When we cultivate this synodal spirituality, we as a church will be better equipped to discern where the Spirit is leading us and to commit ourselves to those ecclesial reforms which faithful missionary discipleship requires.Richard R. Gaillardetz, “Give Us This Day”
The commitment of Pope Francis to church reform is real and profound but widely misunderstood. Understandably, many of us think about church reform in a strictly institutional key. We want to change structures, laws, and policies in the light of basic Gospel values. Pope Francis is not opposed to structural reform; indeed, he has made considerable progress on that front. But for Francis, reform is not simply a matter of rearranging ecclesial furniture; it is about becoming a different kind of church. And the term he most frequently invokes in describing what that different kind of church looks like is “synodality.”
The word “synod” comes from the Greek synodos and means “a shared journey.” Francis imagines a church bound together as a people on a common journey. What marks that journey is a shared commitment to discipleship, a determination to follow Christ where he leads through the impulse of the Spirit. Consequently, synodality entails a spirituality that attunes us to the gentle voice of the Spirit heard in scripture, tradition, and in the lives of those we accompany along the way. This synodal spirituality has two essential features: vulnerable encounter and openness to conversion.
An authentic synodal spirituality impels us toward an authentic encounter with others. We can grasp something of this spirituality by way of the Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber. Buber contended there was no such thing as an autonomous “I.” We are always implicated in relationships. We spend much of our lives in what he referred to as “I-It” relationships, that is, relationships in which we place people and things in categories that predetermine and constrain how we engage them. So, when I go to a restaurant and order a meal, I am inclined to address the person taking my order as nothing more than a “waiter.” This is natural and often unavoidable but, by placing that person in a predetermined box, much of who they really are is filtered out in advance.
Yet Buber also suggests we are capable of entering into an “I-Thou” relationship. In this relationship, I abandon the categories and presuppositions that predispose me to engage you as “a certain kind of person.” I am invited to simply be present to you in all your marvelously mysterious and idiosyncratic depth. I allow your deepest truth to emerge in our interaction. This relationship is inherently vulnerable as we risk hearing insights and perspectives that may differ from and even challenge our own. Having acknowledged our differences and recognized even deep disagreements, the I-Thou relationship requires a faith that admits there might emerge from our encounter something holy, something of God.
This synodal encounter may also call us to conversion. We may have to abandon the impulse to foreclose honest listening prematurely. We may have to confront a deeply engrained instinct to defend the distinctive attitudes and convictions that mark our particular “tribe,” often at the expense of getting at the deep truth of things. We will have to learn to listen, not for a confirmation of our own “rightness,” but for the gentle voice of the Spirit.
When we cultivate this synodal spirituality, we as a church will be better equipped to discern where the Spirit is leading us and to commit ourselves to those ecclesial reforms which faithful missionary discipleship requires.
Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and the author of numerous books, including By What Authority? Most recently, he is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Vatican II.
From the September 2022 issue of Give Us This Day, www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022). Used with permission.