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 | By Father Brad Jantz

The Synod on Synodality

Does it really matter?

One of the buzz phrases that has circulated in the Catholic Church over the last few years is the “Synod on Synodality.” You may not have heard about it, and even if you have, you may not know what it means. After all, the name is a bit confusing. I thought I would take the chance in this column to explain what the “Synod on Synodality” means and why it matters to all Catholics.

I’ll emphasize that it really does matter! The Synod on Synodality is a three-year process, from 2021 to 2024, in which the Holy Father has invited the whole Catholic Church into a shared, worldwide discernment of how to respond in faith to the challenges we face today. These conversations are shaping up to be one of the biggest moments in the life of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. The synod is intended to involve every member of the Church in continuing the discernment begun at the council about the Holy Spirit’s will for our direction in the modern world.

But you still might wonder exactly what the name means. “Synod” comes from Greek, with the basic meaning of “walking together.” In the ancient Church, a synod was a regional gathering of bishops to address doctrinal or disciplinary questions. In more modern times, it has usually meant a gathering of priests and laypeople to assist a bishop with issues specific to a diocese. Since the council, the term has also referred to an initiative started by Pope St. Paul VI: a regular gathering of bishops in Rome to advise the Holy Father.

During his 10 years as the leader of the universal Church, Pope Francis has given tremendous emphasis to this third usage of the term. In fact, he sees it as central to the Church’s direction forward in our times. Very importantly, the Synod on Synodality includes not just bishops, but also priests, religious, and laypeople — both men and women—as voting members. Pope Francis has made a point of including people of a wide variety of perspectives from all over the world to assist in fully discerning the specifics of the Holy Spirit’s will for the Church.

With that in mind, we can understand more fully what Pope Francis means by “synodality.” He is not just talking about the specific meetings in Rome, but about a vision for how the Catholic Church lives our common life together, guided by God working through our individual and communal gifts. He is hearkening back to the understanding of the Church found in the writings of the Fathers. To quote St. John Chrysostom, “The word ‘Church’ means both gathering together and walking together.”

The idea is that the Church is much more than top-down instructions from the pope and the bishops. Of course, our leaders have a unique role of safeguarding doctrine and unity, but the Holy Spirit is at work in every one of us. It’s like Sunday Mass: different people participate and cooperate in many ways, and when we come together, we experience God profoundly. Our mission to live out our call to holiness, be effective witnesses to Christ, and transform the world in His name is best done together. “Synodality” means a vision of a Catholic Church where we all walk together: laypeople, people in religious and consecrated life, deacons, priests, and bishops.

Let me clear up another misconception about the Synod on Synodality: its purpose is not to change the Church’s teaching on anything. The synod aims to bring us to a deeper experience of “being Church together,” not to address doctrinal matters directly. The goal is to make sure that the magisterium exercises its function not just as the authoritative voice of solid doctrine but also as the facilitator of dialogue and communion within the Church. The pope and bishops also have a mission to keep us talking and walking together. The synod is Pope Francis’ way of putting into practice Jesus’ command to St. Peter: “Strengthen your brethren.”

My own experience as a priest has been that the Church is so much more vibrant and alive when we embrace this vision for our common life. One of the joys of parish ministry is when someone comes to me with an idea and a passion for bringing it to fruition. So often, the greatest moments are when, as a priest, I have the privilege of seeing how God is working in someone else, then cheering them on as they live out the movement of the Spirit within them. This proactive participation in the Church’s life is what Pope Francis is inviting us all into through the Synod on Synodality.

So here is my encouragement to everyone: embrace walking together as brothers and sisters in Christ! Cherish our responsibility as Church to proclaim the Gospel and live out Jesus’ call! If the Holy Spirit is working in you (and He is!), share that gift with your Church community. We can be confident that God will continue to work powerfully in and through us, as we embrace the spirit of synodality, of “walking together” on our shared journey of faith.

Father Brad Jantz is currently pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Montevallo. Since 2020, he also has served as the Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue for the Diocese of Birmingham. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, with a specialty in Old Testament studies. Prior to becoming a priest, he served for 10 years in the U.S. Air Force.