On Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, Pope Francis officially opened the 16th Synod of Bishops. A Synod is a meeting or assembly of Church leaders. Its purpose is to draw people into a journey that will deepen the essence of the Church by listening to the Holy Spirit and to one another. This Synod is a two-year process, running through October 2023. It will run for two years because this Synod will be unlike the previous ones. It will involve not only the clergy but also the lay people in parishes throughout the world. All are called to participate and be a part of this Synod. An example of the earliest Synods can be found in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 6 and 15. In Chapter 6, the disciples met in community to discuss how the widows were not being properly cared for. In Chapter 15, the disciples went out to distant places to assess the progress of the Gospel in the Gentile world. They returned to report back and discuss ways to grow effective Christian communities.
Why do we need a Synod? When you are running an organization it is always good to periodically listen to the people involved in its operation. For example, the running of a business should include input from the CEO, managers, workers and customers. The intent is to have honest and meaningful dialogue for the purpose of growing the company, improving working conditions, growing the customer base and delivering a better product. Doing all these things at the same time is a good recipe for success. For the dialogue to work, there will be no “winners” or “losers.” The CEO can’t get all his desires met without upsetting the workers. Granting worker demands might cause down-sizings. Customer demands could drive up the cost of the product. Everything is interdependent. Understanding, consensus and compromise will be needed. When everyone works together, the company thrives and everyone benefits.
In our culture here in the United States, we are accustomed to having our voices heard. We demand our right to express our opinions. On the surface, the Synod sounds like the pope is attempting to seek our opinions. But Pope Francis made it clear that this Synod will not be an investigation into opinions. He wants this Synod to be, first and foremost, the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is the head of our “organization,” the Catholic Church. We are the “workers.” Our mission of service is outlined in our organization’s operating plan: the Gospel. Jesus instructs us on how to serve one another through the Gospel, but we don’t always get it right. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. We all have our own opinions. We know what we want and we think we are correct. But how do we really know?
We look to Jesus and we turn to the Gospel for guidance but we experience it with human senses. The Holy Spirit helps bridge the human with the Divine. The gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The last gift, fear of the Lord, is often misunderstood. God loves us and does not want us to be afraid. We should be afraid of disappointing God through our actions. We should be putting God’s will ahead of our own by following God’s Commandments.
The Holy Spirit is the key to an understanding of the Church in which all of its members are gifted, active, and valued. If we turn to the Holy Spirit for these gifts and bring them with us to the Synod, the process will be enriched beyond our imagination. This is Pope Francis’ dream.
Sensus Fidelium and the Synod
One of the initiatives of the Second Vatican Council was to focus on the Church in the Modern World. The resulting document, Gaudium et Spes, calls us to be witnesses to the Holy Spirit in action in our world.
In this document, the Council spoke of all the faithful participating in the offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. Because of our Baptism, each of us has a claim to exercise these offices. The council also spoke of the gift of faith bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit. Because this gift of faith comes from the Holy Spirit, the whole people of God as a collective body has a “sense” about it. We call this Sensus Fidelium — the “sense of the faithful.” The Council challenged the laity to deepen their understanding of the faith by prayer, study, discussion, and committed action. It helps the laity understand its prophetic duty to proclaim the Word of God.
Sensus Fidelium refers to doctrinal truth recognized (sensed) by the whole body of the faithful — the whole Church. This implies that if we gather in a large group and openly embrace the Holy Spirit, the group will produce a collective work that is not based on individual opinions but rather on what is right. This also implies that not everyone will be pleased with the results. Sensus Fidelium is not only about what we believe. It is also about what we do because of what we believe.
It’s important to note that the purpose of the Synod is to reveal the truth, not to re-define what is true. The Sense of the Faithful can witness to the truth but their consensus is not what made it true. Their consensus is a result of the truth. Also, keep in mind that the Synod is not a platform for a democratic approach to determine or alter Church teachings.
A Synodal Church
The theme of this Synod is: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.”
Synodality is something that Pope Francis wants to promote in the Catholic Church. It involves the engagement of all the faithful people of God journeying together on a pilgrimage.
The circular reference of using Synodal as a theme for the Synod can be confusing. It makes sense when you think about a Synod as a meeting of the community of believers on a journey to enhance the essence of the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit. Then you make it your ongoing mission to keep doing this as a matter of best practice.
Pope Francis is calling all of us to journey together: “In the one People of God, therefore, let us journey together, in order to experience a Church that receives and lives this gift of unity, and is open to the voice of the Spirit,”
Guided by the Holy Spirit, let us pray that the Body of Christ — the faithful people of God — be served and enriched through the work of this Synod and through the work of all future ones to come.
Rick Swenton is a parishioner of St. Pius the Tenth Church in South Yarmouth and is a member of the choir and a cantor. He received a certificate in Lay Ministry from the Archdiocese of Hartford with a focus on Liturgy and Music and is a published composer. He resides with his wife, Gail, in South Dennis.