Plenary Council Participation and Reception: Synodality and Discerning the Sensus Fidelium
By Reverend Associate Professor Ormond Rush
Pope Francis is reconceiving the way the institutional structure of the Synod of Bishops is to be understood, by locating it as the end point of a process of divine communication that does not operate from the top down, but from the bottom up. This is critical for understanding the theological meaning of our 2020 Plenary Council. Pope Francis states: “The Synod process begins by listening to the people of God, which ‘shares also in Christ’s prophetic office,’ according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: ‘Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet [what affects everyone must be deliberated on by everyone]’.” 
What Pope Francis calls “the first level of the exercise of synodality” is the listening that happens within local churches [dioceses] in “organs of communion” such as those listed in canon law: the presbyteral council, the college of consultors, chapters of canons, the pastoral council, and the diocesan synod. However, by implication, the listening Pope Francis is envisaging, extends beyond such canonical structures, into the very fabric of church life at the local level. “The second level” of listening happens at the level of ecclesiastical provinces and regions, particular councils [provincial and plenary], and at conferences of bishops.
This is where the 2020 Plenary Council fits in. Renewal of these structures, what the pope calls, “intermediary instances of collegiality” is now needed if they are to be genuine antennae of synodal listening. And “the last level” is at the level of the universal church, where the synod of bishops is “the point of convergence of this listening process conducted at every level of the Church’s life.” It is “an expression of episcopal collegiality within an entirely synodal church.” Importantly, this centripetal movement from local to international structures is not an attempt at greater centralisation. “The papacy and the central structures of the universal church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion… Excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary reach” (EG 32).
A synodal church listens to the Holy Spirit by listening to the sensus fidelium, albeit with its great diversity and conflicting perspectives. Pope Francis believes that such listening to the sensus fidelium is necessary for two reasons. We could call one “pedagogical,” and the other “theological.” First, in order to teach effectively and credibly, the church needs to speak the language of those to whom it is preaching and teaching. For example, in reference to the two synods of bishops of 2014 and 2015, the pope states: “how could we speak about the family without engaging families themselves, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish?” 
Simply at the level of pedagogy, bishops need to listen to the sensus fidelium in order to communicate effectively and credibly with them within their specific cultural and social context. On the eve of the 2014 synod, the pope said: “To find what the Lord asks of his Church today, we must lend an ear to the debates of our time and perceive the ‘fragrance’ of the men of this age, so as to be permeated with their joys and hopes, with their griefs and anxieties. At that moment we will know how to propose the good news on the family with credibility.”  But listening to the sensus fidelium is not just about effective pedagogy and credible communication.
Second, and more fundamentally, the sensus fidelium must be listened to because it is a locus theologicus, a place where the revealing God can be heard speaking to the church today. Why listen to the sensus fidelium?—“to find what the Lord asks of his Church today.”  The hierarchy have no exclusive access to that ongoing dialogue with God: “Let us trust in our People, in their memory and in their ‘sense of smell,’ let us trust that the Holy Spirit acts in and with our People and that this Spirit is not merely the ‘property’ of the ecclesial hierarchy.” 
Evangelii Gaudium mentions “the signs of the times” three times.  Article 14 speaks of the need to be “attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who helps us together to read the signs of the times;” article 51 states: “I do exhort all the communities to an ‘ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times’… We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan.” 
In the 17 October 2015 address, the pope reiterates something he was obviously deliberate in emphasising the previous year, in a talk in St Peter’s square the night before the 2014 synod began: “On the eve of last year’s Synod I stated: ‘For the Synod Fathers we ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, so that with him we may hear the cry of his people; to listen to his people until we are in harmony with the will to which God calls us’.” In other words, the church needs to be synodal so that it can listen to God communicating at this time in history, in Christ through the Spirit. The Spirit is the conduit; and the Spirit’s instrument of communication is the sensus fidei in each believer, and in the church as a whole. The church listens to the Spirit when all listen to one another: “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 last reference is to one of the seven invocations through the last book of the New Testament: “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” 
These two reasons, the pedagogical and the theological, were alluded to just last week by Pope Francis, when he urged: “It is not enough to find a new language in which to articulate our perennial faith; it is also urgent, in the light of the new challenges and prospects facing humanity, that the Church be able to express the ‘new things’ of Christ’s Gospel, that, albeit present in the word of God, have not yet come to light. This is the treasury of ‘things old and new’ of which Jesus spoke when he invited his disciples to teach the newness that he had brought, without forsaking the old (cf. Mt 13:52).” 
Part four will be published tomorrow.
To read part two, click here.
Fr Ormond Rush is a priest of the Diocese of Townsville, and lectures in theology at the Brisbane campus of Australian Catholic University (ACU).
This paper originally appeared in Edition 27 of the Plenary Post from the Plenary Council 2020. Reproduced with permission.
 October 17. The pope is quoting Lumen Gentium 12.
 17 October 2015.
 Address of His Holiness Pope Francis during the Meeting on the Family, 4 October 2014, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/october/documents/papa-francesco_20141004_incontro-per-la-famiglia.html.
 4 October 2014.
 Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to cardinal Marc Ouellet President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, 19 March 2016, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2016/documents/papa-francesco_20160319_pont-comm-america-latina.html.
 EG 14, 51, 108.
 The pope is here citing Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam, 50 (the number of the article cited in the footnotes of Evangelii Gaudium is incorrect).
 Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22. NRSV translation.