Synodality and its importance in the life of the Church has a strong biblical and historical precedent. Synodality is a way of life in the Church and in today, here in Addis Ababa, I may add that synodality is also a way of life of the African continent. The Church in Africa, Madagascar and the Islands possesses significant resources to contribute to the Universal Church engaged in this process of synodality. An African theology of synodality could be a lasting contribution to the development of a synodal church in the Third Millennium; and when I refer to your distinctive African theology, I am inferring not only to the valid contribution that academics can offer but also to the theology elaborated by the entire people of God considering that the holy people of God is the subject of the theological and pastoral discernment – the holy people of God is the protagonist of this Synodal process. If we need to make theology we must listen to the people of God, even to the people of God in the African continent.
In fact “a synodal Church is a Church of listening”. This quote from the speech delivered by Pope Francis on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops (15 October 2015), allows us to clearly situate the stage we are celebrating. The continental stage, in fact, constitutes a further moment of listening to which the Church is called: “mutual listening, in which each one has something to learn. Faithful people, College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: one listening to the 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)”.
This principle of listening is the basis for the entire synodal process, articulated in the stages that the apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio established, transforming the Synod from an event into a process. With the continental stage we will close the first phase, the one in the particular Churches and their groupings. Reflection on the previous stages – the consultation of the People of God in the particular Churches and the discernment of the Pastors in the Bishops’ Conferences and their equivalent bodies in the Eastern Churches – will help us to better situate the event we are celebrating.
But I would like to highlight two aspects of the journey so far, before dealing with the points that more directly affect the continental stage.
First, it should be evident to all that the success of the process depended on the active participation of the People of God and the Pastors. A proper exercise of synodality never places these two subjects in competition, but maintains them in constant relation, allowing both to fulfil their proper function. Consultation in the particular Churches has enabled the People of God to implement that proper way of participating in the prophetic function of Christ, which is manifested in the sensus fidei of all the baptised. But this ecclesial act did not take place without the Bishops (or worse, against them): each Pastor initiated the consultation in his own Church and all together, in the respective Bishops’ Conferences, exercised the function of discernment that is proper to the munus docendi. We can already consider this dynamism of communion a fruit of the synodal experience, which dispels more than a few initial fears. Giving the People of God an active participation in the life of the Church does not detract anything the hierarchical ministry; on the contrary, it enhances it and manifests its indispensable function in the life of the Church.
The second: the importance of listening. Listening to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks to the Church. The statement that “a synodal Church is a Church of listening” cannot and must not be reduced to a rhetorical phrase. If this is true, it must always be true. For many, listening corresponds to a useless waste of time, which favours and even justifies those in the Church who want to create controversy, allowing them to shove spokes in the wheels. It would be strange, however, for us to pretend to mature a true consensus in a Synod on synodality, indeed on the synodal Church, without having fully practised the principle that supports and regulates the exercise of synodality. In the Preparatory Document we asked to listen to everyone, even those furthest away, perhaps taking for granted the listening of those who participate in the life of the Church. Criticism rained down on this indication, as if we wanted to favour some at the expense of others. Everyone means everyone, no one excluded.
In this regard, I feel the need to emphasise how, precisely from this continental stage, we must become more attentive to the voices ‘within’ the Church, specifically those voices which agitate and often disturb the ecclesial body. In the consultation, we were able to listen to all voices, except the voice of those who did not speak, either because they could not or did not want to speak. We have also listened to the silence! We have also listened to the empty chair! If one could not speak because we have failed to listen, we are invited to ascertain where we have failed. But if one did not want to speak, we must understand their reasons. The truest way, which avoids easy shortcuts, is to create ‘places’ where everyone can speak; places of encounter where everyone feels they are heard. Truth in the Church does not depend on the tone and volume of statements, but on the consensus it is able to create precisely from listening to each other. On such a decisive issue as the ‘constitutively synodal Church’, we must not be afraid to engage in discussion among ourselves: it is not our arguments that will convince us, but the Holy Spirit who leads the Church into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13).
We are all called, in conscience, to give our response: from those who are deeply convinced to those who still harbour doubts to those who are openly opposed. It is not by speaking against the synod process outside the places of listening that we build communion. No one is prevented from speaking. That is why we must ask the Spirit for an additional parrhesia, to fully state our convictions, but also to fully listen to the voice of others. From listening to each other will come what Cardinal Newman called “the consent of the fiathful” – the “breathing together of the fiathful and the bishops”. This will allow us to understand not only whether the Church is constitutively synodal, but what form of synodality the Spirit intends to give the Church.
The Continental Assemblies, which constitute a further act of ecclesial discernment, can play a decisive role in this field. After such a wide-ranging listening in consultation with the People of God and discernment of the Bishops’ Conferences, the Continental Assemblies are entrusted with a fundamental task in the synodal process: to discern whether and to what extent the contents of the Document for the Continental stage correspond to the understanding of synodality as lived out by the Churches on the continent. On many issues that have emerged from the individual Churches and have been recorded by the respective Bishops’ Conferences, there are different sensitivities, sometimes very different from continent to continent, but sometimes very similar sensitivities: it is fundamental that each Assembly thoroughly assesses these contents, freely and frankly saying which ones correspond to the theme of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops and which ones would be a source of division in the Church.
It is important to stress that the list of topics found in the Working Document does not constitute the agenda of the Synod, as I reiterated with Card. Hollerich in our recent letter to all the Bishops. This cannot be the case, not only because of the number of themes present in the Working Document would be impossible to take on and would each need to be subject to serious discernment, but also because the theme of the Synod already exists: “For a synodal Church: communion, participation, mission”. This is in no way an imposition that reduces freedom of speech, but an act of respect towards the Church and those who have dedicated themselves to deepening this theme.
This is the discernment that the Secretariat of the Synod awaits from the continental stage so that, on the basis of the documents produced by the seven continental Assemblies, it can draw up an Instrumentum laboris for the General Assembly that is truly an expression of ecclesial communion. It will be good to be able to do this, in the certainty that the documents provided by the Continental Assemblies are the fruit of a discernment on the Document for the continental stage that will also have taken into account the observations coming from the individual particular Churches and from the Bishops’ Conferences of the continent.
This suffices to indicate the importance of the continental stage. We have often repeated that in synodality we are all apprentices. Now at the conclusion of the first phase, we are still apprentices, but with more experience, and therefore with more capacity and responsibility. It is a matter of taking another step forward on the road to synodality, fulfilling the task entrusted to this intermediate stage of the synodal process to the best of our ability.
Moreover, the discernment required of the Continental Assemblies is not an isolated act that can disregard the consultation of the People of God in the particular Churches and the discernment in the Bishops’ Conferences. It is, in fact, a ‘stage’, an important moment in our journey towards the goal of this Synod, namely the full understanding of the synodal form of the Church, especially in the three elements that manifest it: communion, participation and mission.
I would like to express a conviction, which we have matured as the synodal process has progressed: the Spirit is leading us to trace the Catholic path to synodality. Our brethren of Orthodoxy have preserved the ancient form of Synods, without integrating the primacy of the Church of Rome and its Bishop, the Successor of Peter; our brethren of the Churches and Communities of the Reformation have developed a synodality of the People of God, disregarding the proper function of the Pastors. Our desire is to preserve the legacy of a Tradition that always keeps synodality, collegiality and primacy in relation as necessary and inalienable elements of the synodal process, built on the respective functions of the People of God, the College of Bishops, and the Bishop of Rome; in this the Eastern Catholic Churches can greatly help us, which, together with the exercise of synodality, typical of the Christian East, unite fidelity to the Holy See. I am certain that by this path it will also be possible to make progress in ecumenical dialogue. May the Spirit of the Risen Lord guide our steps and give us the courage to walk the synodal path, which is – I believe this with all my heart – the path that the Lord is opening to the Church of the third millennium.