One of the really bad things about being dead is that you can’t answer back. You need someone to do it for you. If you’ve been dead for a very long time, the problem seems to get worse, so I have agreed to act as a spokesman for the Ancient Greeks. One of their words, ‘synodos,’ has been pressed into service recently to illustrate what has been identified as the heart of the Church’s ‘Synodal Process,’ that is the concept of ‘journeying together.’
Now it is true that ‘syn’ means with or together, and ‘hodos’ means a way: indeed, it is the word Christ uses in speaking of himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. However, the rather prosaic truth is that ‘synodos’ doesn’t have anything to do with journeying together: it simply means a meeting or gathering, and was taken over by the Church for its own assemblies.
Such meetings, beginning with the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15), were gatherings of bishops and others called to resolve a particular problem or deal with a new situation that had arisen. On rare occasions they involved the worldwide Church, but more frequently were gatherings of bishops in a particular region. But they always had a specific question or problem to address: Do Gentile Christians have to observe Jewish laws and customs? What terms describe adequately both the divinity and humanity of Christ? How should we deal with priests who misbehave sexually? And so on and so on.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) there has been a series of Synods on various topics ranging from how to evangelise in the modern world, to priestly formation, the mission of the laity, promoting ecumenism, divine mercy, the dignity of human work, and several others. Both the process, which involved consulting widely in the local Church, and the result – a document issued by the pope in response to the Synod deliberations – are widely felt to have been a great success and must count among the best fruits of the Council. They have certainly been inspiring to me personally. When I was rector of a seminary, the document on priestly formation was a great help, and when I ran the Catholic Agency for Evangelisation, I found Pope John Paul’s Novo Millennio Ineunte hugely inspiring: indeed, with its teaching on new ways of evangelising it encouraged me to organise the highly successful visit of the Relics of St. Thérèseto England and Wales in 2009.
But a Synod on synodality? What kind of animal is that? No doubt we all need to be reminded from time to time how to listen to others, though I’m not sure we need a Synod to improve on Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated advice: “When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen.” No doubt we also need to push ourselves to include those ‘on the margins’ whom we may inadvertently exclude from the whole process. But does the Vatican really think that priests and bishops don’t spend a lot of our time already listening to the questions our people raise?
There are enough hard questions around to fill the agenda for the next several Synods if only we have the courage to ask them. How come we missed a golden opportunity when coronavirus hit to highlight our belief in eternal life and the sacraments, rather than closing churches at the drop of a hat? What were the conditions that allowed such widespread sexual abuse by the clergy? What lay behind the repeated cover ups of such abuse by bishops? What is the specific contribution of the Church to the climate change debate, when so many people see it as a reason to panic? How do we foster vocations to priesthood and consecrated life in the confused world of today? How can we address the widespread thirst for ‘spirituality’ and make people realise how ridiculous it is for spiritual seekers not to be Catholic? How from within the coherence of our Catholic tradition can we speak more positively of homosexual and transgender people and ensure that they feel wholeheartedly welcome in the Church? How can the Church lead the way in combatting the excessive bureaucracy which is quite probably a fruit of the very liberalism the Church tried to come to terms with in the Council?
But wait, I hear the ancient Greeks speaking to me again! Their language, like Latin and many others, classifies nouns by gender, and ‘hodos’ is one of the few Greek words which are feminine in gender but have masculine endings. I think there is no doubt they are encouraging us to promote non-binary identity and combat heteronormativity, and I personally will feel cheated if the Synod preparatory documents fail to highlight this.