Synodality: Pope Francis’ Legacy of Ecclesiology

Maria Teresa Morgan
St John Vianney College Seminary 

It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium
Pope Francis 

At first I was puzzled.  Synod on Synodality is a tautology: a literary device where two words repeat each other. In addition, the title seemed to fold into itself. A fortuitous confusion on my part, as it turns out, for Pope Francis is aware that many of us are not familiar with “synodality” and thus invites us to go on a journey of “discovering” what a synodal Church means, 

My curiosity awakened I went in search of those gracious etymologies that serve as lampposts to our inquiries, a pursuit that took me directly to two key documents: The International Theological Commission on Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (March 2, 2018) and the Preparatory Document for a Synodal Church (Septenber 7, 2021) thereafter referred to as ITCS and PDSC, respectively. This brief reflection offers some highlights taken from these sources.  

First the definitions: Synod comes from the Greek word syn, meaning “with” and “odos” meaning “path” and refers to walking together towards a common purpose. The ITCS points out that the concept of synod is rooted in Revelation and in the early Church (3). Citing St John Chrysostom it affirms that the very name of the Church refers to “a people walking together” (ITCS 4). In like manner, the PDSC underlines the ancient ecclesial origin of “synod” citing Augustine, Cyprian and, once again, Chrysostom, who succinctly states that: “Church and Synod are synonymous” (11).

If “synod” means walking together, “synodality” refers to the manner in which this communal journeying takes place: being open to the guidance of the Spirit, engaging in dialogue with one another and listening to Christ. Rooted in the paradigm found in the Gospels and the Book of Acts (see numerous passages cited in ITCS and PDSC), synodality has been praxis in the Church since the early days of the Christian era. Francis describes, more than defines, synodality as “a Church in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other and all listening to the Holy Spirit” (PDCS 15). Following Francis’ directives, the PDCS unfolds for us “a spirituality of journeying together” (PDCS 30, #X). Communion, participation and mission, these three pivotal words included in the subtitle of A Synod on Synodality are descriptive of this spirituality as well as of the forthcoming gathering and originate in the following key passage from the ITCS: “Synodality is the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church, the People of God which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission” (3). 

The ITCS document on Synodality states that though not specifically mentioned in the documents of Vatican II, synodality lies at the heart of the Council’s call to renewal (6). One may therefore say that synodality shapes as well as reflects conciliar ecclesiology. Both the ITCS and the Preparatory Document contain numerous themes and passages referring to Lumen Gentium. Two in particular stand out for me. One is the key image of the Church as Pilgrim People of God emerging from chapter VII of Lumen Gentium. The other is the synodal integration of the sensus fidelis, the inerrancy of the People of God in union with the hierarchy, found in Lumen Gentium 12. The following three paragraphs will identify some themes found in these two references.


 By its very nature, the “pilgrim” character of the Church takes place within a historical context (PDCS 4) and calls us to “scrutinize the signs of the times” (Gaudium et Spes 4). In reference to “the signs of the times” I was struck by the admission of painful realities within the Church that call for conversion (PDCS 6). I was also impressed by the document’s acknowledgment of the COVID pandemic, indicating how this global tragedy has made us more aware that we neither live nor die as individuals but are bound to one another as members of a people who walk together in this journey (PDCS 5).  Section I of the PDSC document also touches upon manifold forms of “structural violence” arising from “cultural and social stratification” signaling to their negative impact on our common journey (8).

The image of the Church as Pilgrim People of God raises questions of inclusivity, interconnectedness and exclusion, issues that the Synod challenges us to face. These include, though are not limited to, considering who are our companions on this journey and who are those left outside the ecclesial margins (PDCS 30, #I). To answer those questions the Preparatory Document calls us to open our hearts and minds letting go of prejudices that hinder our listening (30, #II). The document likewise invites us to express ourselves with parrhesia, a word that describes a manner of speaking courageously and without “duplicity and opportunism” (30, #III). 

The very consultative process phase of the Synod presupposes the concept of sensus fidei fidelium found in Lumen Gentium 12. The ITCS and the Preparatory Document often and explicitly underline this aspect of the People of God (ITCS 9, 56, 64-68; PDSC 13,14). While making clear that sensus fidei is not intended to model a parliamentary process the Preparatory Document emphasizes that a synodal Church is the fruit of communal discernment by the People of God together with the Magisterium (14). 

Of particular historical significance to me is that Pope Francis has appointed Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French religious woman as one of the two undersecretaries of the forthcoming Synod of Bishops, which will take place in October 2022. Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the Synod, has stated that Sister Becquart would not only have an active role in preparing for the synod but also would have a vote. Though in the past women have participated in the consultative phase of synods, this will be the first time a woman will vote in a Synod  (Russell Shaw, Our Sunday Visitor, May 7, 2021).  

The poetic conclusion of the Preparatory Document for the Synod cites Francis in words that echo the outpouring of the Spirit promised in the prophet Joel (2:28) and in the jubilee proclamation found in Isaiah and cited by Jesus at the start of his ministry (Luke 4:18). The purpose of the Synod, Francis states, is “to plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands” (32). 

Pope Francis convocation of a Synod on Synodality and his call towards a synodal conversion may well be the ecclesiological legacy that, at 85, he wants to leave to us. His vision is that of a Church that embodies the Ecclesia of the Trinity so beautifully described in Lumen Gentium #4 “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”