A new way of being together
by Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC
We’re all familiar with Gospel accounts of the apostles’ very human seeking for positions of power and greatness and also of Jesus’ clear response: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you” (Matthew 20: 25-26). In fact, Jesus so reverses concepts of power and greatness that “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10: 44-45; cf. Luke 22: 26-27). A similar view of this reversal of secular models of power is found in Paul’s image of the Christian community as the body of Christ, where those that seem to be the weaker are recognized as indispensable and the inferior member is given greater honour (1 Corinthians 12: 12-27). Over time, this new way of being together in the church would find expression in an understanding of authority exercised through structures of synodality.
Scholars question the historicity of many events recorded in the Gospels, but the gathering of a group of disciples around Jesus seems an undeniable historical fact. It also seems evident that the inclusion of women, along with tax collectors and sinners, among the disciples indicates both the world-reversing character and the nearness of the reign of God that Jesus proclaims is “at hand”. While the parables present the reign of God as a world of right relationships in which compassion, mercy, and forgiveness are structural realities, Jesus’ interaction with the outcasts of his society so actualizes these alternate realities that leaders of the worldly power that is being reversed sentence him to death. Among Jesus’ followers, however, the resurrection so reverses this condemnation that the reign of God can be lived by anticipation in the present world.
Through their experience of the resurrection, the disciples come to understand the crucifixion as an event of salvation; they find renewed faith and recognize themselves as the eschatological community of God, the church. Although they were dramatically changed by their experience of the resurrection, the disciples did not see themselves as taking the place of Jesus. They did not simply continue to proclaim the reign of God as they had during his lifetime. Instead, the post-resurrection period is marked by a clear transition from Jesus the proclaimer of God’s reign to the disciples the proclaimers of Christ.
In continuity with the disciples’ experience of call, the Christian community after Easter sees conversion to Jesus as the condition for membership in the community of salvation. What now mediates salvation is not fulfillment of the Law but one’s relationship to Christ. The church becomes the place of contact with Jesus and his message, the place where authentic discipleship is possible. Oriented towards the making of disciples, the church’s ministry is defined by the concept of discipleship. And, when ministry is viewed as discipleship, sharp distinctions are avoided between the minister and those to whom they minister. With discipleship as the common factor uniting all Christians, everyone is a follower and a learner in relation to Jesus. All are ministers and all are ministered to. In a community of disciples, no one is called, in an absolute sense, teacher, father, or master (Matthew 23: 8-19).
The proclamation of the Gospel is not merely an account of God’s historical saving action in Christ; rather, it is Christ himself who is at work in the word that is preached. The focus of mission and ministry in the church is to bring Christians into an immediate relationship with Jesus in the Holy Spirit. For members of the early Christian community, the reign of Christ is continued in the church through the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. Further, since all these gifts have their source in the same Spirit, there may be tension but can be no radical opposition between charismatic and administrative ministries (Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-12). This concept of church structure highlights the mutual relatedness of charisms within the Christian community. Since all members remain disciples together, all charisms are to be respected and every gift is to be judged by its contribution to the integrity of the church’s life and mission.
In light of the above, the church may well be described as a Spirit-led community of disciples. Such a description provides the framework for the development of structures of synodality as a way of exercising authority in communion. For Pope Francis, the term synodality (derived from syn-hodos
meaning common way
) has the sense of journeying together, “an easy concept to put into words but not so easy to put into practice”. In an address marking the 50th anniversary
of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis identifies the Synod as “one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council” and expresses his desire to enhance its role.
Published in June 2020, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity’s (PCPCU) most recent document, The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum
, affirms the ecumenical significance of building a synodal church (article 4). Latin for go with me
, the term Vademecum
has been used since the early 17th century to describe a guidebook or manual that is concise enough to be carried in a pocket. Addressed to bishops, this Ecumenical Vademecum
contains precise information and is intended to be kept at hand for quick consultation as needed. From the perspective of the PCPCU, the decision to develop a Vademecum
for the use of bishops appears to be strategic. In line with the centrality of the bishop’s role and his responsibility for oversight of all diocesan activities, episcopal commitment is integral to the search for Christian unity both locally and nationally. The diocesan bishop is in a position to guide and direct all local ecumenical initiatives. At the same time, the bishop does not act alone but is encouraged to identify collaborators: to appoint an ecumenical officer, to establish an ecumenical commission, and to encourage participation in local formation programs. The Vademecum
also names the deep relationship between the episcopal ministry of promoting unity and synodality.
Synodality implies a clear recognition of the supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei
) of the whole people of God. Succinctly stated at the Second Vatican Council: “The enitre body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2: 20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief.” (Lumen Gentium
, 12) According to Pope Francis, a synodal church is a church which listens. More than simply hearing, “it is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn.” Thus, there can be no rigid separation between a listening and a teaching church, “since the flock likewise has an instinctive ability to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.”
The most recent report
from the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC III) expresses it well:
“The sense of faith grows through a life of strong charity and regular religious practice, each of which promotes communion between the faithful and God ... the sense of the faith means that the authentic transmission of the faith is not only the preserve of the magisterium and theologians, but also of saintly parents and holy men, women and children who know God ‘from within’ and have a sense of what conforms to God’s designs for human beatitude.” (54)
Thus, the church’s continuity “demands structures which will facilitate the fullest possible sharing of the experience of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit among all the baptized.” In this context, ARCIC III asks whether Anglican experience of synodal structures might be an opportunity for receptive learning in Roman Catholic circles (146).
Pope Francis recognizes synodality as a constitutive element of the church and sees commitment to build a synodal church as a mission to which all are called. For him, this commitment not only has clear ecumenical implications but also extends to humanity as a whole. He states:
“A synodal Church is like a standard lifted up among the nations (cf. Is
11:12) in a world which – while calling for participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration – often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups.” As it “journeys together” with men and women, sharing the travails of history, the church witnesses to “a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of authority as service” which may “also be able to help civil society to be built up in justice and fraternity, and thus bring about a more beautiful and humane world for coming generations.”
Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, SC, served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.