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Instrumentum Laboris Highlight #2: Radiating Communion | Synod on Synodality

Matthew Neugebauer

Friday, August 25, 2023

iStock photo.
The Instrumentum Laboris (IL) or “Working Document” for the 2023 General Assembly was released in late June by the Synod Secretariat. You can read a clear and concise overview of the document here, which outlines both its intended purpose and overall structure. The IL’s two-part structure includes a reflection on the themes and priorities that emerged during the Continental Stage, followed by a series of worksheets with questions for the General Assembly to consider.
For my own commentary on the Working Document, I’m publishing a series of more focused posts reflecting on specific aspects that stood out to me. You can read Part One here. Now, on to Part Two.

Radiating Communion

Many synod observers may be tempted to think of "Communion, Participation, Mission" as three discrete and potentially disconnected "pillars" of synodality. The IL directly confronts that perception (#43), asserting instead that “communion and mission are interwoven and mirror each other” (#44). Communion is meant to “radiate” the love of God to the world, and mission ought to strengthen the bonds of communion through co-responsibility. To reinforce this interwoven reality, the IL re-orders the terms to “Communion, Mission, Participation.” This reordering is so that communion and mission can sit side-by-side, and then express that the relationship between them invites greater participation from all the baptized.
Like the global perspective of the IL’s “framing priority” on economic and ecological issues, this comment on “interwovenness” has jump-started my own reflections and recollections. The connection between communion and mission is an intuitive insight, but one that, as the IL implies, we are tempted to forget.
I have found that this interweaving shines through most clearly in the "missional attractiveness" of communion, clearly exemplified in the way people can find meaning and belonging in a parish community. It’s a clear example since the parish is often the most visible and accessible contact point that most people have to the Church. In a healthy community, members new and old can get to know each other at social gatherings and informal connections like meals and outings. They can learn to trust each other, and care about each other and about the ministry of the parish. They can then participate more fully, by contributing their time, expertise, effort, and material resources to that ministry. This can result in a profound unity, in which parishioners bring their many diverse parts, perspectives, experiences, knowledge, hopes, and dreams to church, and become a diverse group of people that finds their place in the whole.
This communion is missional. It announces – “radiates” – that the Church can offer the connections that people are looking for.
The radical nature of Christianity is not the prerogative of a few specific vocations, but the call to build a community that lives and bears witness to a different way of understanding the relationship between the daughters and sons of God, one that embodies the truth of love, one that is based on gift and gratuitousness. The radical call is, therefore, to build together, synodally, an attractive and concrete Church: an outgoing Church, in which all feel welcome (#26, emphasis added).

Two-by-two, and across the globe

However, “radiating communion” isn’t simply about forming a social club. It’s about forming people, parishes, dioceses, and the whole Church to show their neighbours and societies the inviting, loving Communion of the Triune God. To continue the local example– alongside the ways people can connect with each other mentioned above, there is the explicitly “Christian” formation offered by the parish. Together, parishioners can learn and deepen their faith in God, and are formed by Church teaching, through homilies, programs, and other events. At their “source and summit,” they participate in Mass together, hear the Word of God together, and receive the Blessed Sacrament together. They become a diverse group of people that finds their place in the one, catholic People of God.
This type of communion can “radiate” God’s love, can be an instrument of evangelization, because those on the “outside looking in” can experience the invitation to find their place in God’s diverse, Triune life and in relationships formed by this life. Towards Full Presence, the Pentecost reflection from the Dicastery for Communication, offered another example of this interweaving, of “communion that radiates” through co-responsible mission. That document recalled Jesus' strategy to send out pairs of missionaries to the surrounding towns and countryside (Mark 6:7).
The point isn’t so much that they’re in pairs, but that they’re together, offering an example that encourages apostolates, diocesan mission initiatives, and our everyday online connections to lean into the deeply relational nature of ministry and mission. In the Gospel story, Jesus sends out apostles to “walk together” (aka “synod”) – to provide mutual support and encouragement to each other as they participate in evangelization together. Such collaboration and mutual support is necessary for the sustainable well-being of missionaries and other ministers, both practically and personally (Towards Full Presence #76).
More to the point, the supportive, personal relationship between missionaries can itself be a witness, a part of their very proclamation of the Gospel, because it radiates a synodal vision of God's love and offers it to others. In the Church and her mission, people are welcomed as they are, with their gifts and vulnerabilities. They can give of themselves and receive the support of relationships and communities that go beyond themselves. Those relationships are what make the “proclamation” of the Gospel “credible” for people (IL #44 See also IL Worksheet B.1.2), since they can reflect God’s character, show us what God is like, what kind of relationship he desires to have with us, and what kinds of relationships he draws us into with each other. They radiate the truth of God’s love, which invites people to trust and believe. As Jesus himself told us on his way to the Mount of Olives, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Finally, Towards Full Presence reminds us that “the challenges that we face are global and thus require a global collaborative effort” (#76). The sharing of different perspectives, the creativity that comes from a symphony of collaborators building on and honing each other’s contributions, can lead to new and productive responses to challenges in the world, the place of mission where we need to show how the Gospel is compellingly relevant. An impressive example is the upcoming Rencontres Méditerranéennes in Marseille, France. This meeting will gather bishops, young people, and others into “a large ‘village’ of Mediterranean communities, solidarity or cultural associations, and movements committed to ecology and dialogue” on challenges and opportunities for peace and development in the region.

Discerning the next steps

“Radiating communion” is at least the ideal. It’s what the local parish, the diocese, and the global Christian community are all called to be and to build if the “light of Christ” is truly to be “resplendent on the face of the Church” (Lumen Gentium #1). However, I should at this point mention the distance between the ideal and the reality, since that distance is precisely what the Synod on Synodality is called to grapple with. One possible cause of the overall decline of the Church in the West is that our divisions, conflicts, and agendas risk driving people away and obscuring the truth that we are Christ’s disciples. This is the thesis that Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner puts forward in his book A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. Relevant to this reflection on the Synod on Synodality, he points to the Medieval Conciliar tradition as a hopeful example (see chapter 4).
Divisions are tricky, since they often have multiple layers to them, and those conflicting layers can each be valid in their own way. This is the case when it comes to disagreements and conflicts at a familial or local level, as well as on a societal and ecclesial scale. In Part Three, I’ll explore the limitations and opportunities of various types of “difficult conversations” in more depth.
I don’t have a concise and systematic response to the challenge of matching reality to the ideal. Thankfully, concise and systematic responses are only as useful as their concise and systematic circumstances. However, the Second Vatican Council famously broadened the scope of its vision and pointed the way forward: “In every age, the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel,” that is, of the truth of God’s love (Gaudium et Spes, #4, emphasis added).
I keep returning to “interpreting the signs of the times in light of the Gospel” in my reflections on this Synod on Synodality, almost ad nauseam. That’s because discerning the signs of the times and the Church’s response to them lies at the heart of this Synod’s work. Perhaps that discernment is the foundation of the synodal task itself, especially as it involves lay people and others tasked with seeking the common good of the societies where they live, where they walk on their "pilgrimage toward the Father's Kingdom" (Gaudium et Spes, #1). How does the Church walk alongside and engage with the world today?
The IL only proposes directions for the General Assembly, not conclusions. However, those directions still call for concrete ideas and responses from the General Assembly and beyond. The clearest direction that this Synodal process keeps proposing, the discernment it keeps seeing, is the need for greater co-responsibility – not only in the Church’s self-understanding, but importantly in its actions and decision-making structures.
“Co-responsibility” literally means “responsible, together.” It’s a fancy term for the cultural norms, expectations, and practices that involve all the baptized to participate, together, in the Church’s mission. It necessarily includes the structural and possibly canonical reforms that support and require greater participation (cf. #54). As the IL asserts, “there is a growing awareness” that emerged during the diocesan and continental stages as well as previous Synods, that “the internal organization of the Christian community, the distribution of roles and tasks, and the management of its institutions and structures” ought to be “oriented for mission” and “evangelically founded,” to better support the truthful communication of the Gospel of Love (#44).

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