Synod: Theological reflection on Module B-3 by Fr. Dario Vitali

Synod: Theological reflection on Module B-3 by Fr. Dario Vitali

At the presentation of the Twelfth General Congregation of the Synod, Father Dario Vitali, Coordinator of expert theologians and Ordinary Professor in the Faculty of Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, offers a theological reflection on the theme: ‘Participation, Responsibility, and Authority: What processes, structures, and institutions in a missionary synodal Church?’

General Congregation 12 – October 18, 2023
‘Participation, Responsibility, and Authority:
What processes, structures, and institutions in a missionary synodal Church?’
Theological Contribution
Rev. Dario VITALI
Coordinator of expert theologians

1. “The Church is a sacrament in Christ, that is, a sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the human race” (LG 1). I take this quote as a framework to structure the theological reflection on point B.3, which focuses on “participation, responsibility, and authority”. The first participation emphasized by the Second Vatican Council is not, indeed, that of individuals, but of the entire Church, the People of God on their journey towards the realization of the Kingdom. Never as today – and by today I mean these dramatic days when peace seems to hang by a thread – does humanity need the strong and convinced testimony of a Church that is a sign and instrument of peace among nations. “A synodal Church – in the words of Pope Francis – is like a banner raised among the nations (cf. Is 11,12)… As a Church that ‘walks alongside’ men, participating in the travails of history, we nurture the dream that the rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and the service function of authority may also help civil society to build itself in justice and fraternity, generating a more beautiful and more worthy world for the generations that will come after us.”

A Church that aims to be outward-facing, a “universal sacrament of salvation” for the world (LG 48), is always called to be and think of itself inwardly as a “sacrament of this salvific unity” (LG 9). But can this category, which certainly explains the dimension of mystery of the Church, be applied to topics such as “participation, responsibility, authority”? Chapter I already opens significant horizons in this direction. Just remember LG 7, which says how “in building the body of Christ there is a diversity of members and functions.”

2. But it is in Chapter II where the topics of participation acquire a specific physiognomy, starting from the description of the Church as the People of God, “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, a people acquired by God” (LG 9).

We all know that the chapter on Populo Dei represents the “Copernican revolution” of conciliar ecclesiology. The fact of intercalating the chapter before that of the hierarchy breaks the ecclesiological pyramid built over the centuries: before functions is the dignity of the baptized; before differences, which establish hierarchies, is the equality of the children of God. The greatest title of belonging to the Church is not to be pope, nor bishop, nor priest, nor consecrated, but a son of God. All are sons in the Son, united by kinship bonds that come from the Spirit. Affirming the equal dignity of all does not mean denying differences: the Church is the body of Christ, alive and beautiful because of the variety of gifts, charisms, ministries, and vocations.

The principle that regulates this wealth of gifts, charisms, and ministries in the ecclesial body is expressed by the Council in the relationship between the “common priesthood and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood” as distinct forms of participation in the priesthood of Christ (LG 10). The novelty of this passage is groundbreaking because of the choice to overturn the two themes in play: placing the common priesthood before the ministerial priesthood means breaking an asymmetrical relationship of authority-obedience that structured the pyramidal Church. Then, affirming two forms of participation in the priesthood of Christ ordered to each other means recognizing their complementary diversity, making them irreducible to each other.

Within this relationship, a very broad space opens up, which the ordained ministers cannot and should not occupy. On the contrary, they serve the holy people of God, who finally becomes an active subject of ecclesial life.

3. But saying Church-People of God does not solve the entire issue, nor does it guarantee a painless reform of the Church. This is demonstrated by the heated debate that took place in the period immediately after the Council on the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which confronted charisma and institution, “Church from below and Church from above”, People of God and hierarchy.

This explains, on one hand, the emphasis on the ecclesiology of communion, primarily focused on the side of hierarchical communion, which over time has produced a true “centralization” of the Church; on the other hand, the fear that synodality, understood as the “journeying together” of the People of God, constitutes an alternative to the principle of communion. In reality, synodality is nothing other than the very communion of the Church as the Holy People of God. Synodality and communion can be identified, as long as we understand the Church as the People of God on their journey.

Within the synodal Church, all dimensions of communion find citizenship: the trinitarian communion, the communion of the faithful, the communion of the Churches, the communion of the saints. Serving this Church are the Pastors, in a hierarchical communion regulated by the service of the unity of the Bishop of Rome, who – in the words of Pope Francis – “is not, alone, above the Church; but within it as a baptized among the baptized and within the Episcopal College as a Bishop among Bishops, at the same time called – as the Successor of the Apostle Peter – to lead the Church of Rome which presides in love over all the Churches” (Speech at the 50th Synod).

4. It is precisely module B.3, with its themes, that shows the way to begin the renewal of processes, structures, and institutions in a missionary synodal Church, in a progressive reception of the ecclesiological framework designed by Vatican Council II. The close relationship that exists between the People of God, the College of Bishops, and the Bishop of Rome, each with their function, establishes the synodal Church as the “Church of listening”: “Faithful people, College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: one listens to the other; and all listen to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), to know what He “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7)”.

The desire to guarantee the respective functions of these subjects led to the transformation of the Synod from an event to a process. This choice does not deny, but integrates into a higher unity the body established by Paul VI, with which the pope intended to give the bishops “the possibility to participate in a more evident and more effective way in Our concern for the universal Church” (AS). The next step to take, in line with all the conciliar ecclesiology, was stated by Pope Francis: how “the Synod of Bishops, representative of the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality within an entirely synodal Church?” (Francis, Speech at the 50th Synod). This is only possible by recognizing all the subjects in which the ecclesial body is articulated. In the synodal process, the People of God, the Episcopal College, and the Bishop of Rome exercise their specific ecclesial functions, composing synodality, collegiality, and primacy in dynamic unity.

5. This process occurs through a dual dynamic, complementary in its movement: outgoing and incoming.

Outgoing: The synodal process can take place in the Church because the Bishop of Rome calls it to synodal action. This initial movement corresponds to a prerogative of the Bishop of Rome, the “visible principle and foundation of unity” of all the baptized, of all bishops, of all churches. It is He who “presides over the universal communion of charity, guarantees legitimate diversities, and at the same time ensures that the particular does not harm unity but serves it” (LG 13). In his service to the Church’s unity, he summons, presides over, and confirms the Synod, similarly to how he summons, presides over, and confirms the ecumenical council (cf. LG 22). He is the one to establish the Synod’s theme, initiate the synodal process, accompany the process through the Synod’s Secretariat, and conclude it.

In virtue of this call, an incoming process starts, involving the entire Church and everyone in the Church, beginning with particular churches. This is based on the ecclesiological principle stated by the Second Vatican Council, which says the Church is “the body of the churches”, in which and from which the only Catholic Church exists” (LG 23).

Under this principle, each Bishop, as a visible principle and foundation of unity for the portio Populi Dei entrusted to him (cf. LG 23), is responsible for initiating the synodal process in his Church. Precisely because it’s summoned by the Bishop, the consultation in particular churches is a true consultation to the People of God, the subject of the sensus fidei. This was how, in the Synod’s first phase, listening to each portio Populi Dei coincided with listening to the entire People of God who live and walk within the churches.

Since there’s no consultation of the People of God in particular churches if their Pastor doesn’t initiate it, from the beginning, bishops have genuinely participated in the synodal process, playing an indispensable role. Therefore, it’s evident that there’s no contradiction between the synodal and hierarchical dimensions of the Church: one guarantees the other and vice versa, with the Church being a “sacrament of unity”, a people gathered and ordered under the guidance of the bishops” (SC 26).

6. The synodal process is, therefore, a privileged place for practicing both synodality and collegiality, as it ensures the effective practice of the sensus fidei of the People of God as well as the discernment of the Pastors. Due to the synodal action to which the Bishop of Rome has summoned the whole Church, bishops worldwide have jointly exercised their discernment function at intermediate stages of synodality and collegiality. The discernment of Episcopal Conferences and synodal assemblies, when applied to a manifestation of the sensus fidei of the People of God, isn’t merely pastoral but is “an expression of episcopal collegiality within a synodal Church” (Francis, Speech on the 50th anniversary of the Synod), insofar as the bishops truly express in these acts “the communion among them and with Peter’s Successor” in the exercise of the discernment function (LG 25).

7. Thus, we can conclude by reaffirming that the Synod is the privileged “place” and “space” for practicing synodality, which doesn’t emphasize the role of the People of God or the Pastors unilaterally, but that of all subjects – People of God, Episcopal College, Bishop of Rome – articulating synodality, collegiality, and primacy in dynamic unity. Given these unique features, the synodal process can be understood as the most refined exercise of synodality in the Catholic Church.

This is the starting point for rethinking church institutions. This is demonstrated by the Praedicate Evangelium constitution, which rethinks the service of the Roman Curia to the Church in a synodal key. It does this based on the conciliar description of the Church as a “body of churches”, “in which and from which the only Catholic Church exists” (EP 6); the same principle governing the entire synodal process. Instead of indicating individual reforms, criteria for reform should be stated.

The first is theological: rethink the Church in a synodal key, so that the entire Church and everything in the Church – life, processes, institutions – is rethought in terms of synodality.

The second is institutional: guarantee the Church the “space” to practice synodality. In the speaker’s opinion, this equates to safeguarding the Synod as an organ serving a constitutionally synodal Church. Without the Synod, the practice of synodality would end up dissolving into a thousand streams, creating a real quagmire, slowing down, if not preventing, the “walking together” of the People of God. One can reflect on its institutional form, but there should be no doubt that this institution ensures the Church a genuine exercise of synodality, as the current synodal process amply demonstrates.

A genuine exercise of synodality will allow for thoughtful considerations – with patience and prudence – on the necessary institutional reforms, decision-making processes that involve everyone, and an exercise of authority truly suitable for “making grow” a mature and participatory People of God.

In this horizon, I repeat the words of the Bishop who ordained me many years ago and in whose school I learned synodality. In his message to his Church, back in 1990, on the occasion of the opening of the diocesan synod, he wrote words that sound prophetic:

“The People of God, a visible sign of the invisible presence of the Kingdom, listens, dialogues, serves its Lord, the center of the cosmos and history. It accepts the invitation to walk alongside God, humanity, creation. […] The Synod is a declaration of love for the land, this blessed land we walk on, this blessed time that is both fascinating and dramatic. The Synod is an even stronger declaration of love for people, for all people. Preferably for the poorest in all aspects and at all levels. […] Only love convinces. Only love makes grow, creates novelty. Let’s be convinced: the Synod is a time of love. From God to us, from us to Him, from everyone among us.”

(+ Dante Bernini).

Thank you.