Laity, Pastors, Bishop of Rome
During the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, on October 17th 2015, in the Paul VI Hall, Pope Francis programmatically traced out the profile of an "entirely synodal" Church, which evidently has fundamental consequences for the ordained ministry too. His words are portrayed as an important interpretative key of the Conciliar Decrees on priests and on priestly formation whose 50th anniversary also occurs in these weeks. (The subtitles are editorial.)
From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, I sought to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council . … We must continue along this path. The world in which we live, and which we are called to love and serve, even with its contradictions, demands that the Church strengthen cooperation in all areas of her mission. It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.
The “Sensus Fidei” of the People of God
What the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word “Synod”. Journeying together — laity, pastors, and the bishop of Rome — is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.
After stating that the people of God is comprised of all the baptized who are called to “be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood ”, the Second Vatican Council went on to say that “the whole body of the faithful, who have an anointing which comes from the Holy One (cf. 1 Jn 2:20,27), cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people of God, when ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful’ it manifests a universal consensus in matters of faith and morals”. These are the famous words infallible “in credendo”.
In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, I emphasized that “the people of God is holy thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible ‘in credendo’”, and added that “all the 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 prevents a rigid separation between an Ecclesia docens and an Ecclesia discens, since the Flock likewise has an instinctive ability to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church. ...
Synodal Church: Listening Church
A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing.” It is a mutual listening 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, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what He “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).
The Synod of Bishops is the point of convergence of this listening process conducted at every level of the Church’s life. The Synod process begins by listening to the people of God, 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”. The Synod process then continues by listening to the Pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, the Bishops act as authentic guardians, interpreters, and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, which they need to discern carefully from the changing currents of public opinion. On the eve of last year’s Synod I stated: “For the Synod Fathers we ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, so that with him we may hear the cry of his people; to listen to his people until we are in harmony with the will to which God calls us”. The Synod process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called to speak as “pastor and teacher of all Christians”, not on the basis of his personal convictions but as the supreme witness to the fides totius Ecclesiae, “the 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 — indeed, not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro — is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. For the Pope is, by will of the Lord, “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful”.
The top beneath the base
Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself. If we understand, as Saint John Chrysostom says, that “Church and Synod are synonymous”, inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the “journeying together” of God’s Flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord, then we understand too that, within the Church, no one can be “raised up” higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that someone “lower” himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.
Jesus founded the Church by setting at her head the Apostolic College, in which the Apostle Peter is the “rock” (cf. Mt 16:18), the one who must “confirm” his brethren in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32). But in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid, the top is located beneath the base. Consequently, those who exercise authority are called “ministers”, because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. … Let us never forget this! 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. As the Master tells us: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:25-27). It shall not be so among you: in this expression we touch the heart of the mystery of the Church – “It shall not be so among you” -, and we receive the enlightenment necessary to understand our hierarchical service. …
Our gaze also extends to humanity as a whole. 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 greedy grasp of small but powerful groups. As a Church which “journeys together” with men and women, sharing the travails of history, let us cherish the dream that a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the function of authority as service will 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.
1) Cf. Francis, Letter to the General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, April 1st, 2014.
2) Lumen gentium, 10.
3) Ibid., 12.
4) Francis, Evangelii gaudium,119.
5) Ibid., 120.
6) Cf. Francis, Address to the Leadership of the Council of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America (C.E.L.A.M.), July 28, 2013; Id., Address on the occasion of a meeting with Clergy, consecrated persons, and members of pastoral councils, Assisi, October 4, 2013.
7) Evangelii gaudium, 171.
8) Lumen gentium, 12.
9) Francis, Address at the Prayer Vigil for the preparation of the Synod on the Family, October 4th, 2014.
10) First Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus (July 18th, 1870), ch. IV: Denz. 3074. Cf. also Codex Iuris Canonici, can. 749, § 1.
11) Francis, Address at the Conclusion of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 18th, 2014.
12) Lumen gentium, 23. Cf. also Ecum. Council Vat. I, Dogm. Const. Pastor Aeternus, Prologue: Denz. 3051.
13) Saint John Chrysostom, Explicatio in Ps. 149: PG 55, 493.
14) Cf. Evangelii gaudium, 186-192; Laudato si', 156-162.