On the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis set out a vision for the Church that has, I believe, a strong chance to end up his most important speech. Since there is no English translation of the full text yet, the following is my, rough attempt of the text (with the exception of the opening words of thanks to the event's participants).
“The world we live in, and that we are called to love and serve also in its contradictions, requires from the Church a strengthening of synergies in all areas of her mission. It is precisely the way of synodality that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.
What the Lord asks of us, in a sense, is already all contained in the word “synod”. Walking together - Laity, Pastors, Bishop of Rome - is an easy concept to express in words, but not so easy to put into practice.
After confirming that the People of God is formed by all the baptized who are called to “be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood”, the Second Vatican Council proclaims that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (cfr. 1 Jn 2:20 and 27) cannot err in matters of belief and manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples' supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals”. That famous infallible “in credendo” [“in believing”].
In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium I underlined how “the people of God is holy thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible in credendo”, adding that “each baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients”. The sensus fidei [sense of the faith] impedes a rigid separation between Ecclesia docens [the teaching Church] and Ecclesia discens [the learning Church], since the Flock too has its own “nose” for discerning the new ways that the Lord reveals to the Church.
It was this conviction that guided me when I wished for the whole People of God to be consulted in preparation for the double synod on the family, as is usually done and as was done with any “Lineamenta” [guidelines]. Certainly, a consultation of this kind could in no way be enough to listen to the sensus fidei. But how would it have been possible to talk about the family without consulting families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish? Through the answers to the two questionnaires sent to the particular Churches, we had the opportunity to hear at least some of them regarding the issues that closely affect them and about which they have much to say.
A synodal Church is a Church of listening, knowing that listening “is more than hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: each one listening to the others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
The Synod of Bishops is the convergence point of this dynamic of listening, conducted at all levels of Church life. The synodal process starts by listening to the People, which “shares also in Christ's prophetic office”, according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: “Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet” [What touches all should be considered by all]. The path of the Synod proceeds by listening to the Pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, the Bishops act as true stewards, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, who must be able to carefully distinguish the often changing flows of public opinion. On the eve of the Synod of last year I stated: “For the Synod Fathers we ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, that with him we may hear the cry of the people; to listen to the people until breathing in the will to which God calls us”. Finally, the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, called upon to pronounce as “Pastor and Teacher of all Christians”: not by starting with his personal convictions, but as the supreme witness of the fides totius Ecclesiae [faith of all the Church], “guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church”.
The fact that the Synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter] - therefore not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro - is not a restriction of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. In fact the Pope, by the will of the Lord, “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” To which is related the concept of “ierarchica communio” [hierarchical communion] employed by Vatican II: the Bishops are united with the Bishop of Rome by the bond of episcopal communion (cum Petro) and are at the same time hierarchically subjected to him as head of the college (sub Petro).
Synodality, as a constitutive dimension of the Church, gives us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding hierarchical ministry. If we understand that, as St. John Chrysostom says, “Church and Synod are synonyms,” - because the Church is none other than the “walking together” of the Flock of God along the paths of history towards Christ the Lord - we will come to understand that inside it no one can be “elevated” above the others. On the contrary, in the Church is necessary for someone “to lowered themselves” to be at the service of brothers along the way.
Jesus established the Church by placing at its head the Apostolic College, in which the apostle Peter is the “rock” (cf. Mt 16:18), one who is to “confirm” his brothers in faith (cf. Lk 22, 32 ). But in this Church, like in an inverted pyramid, the summit is located below the base. This is why those who exercise authority are are called “ministers,” because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is by serving the People of God that each Bishop becomes, for the portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi [vicar of Christ], the vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper stooped down to wash the feet of the apostles (cf. Jn 13:1-15). And, on a similar horizon, the Successor of Peter is none other than the servant of the servants of God.
Let us never forget it! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross, in the words of the Master: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”(Mt 20: 25-27). It shall not be so among you: in this expression we reach the heart of the mystery of the Church - “it shall not be so among you” - and receive the necessary light to understand hierarchical service.
In a synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the most evident manifestation of a dynamic of communion that inspires all ecclesial decisions.
The first level of exercising collegiality happens in the particular Churches. After recalling the noble institution of the diocesan Synod, in which Priests and Laity are called to collaborate with the Bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community, the Code of Canon Law devotes ample space to those who used to be called the “bodies of communion” of the local Church: the Council of Priests, the College of Consultors, the Chapter of Canons and the Pastoral Council. Only to the extent that these bodies remain connected with the “low” and start from the people, from everyday problems, can a Church Synod begin to take shape: these instruments, which sometimes proceed with fatigue, must be treated as an opportunity for listening and sharing.
The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Regions, of Particular Councils and especially Episcopal Conferences. We must reflect about how to achieve even more, through these organizations, the interim instances of collegiality, perhaps by integrating and updating some aspects of the ancient ecclesiastical order. The hope of the Council that such bodies would contribute to the growth of the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. We are at half way, at a part of the journey. In a synodal Church, as I have said, “it is not not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization””.
The last level is that of the universal Church. Here the Synod of Bishops, representing the catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality within a wholly synodal Church. Two different words, “episcopal collegiality” and “wholly synodal Church.” This manifests collegialitas affectiva [affective collegiality], which may in some circumstances also become “effective”, joining the Bishops among themselves and with the Pope in the care for the People of God.
The commitment to building a synodal Church - a mission to which we are all called, each in the role that the Lord has entrusted to them - is laden with ecumenical implications. For this reason, talking to a delegation from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I have recently reaffirmed the conviction that “the careful examination of how in the Church the principle of synodality and the service of the one who presides are articulated, will make a significant contribution to the progress of relations between our Churches”.
I am convinced that, in a synodal Church, also the exercise of the Petrine primacy may receive greater light. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but inside it as a baptized person among the baptized and inside the episcopal College as Bishop among Bishops, called at the same time - as Successor of the apostle Peter - to lead the Church of Rome that presides over all the Churches in love.
While I reaffirm the need and urgency of thinking about “a conversion of the papacy”, I willingly repeat the words of my predecessor Pope John Paul II: “As Bishop of Rome I am fully aware [...] that Christ ardently desires the full and visible communion of all those Communities in which, by virtue of God's faithfulness, his Spirit dwells. I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”.
Our gaze extends also to humanity. A synodal Church is like a signal raised up among the nations (cf. Is 11:12) in a world that - while invoking participation, solidarity and transparency in the administration of public affairs - often places the fate of entire populations in the greedy hands of small groups of power. As a Church that “walks together” with men, sharing in the hardships of history, we cultivate the dream that the rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of service of authority may also help civil society to grow in justice and fraternity, generating a world that is more beautiful and more worthy of man for the generations that come after us. Thank you.”