‘Synodality’: A new word for an ancient reality

By Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, 19 September 2023
A view of a community conversation co-hosted at St. Barnabas Parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago in March 2022. Image: Archdiocese of Chicago/Facebook.


Pope Francis has insisted that for the church to be true to itself, we must act in a more synodal way. This is in keeping with the vision of renewal promoted in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which stressed the common dignity and mission of all the baptized for understanding the mystery and mission of the church.

All Catholics, as members of the church, not only journey and gather together, but also have the responsibility to actively share in the mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

In 2017, the International Theological Commission (ITC) produced a very helpful document, “Synodality in the Life and Ministry of the Church,” to help guide our discussion as the church prepares for the upcoming synod on synodality. The text notes that synodality has its roots in an ancient and venerable term, “synod,” which is rooted in divine revelation.

“Composed of a preposition ‘syn’ (with) and the noun ‘ódós’ (path),” the documents notes, “(synod) indicates the path along which the people of God walk together. Equally, it refers to the Lord Jesus, who presents himself as “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6), and to the fact that Christians, his followers, were originally called “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).” The fathers of the church consider the word “synod: a synonym for the church, as we see in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, who observes that “church” is the name for “walking together (synodia).”

Yet, despite all of this very helpful theological background, we unfortunately have witnessed recent statements by some taking issue with Holy Father’s decision to call a synod on synodality. Among the mistaken assertions, which are stoking fears, is that the gathering in Rome this October will radically alter church teaching and practice, align both with secular ideas and result in schism.

History has shown that the use of fear tactics by those who resist any kind of renewal that involves change is not new. We would do well to recall the speech, “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia” (“Mother Church Rejoices”), given by St. Pope John XXIII at the start of Vatican II.

In the face of dire predictions that the council would ruin the church, the saintly pope rejected the thoughts of “prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster” in the world and in the future of the church.

But more important, these modern day “prophets of doom” totally mischaracterize the aim of the synod on synodality. The main question for the upcoming synod is: How are we to remain faithful to Christ’s own plan for the church? This is a question St. Pope John Paul II insisted the church must continually raise.

In his apostolic letter, “Novo Millennio Ineunte” (“At the Beginning of the New Millennium”), he wrote that the governing structures of the church “need to be examined constantly in order to ensure that they follow their genuinely evangelical inspiration.” While acknowledging that much has been done in this regard since Vatican II, especially with respect to reforming the Roman Curia, the functioning of synods and episcopal conferences, there is still work to do “in order to realize all the potential of these instruments of communion, which are especially appropriate today in view of the need to respond promptly and effectively to the issues which the church must face in these rapidly changing times.”

In other words, what Pope Francis is doing in calling for a synod on synodality is in keeping with the vision of his predecessors and the Second Vatican Council.

So “synodality,” while the word may seem new, actually speaks to an ancient reality. A careful reading of the document from the ITC cited above, makes clear that “synodality is the specific ‘modus vivendi et operandi’ (‘way of living and working’) of the church, the people of God, which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission.”

The aim of the upcoming synod is in keeping with the vision of St. Pope John Paul II, as expressed by the ITC, namely that “making a synodal church a reality is an indispensable precondition for a new missionary energy that will involve the entire people of God.”

That surely is nothing ever to be feared.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich is the ninth Archbishop of Chicago.

Reproduced with permission from Cardinal Cupich and Chicago Catholic, the news publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, Illinois. 


Read Daily
* indicates required