeds in the Kingdom grow by a will that is not limited to our own. As he says in EG 278: “The kingdom is here, it returns, it struggles to flourish anew. Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history, for Jesus did not rise in vain.” This is a profoundly moving expression of “the Faith of Peter,” the faith that will not fail, the faith that prevails over the powers of hell.
Synodality is thus an initiative prudentially promulgated by the Successor of Peter for the sake of seeking an opening of air within a progressively more suffocating circumstance. It is a chance to render our communion more real and less infected with the ideological, more dialogical with Christ and each other, and more focused on our common baptismal identity than on our partisan differences. It is a way forward, more focused on the authenticity of our charity and less obsessed with the un-Christlike preoccupation with who we think deserves it and who doesn’t.
The synodal action is a seed planted that offers hope of renewing our sense of common identity and mission as Catholics in the world. It is not a quick fix; it is a renewal of the way forward in a way proper to our baptismal dignity. And it is an enactment that accomplishes great good just in the act of gathering and listening, something simple, something eminently responsive to the love we have received in Christ. Building up our communion is not separate from engaging the mission to the nations, because the witness of this love is essentially what our woundedness seems to need most.
The Church is a “we” that exists as a communion within the “I” of Christ. In the Spirit poured out by Christ through his dying and rising, we can overcome our tendency to interrupt, argue, and ignore. But it is a habit of grace that must be appreciated, cultivated, and allowed to grow.
There will be regional and national summations and ultimately a gathering in Rome to survey what we have learned and, on the universal level, what needs to be discerned. How to theologically construe this dynamic movement within the Catholic Church between the universal, the whole, and the particular is not so clear at this time. It is, however, an ecclesial reality ever in act, but not one we have thought about sufficiently. As we grapple with how this works, it helps to remember the metaphysics of human knowing: the whole (the universal) can never prescind from attentiveness to particular parts, and particular parts can never act by ignoring the good of the lived being of the whole.
We do not know what the fruits of this endeavor will be. But in the course of these three years we will have learned something about how to engage the local reality and how to integrate what we hear into the whole of the universal Church’s identity as a real communion that is clearly one and yet active in the responsiveness of the parts to Christ. We will learn from our mistakes as much as from our good judgments. The aim is that the Church learn by responding how better to show herself in the current situations, local and universal, more in keeping with her deepest identity—abscondita cum Christo in Deo (“Your life is hidden with Christ in God,” Colossians 3:3)—and thus, paradoxically, that it also more effectively offer a responsive witness to the presence in the world of that selfless love by which Christ has loved us first.
Bishop Daniel E. Flores, STD was installed as the sixth Bishop of Brownsville, Texas, in February 2010. This essay has been adapted from the Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Address delivered by Bishop Flores on May 5, 2022, at Loyola University, Chicago.
With thanks to Commonweal and Bishop Daniel E. Flores, where this article originally appeared.