More out of duty than anything else, I went this morning to the Audience Hall (below the Synod Hall) for a celebration of the 50 years of the Synod of Bishops. Pope Paul VI established the Synod immediately after Vatican II as an attempt to continue its trajectories into the life of the Church beyond the Council.
I knew the celebration would be a classic Roman talkfest – and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. We started shortly after 9am when the Pope just sauntered on to the stage of the Audience Hall. His informal appearances tend to catch everyone off guard, but I suspect that’s the way he wants it.
We then had an incredibly long-winded procession of speeches, interspersed with some sweet singing by a children’s choir from Bologna. First, the Secretary General had his say. After him we watched a rather well done video of the history of the Synods through the 50 years. Then up got Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna to deliver the occasional address, which really was fine. He reflected at length on the first “Synod”, often called (somewhat anachronistically) the Council of Jerusalem, an account of which is found in Acts 15 – drawing out its implications for an understanding of synods today. I know the text from Acts well and have even used it in teaching. But Cardinal Schonborn’s approach was fresh and illuminating, so I suggest you have a look at the published version.
After him, we had a typically Roman series of continental speeches – a sweeping panorama of Europe, Africa, America, Asia and (last as usual) Oceania. They love this sort of thing in the Vatican, but I felt a bit sorry for the five speakers who had to get up and speak (at some length!) about the impact of the Synods in their part of the world.
After three continents, we had a very welcome break with some bishops touching their toes, others rushing to the bathroom. After the break we had the remaining two continents, with Cardinal Paini Mafi of Tonga bringing up the rear with a stirring account of episcopal life in that most watery of continents, Oceania.
We were all wilting when the Holy Father finally strode to the microphone, beginning in that low-voiced mumble which is one of his trademarks. But then he warmed to the task; the voice became stronger and more animated as he got beyond formalities to what he really wanted to say. You could hear a pin drop in the Hall as he delivered a speech on synodality in the Church which was nothing if not substantial. This was no perfunctory occasional bon mot.
The Pope stressed that synodality was the way God was indicating to the whole Church into the third millennium. It wasn’t just the synodality of the bishops, but of the whole Church. His cry was “collegiality of the bishop within the synodality of the whole Church”; and this not just from time to time but permanently.
A synodal Church, he said, was a listening Church – a Church which listened to each other and above all to the voice of the Holy Spirit. This means that the traditional distinction between the teaching Church (ecclesia docens) and the learning Church (ecclesia discens) is not what it was. The teachers need to learn and the learners need to teach.
Pope Francis went on to consider how this affects the understanding and practice of the Petrine ministry. The Pope, he said, isn’t above the Church but very much part of it. Therefore, as the Church becomes more synodal, the papacy itself will change – not in essence but in the way it’s exercised. Here he quoted memorable words from John Paul II in the Encyclical on ecumenism: “Ut Unum Sint”.
This was a remarkable speech, all the more so because it electrified the audience even after a very long series of speeches. At its end, the whole audience gave the Pope a standing ovation. That’s unusual. Here I’ve given only a hint of the speech’s range and content. As with the Schonborn speech but even more, it’s well worth a careful reading when the text appears, which it would have done by now. It’s one of the key documents of the Synod process and shows yet again what a Pope of surprises Francis can be. I’ll be fascinated to see what if any effect it has on the last week of the Synod.