Short Summary of Synod guidelines urge ‘living’ synodality in local churches
The preparatory document and handbook are issued to assist local dioceses and Churches ahead of the
first phase of the multi-year synodal process for the global Church. The synodal process, instituted by
Pope Francis, aims to reorder the Church’s internal mechanisms for discussion and reflection, and to
help shape a new way for the Church to understand and articulate both her internal self-understanding
and mission of evangelization.
“This journey, which follows in the wake of the Church’s ‘renewal’ proposed by the Second Vatican
Council, is both a gift and a task: by journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has
been made, the Church will be able to learn through Her experience which processes can help Her to
live communion, to achieve participation, to open Herself to mission,” the preparatory document says.
The preparatory document poses a “fundamental question” to be addressed by the synodal process,
which is to take place across the Church at the local, diocesan, regional, and universal levels.
“A synodal Church, in announcing the Gospel, ‘journeys together’: How is this ‘journeying together’
happening today in our particular Church? What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow
in our ‘journeying together’?” Several follow-ups follow that initial question, asking in more detail
about the life and structure of local churches. The newly-issued synodal handbook is not a “rulebook”
but contained “guidelines” and “suggestions” for local implementation. Each diocese and region of the
world, they stressed, must find its own best means of “living” the synodal process.
The exact definition of synodality remains a contested issue in the Church in recent years, with Pope
Francis needing to intervene in a so-called synodal process in Germany to correct a flawed
understanding of the concept. A “precise and concise definition” of synodality would be an “injustice”
to the concept of synodality to define it ahead of the synodal process. Synodality can be to “a flower,”
which cannot be properly described before it has had a chance to bloom.
Synods have been an ordinary part of the life of the Church since the early centuries, with local
Churches and dioceses convoking synods to discuss theological and pastoral issues relevant to the
times. After Vatican Council II, Pope Paul VI created the permanent secretariat of the synod of bishops
in Rome in order to bring bishops from around the world together to help inform the pope’s thinking
on different issues.
The synod on synodality aims, according to the documents, to ensure more “diversity” within the
internal life of the Church and to ensure that the views of the “marginalized” are properly represented
within the synodal dialogue, the purpose of which is to allow the Church to better listen to and
articulate the sensus fidelium, or the consensus of the faithful, which the Church teaches is an authentic
guarantor of the faith expressed by the Church.
The synodal documents recognize various groups at risk of being marginalized, including the women,
refugees, migrants, the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities, and encourages local Church leaders
to ensure their full and active participation in the synodal process, together with “Catholics who rarely
or never practice their faith.”
“Together, all the baptised are the subject of the sensus fidelium, the living voice of the People of
God,” says the synodal vademecum. “At the same time, in order to participate fully in the act of
discerning, it is important for the baptised to hear the voices of other people in their local context,
including people who have left the practice of the faith, people of other faith traditions, people of no
religious belief, etc.”
“While all the baptized are specifically called to take part in the Synodal Process, no one – no matter
their religious affiliation – should be excluded from sharing their perspective and experiences, insofar
as they want to help the Church on her synodal journey of seeking what is good and true. This is
especially true of those who are most vulnerable or marginalized.”
The synodal document’s insistence on the participation of both Catholics who have left the practice of
the faith and of non-Catholics, is likely to fuel concerns that the process could foment dissent against
established Church teaching across a range of issues.
The pope is the ultimate point of unity and authority in the synodal process, and the diocesan bishops
are called to fill the same role at the local level — synodality does not mean either a “parliamentary”
process or the introduction of majority-view decision making within the Church. Yet, moving the
Church to a more permanent mindset of synodality would allow the faithful to better exercise “the
prophetic function of all the people of God” articulated by the Second Vatican Council.
Individual dioceses are invited to create the role of a synodal “contact person” to coordinate the local
process, although the synod guidelines express a preference that two “contact persons” coordinate a
team of “co-leaders” of the process to better reflect the “synodal nature of the process.”
07 November 2021