I’ve written already in my blog about Pope Francis’ remarkable speech a few days ago in the Audience Hall at a celebration of the 50 years of the Synod of Bishops. I mentioned it again this afternoon at the daily press conference on the Synod.
As we await the official translation, here’s an unofficial translation by Monsignor Peter Fleetwood of Liverpool:
Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Brothers and Sisters,
It is a joy for all of us, while the Ordinary General Assembly is in full swing, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, for which we praise and thank the Lord. From the Second Vatican Council until the present Assembly, we have experienced more and more intensely the necessity and beauty of “walking together”.
On such a happy occasion I would like to offer my heartfelt greetings to His Eminence Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General, as well as the Under-Secretary, Mgr. Fabio Fabene, the Staff, Consultors and other people who work in the General Secretariate of the Synod of Bishops, those we never see, who work each day until late at night. As well as them, I would like to greet the Synod Fathers and other participants in the current Assembly, and everyone else who is here, and thank them all for their presence in this Hall.
At this point we should also like to remember those who, through these 50 years, have worked at the service of the Synod, beginning with the successive Secretaries General: Cardinals Władysław Rubin, Jozef Tomko, Jan Pieter Schotte and Archbishop Nikola Eterović. I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to all those, living or dead, who have dedicated themselves generously and competently to implementing the work of the Synod.
From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, it has been my aim to make the most of the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the last Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to represent the image of the ecumenical Council and reflect its spirit and method. He himself foresaw that the structure of the Synod would “be able to be greatly improved with the passage of time”. Twenty years later, Saint John Paul II echoed his words, when he said, “perhaps this instrument can be improved further. Perhaps collegial pastoral responsibility can be expressed even more completely in the Synod”. Finally, in 2006, Benedict XVI approved some variations to the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, taking into account the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which had been promulgated in the meantime.
We must go further along this road. The world in which we live, and which we are called to love and serve even with its contradictions, requires the Church to develop synergies in every area of her mission. The path of the synod is exactly what God wants from His Church in the third Millennium.
What the Lord wants is, in a certain way, already contained in the word “Synod”. Walking together – lay people, pastors, the Bishop of Rome – a concept which is easy to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.
After reafﬁrming that the People of God consists of all the baptised, 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 (Cf. 1 John 2,20 & 27), cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s 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 the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium I stressed that “the People of God is holy thanks to this anointing, which makes it infallible in credendo”, adding that “all the baptised, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelisation, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelisation carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients”. The sensus ﬁdei prevents a rigid separation between Ecclesia docens and Ecclesia discens, since even the Flock has a certain “nose” for discerning the new ways the Lord makes known to the Church .
It was this conviction that led me to express my desire that the People of God should be consulted in the preparation of the two parts of the Synod on the family, as happens and has usually happened with every Lineamenta document. Such a consultation could never be sufficient to hear the sensus fidei. But how would it have been possible to speak of the family without involving families, hearing of their joys and hopes, sadnesses and fears? Through the answers to the questionnaires sent to local Churches, we have been able to listen to some of them, at least, on questions close to their hearts, about which they have much to say.
A synodal Church is a listening Church, aware that listening “is more than hearing”. It means listening to each other where both have something to learn. Faithful People, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: each one listening to the others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14,17), in order to know what He is “saying to the Churches” (Rev 2,7).
The Synod of Bishops is the point of convergence of this dynamic of listening carried out at all levels of the Church. The synodal path begins with listening to the People, which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office”, according to a principle dear to the Church of the first Millennium: “what affects everyone must be dealt with by everyone”.
The path of the Synod continues with listening to the Pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, Bishops act as authentic custodians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, which they have to know how to distinguish carefully from the often changeable tides of public opinion. On the eve of last year’s Synod, I said, “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 path of the Synod culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, called to speak as “Pastor and Teacher of all Christians”: not starting from his personal convictions, but as the supreme witness of the ﬁdes totius Ecclesiae, “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 – so not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro – is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. Actually the Pope is, by the Lord’s will, “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of the Bishops and the faithful”. To this is added the concept of “hierarchica communio” used by the Second Vatican Council: Bishops are joined to the Bishop of Rome by the bond of communion (cum Petro) and at the same time they are hierarchically subject to Him as Head of the College (sub Petro).
Synodality, as an integral dimension of the Church, offers us the most suitable interpretative framework for understanding hierarchical ministry itself. If we understand that, as Saint John Chrysostom says, “Church and Synod are synonyms” – because the Church is nothing other than God’s Flock “walking together” on the paths of history to meet Christ the Lord – we also understand that within her no one can be “lifted” above the others. On the contrary, in the Church someone needs to “lower himself” to place himself at the service of his brothers along the way.
Jesus set up His Church placing at its apex the College of Apostles, in which the Apostle Peter is the “rock” (cf. Matthew 16,18), the one who must “conﬁrm” his brothers in the faith (cf. Luke 22,32). But in this Church, as in an inverted pyramid, the apex is below the base. That is why those who exercise authority are called “ministers”: because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the People of God that each Bishop becomes, for the portion of the Flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi , the vicar of that Jesus who bent down at the Last Supper to wash the feet of the Apostles (cf. John 13,1-15). In a similar perspective, the Successor of Peter is himself only the servus servorum Dei.
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, according to the Master’s words: “You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. No: anyone who wants to be ﬁrst among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be ﬁrst among you must be slave to all” (Mark 42-45). This is not to happen among you: in this expression we arrive at the very heart of the mystery of the Church – “this is not to happen among you” – and we receive the light we need to understand hierarchical service.
In a synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the clearest manifestation of a dynamic of communion which inspires all ecclesial decisions.
The ﬁrst level of the exercise of synodality happens in particular Churches. After recalling the noble institution of diocesan Synods, in which priests and lay people are called to work with the Bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community , the Code of Canon Law devotes a fair amount of space to what have come to be known as “organs of communion” in a particular Church: the Council of Priests, the College of Consultors, the Chapter of Canons and the Pastoral Council. It is only to the extent to which these organs stay connected to the “bottom” and start from the people, from everyday questions, that a synodal Church begins to take shape: we need to get the most out of these instruments, which sometimes lumber along, as opportunities for for listening and sharing.
The second level is that of Provinces and Ecclesiastical Regions, Particular Councils and especially Episcopal Conferences . We must reﬂect further in order to bring about, by means of these bodies, intermediate examples of collegiality, perhaps by integrating and bringing up to date some aspects of the old ecclesiastical order. The Council’s hope that such bodies contribute to the growth of the spirit of episcopal collegiality has still not been fully brought about. We have got half way, or part of the way. In a synodal Church, as I have already said, “it is 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 ‘decentralisation'”.
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 fully synodal Church . Two different words: “episcopal collegiality” and “fully synodal Church”. It manifests collegialitas affectiva, which can in some circumstances become “effective”, linking the Bishops to each other and to the Pope in care for the People of God.
Committing ourselves to building a synodal Church – a mission to which we are all called, each one in the role the Lord gives him – is pregnant with ecumenical implications. For this reason, when I was speaking recently to a delegation from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I reafﬁrmed my 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, greater light will be shed on the exercise of Petrine primacy. The Pope does not stand alone, above the Church; but inside her, as a baptised person among the baptised and inside the College of Bishops as a Bishop among the Bishops, called, at the same time – as successor of the Apostle Peter – to guide the Church of Rome which presides in love over all Churches.
While I reafﬁrm the necessity and urgency of thinking about “a conversion of the papacy” , I gladly 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 to humanity as well. A synodal Church is like a banner raised amongst the nations (cf. Isaiah 11,12) in a world which – while it talks of participation, solidarity and transparency in public affairs – often places the destiny of entire populations in the greedy hands of small power-groups. As a Church which “walks together” towards mankind, participating in the travails of history, we cultivate the dream that the rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of authority’s function of service will also be able to help civil society to grow in justice and brotherhood, bringing to birth a more beautiful world that is worthier of mankind for the generations who will follow us. Thank you.