Besides being one, holy, catholic and apostolic, the Church is also messy –it is the fifth, even if unspoken, mark of the Church.
Controversy and conflict were present from the very beginning. Some Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles who chose to accept Jesus as Lord had to follow the religious practices of Judaism. Paul and Barnabas challenged that requirement. The so-called Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was an initial effort to settle the matter and restore peace.
Not long after, Paul and Barnabas had an argument about whether John Mark should accompany them on their missionary journey, and “so sharp was their disagreement that they separated” (cf Acts 15:39), Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus, Paul taking Silas to Syria.
It ought not surprise us that such messiness should be characteristic of the Church when we acknowledge that the Church is made up of human beings and especially if we accept the imagery of the Church’s being born from the wounded side of Christ!
Pope Francis is dedicated to the synodality of the Church. He called it “a constitutive dimension of the Church” and “the more appropriate interpretive framework to understand the Hierarchical ministry.” He quoted St John Chrysostom’s observation that “the church and synod are synonymous.” He affirmed these insights on October 17, 2015, in a speech to the 270 bishops and lay persons participating in the Vatican Synod addressing the problems of family life.
He reminded the assembly that the word synod means “walking together.” He said that from the start of his papacy he intended to enhance the Synod of Bishops, describing it as “one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council.”
Pope Francis knows that synods are messy. They have been part of the Church’s history and mode of operating since New Testament times. The Council of Jerusalem in 54 AD can be considered a synod, as well as the gathering of bishops described by the early Church Fathers such as Clement I, St Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons.
When the bishops gathered in Nicea in 325 AD for what we generally consider the First Ecumenical Council they agreed that “it would be well for synods to be held each year in each province…one before Lent…the second after the season of autumn” (canon 5).
Current Canon Law addresses the matter of synods, explaining in canons 342-348 the responsibilities and authority of the Synod of Bishops, and in canons 460-68 the nature and purpose of Diocesan Synods.
In essence the Synod of Bishops is convoked by the pope, meets to foster unity between the pope and the bishops, offers counsel to the pope in matters of faith, morals and discipline, and “considers questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (Canon 342).
A Diocesan Synod is convoked by the bishop and meets to foster the unity of the local Church and offer counsel to the bishop.
Pope Francis thinks of the Synod of Bishops as a means for keeping alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method. Synodality helps the Church stay on the right path.
Both the Synod and Pope Francis have been subjected to negative criticism. Some Catholics fear that bringing up certain topics for discussion may challenge Church teaching and hierarchical authority. They think Pope Francis is undermining the magisterium.
(It has been somewhat amusing to hear critics who insisted Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XIV must be followed and obeyed to the letter because "after all, he is the pope," and yet do not accord Pope Francis equal status and credibility.)
Pope Francis, however, recognizes that conversations about basic teachings and especially about discipline are necessary to keep the Church faithful to the Gospel and effective in its ministry in the modern world. He is not dismayed by controversy and or by opinions expressed by the participants. All of the discussions are geared to arriving at the truth.
Some want the pope to preside over a synod as a conductor leads an orchestra. All musicians have the same score, and although they may play different instruments they are united under the maestro’s baton. A synod, however, is not a symphony orchestra, and if the sounds are at times cacophonous and unpleasant, it is the pope’s responsibility to bring the disjointed sounds to a harmonious conclusion.
As Pope Francis put it to the bishops, “The synodal process starts by listening to the people…the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome…”
Pope Francis confirmed that a synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro (with the pope and under the pope), and this is what guarantees unity. He said, “In fact the Pope, by the will of the Lord, is ‘the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful.’”
He told them explicitly that the pope is the supreme witness of the whole faith of the Church, “the guarantor of obedience and conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the Church” –it is not, he said, a matter of his personal convictions.
It seems to me that “prophets of doom” who annoyed Pope John XXIII when the Church was preparing for the Second Vatican Council have re-appeared as “nay-sayers” opposing Pope Francis and the synod.
Many in the media and some in the Church do not understand the synodal process. It is an opportunity to look at issues and problems frankly, boldly, honestly –it is time for parrhesia, free speech. Disagreements, challenges, and rumors of conspiracy are to be expected. But those who understand the process do not lose heart. The Holy Spirit is active, providing order in spite of seeming chaos.
The Church is not a museum, but a work in process. It is still developing, still being refined, still in need of reform. A synod promotes the walk; the participants do not necessarily agree on the path to take; the Holy Spirit provides direction.
The marks of the Church remain: one, holy, catholic, apostolic and messy. God is not finished with us. We are still on the road --walking together.