It is helpful to imagine the Synod on Synodality as an enormous project of conversion. A project that involves the entire Church being led by the Holy Spirit out of the corruption of clericalism and into something new, writes Dr Elissa Roper.
In the first 14 centuries since the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Church used ecumenical councils to prompt processes of clarification and renewal. They became journeys of conversion for both participants and the wider Church as the decrees were, to various extents, unfolded in ecclesial life.
These were regular events; from the first Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 to the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s they were staged approximately once per century. Trent adopted a methodology of alternating debates on doctrine and reform. Doctrine was advanced in response to the signs of the time (such as the challenges of Martin Luther), and reform was very much focussed on how to discipline the episcopacy.
The entire process, from its establishment, the drawing up of rules and debates, writing of decrees and implementation, was the domain of the bishops.
The processes established by Trent – hierarchical in focus and defensive and juridical in nature – remained untouched by another council for centuries until the First Vatican Council (1869-1870, though not completed). This was followed by the far more substantive Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Renewal was a normal purpose of an ecumenical council, but Pope John XXIII conceived of a different methodology for the mid-20th Century. The Church was to open its windows to “let in fresh air” by using a methodology of aggiornamento (bringing up to date) and ressourcement (returning to the roots). The communication of Vatican II was, therefore, to be pastoral in nature, rather than a series of anathemas or condemnations.
In 1965, Bernard Lonergan described the reaction to the pope’s word aggiornamento, and the promise that it held for the Church in the future:
The word aggiornamento has electrified the world, Catholic and non-Catholic, because it seems to imply a rejection of classicism, a rejection of the view that human nature is always the same… It opens, or seems to open, the door to historical consciousness, to the awareness that [people] individually are responsible for their lives and collectively are responsible for the world in which they live them.
One important act of renewal was the creation of the Synod of Bishops. Known as collegiality, the bishops were to be responsible together, to support each other, communicate well, and to lead a relational and dynamic Church.
On the 50th anniversary of this event, Pope Francis formally set in motion an entirely new project of conversion for the Catholic Church: synodality. This was conceived as a dramatic expansion of the work of collegiality. The entire faithful were to take up their baptismal responsibilities and collaborate in mission, participate fully in all aspects of ecclesial life, and discern together in decision-making. The bishops, therefore, became a “point of convergence of this listening process conducted at every level of the Church’s life.” And the Synod of Bishops, “the most evident manifestation of a dynamism of communion which inspires all ecclesial decisions.”
In this vision Church life is circular, not hierarchical. Individuals who are attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible (the definition of authentic living by Bernard Lonergan) exercise their faith authentically, together in community and together with their priests and bishops. Only then may the episcopacy – in collegiality and in an entirely synodal Church – manifest the “spirit of collegiality,” which Pope John Paul II effectively defined as the nature of a bishop. That spirit is then a fount of friendship and support for the People of God in their missionary discipleship.
It is the laity who go out in the world to bring “the light of Christ to all [people]” (Lumen Gentium n.1). So that the laity may be empowered to be missionary, any renewal process today must be concerned with “converting clericalism to synodality.”
Synodality and transformation: proof
The project of conversion for the Church today is not merely a series of documents, assemblies and hopeful plans. When opening the Synod, Pope Francis said:
We recall that the purpose of the Synod is not to produce documents, but to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.
Where is the proof of this? What are we looking for if “the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit”?
Firstly, responsibility for renewal should be visibly synodal rather than hierarchical. The entire faithful should be participating in all aspects of the phases of preparation, assemblies and implementation. If synodality truly values integrity, transparency, accountability and co-responsibility, then documents should be easily accessible and most roles open for applications.
The voices of the faithful should be clear and recognisable, from the first round of listening, to the current Continental Stage where feedback is given to the Working Document.
Consider how our voices of the Oceania region are reflected in the Working Document: Australia is quoted with a strong statement on the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the institutional response; New Zealand speaks on the lack of equality for women as a stumbling block; Papua New Guinea on equitable and effective decision-making in parishes; and the Pacific nations on the threat of climate change.
Secondly, renewal should be spreading beyond the official processes of the Synod. Transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. If the Synod is indeed collaborating with the Spirit then the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) will be evident. And since the Synod began with an invitation for every diocese in the world to fully and actively participate, then potentially every Catholic may be touched.
My point here is that it is not necessarily an act of submitting to the Synod that is transforming. How many Australians asked themselves deeply and prayerfully what is God asking of us here in Australia at this time? How many of us have inquired about synodality? Watched webinars and read articles? Perhaps run an information session in the parish or contributed to a diocesan assembly? How many have been moved to tears and despair by the Royal Commission’s revelations of abuse in our midst? Been stirred by frustration, anger, compassion, and desire for God’s justice?
These movements of our hearts, minds and spirits are movements of conversion. The Holy Spirit breathes in us to enlarge the space of our own selves.
Thirdly, if synodality is genuinely of the Spirit then there is no going back. I have a spark of joy every time I hear someone exclaim “we weren’t consulted on that decision – that’s not synodality!” There are some who prefer the comfort of inertia and they plant their feet firmly. But clericalism quickly loses its attraction for people who thirst for the power of God’s Spirit. Like Jesus, we step out to meet the need of others (and ourselves) for healing, reconciliation and friendship with God.
From our Church – and as Church – we now expect full participation, loving communion, and inclusion in mission.
 Bernard Lonergan, “Existenz and Aggiornamento,” in Collection: Papers by Bernard Lonergan, vol. 4, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, 2nd ed., ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, 222-31 (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 228-29.
 Francis, “Address at the Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops,” 17 Oct 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/october/documents/papa-francesco_20151017_50-anniversario-sinodo.html.
 John Paul II, Pastores Gregis, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Bishop, 16 Oct 2003, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_20031016_pastores-gregis.html.
 A phrase of Prof. Rafael Luciani, Expert of the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops.
 Francis, “Opening Address of the Synod,” 9 Oct 2021, https://www.synod.va/en/what-is-the-synod-21-24/about.html
 Synod documents are here: https://www.synod.va/en/resources/official-documents.html.