Growing the synodal parish — the cornerstone of a synodal Church

synodal parish

By now we should have adjusted to the idea and talk of a synodal Church and the meeting of a Synod of Bishops to discuss synodality.

Pope Francis dropped the proposal out of the blue, really, last October, although he had been hinting at the notion for years.

We have a date and place, critical themes, an ample handbook and supporting documents to go with the formal announcement. October 2023 in Rome is fixed in the calendar.

The whole Church is to contribute. That is why it has been billed as the largest consultation process in history.

Growing the synodal parish

But can we have a synodal Church if we don’t start the process of growing the synodal parish?

There is no rush to perfect the model instantly because we are on a journey — together. But this journey needs many travellers and a commitment to go the distance.

No need for blinding light but conversion is definitely involved.

We are familiar with the idea of a pilgrim people journeying to their God and the Promised Land. We have just journeyed with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of our Savior. We have travelled with the Wise men from the East.

We are now called to embark on, arguably, the most significant journey in the history of the Church — since that enabling birth. The challenges of the Reformation pale into insignificance.

We are Church

As we are the Church, the People of God, we have the highest duty to renew the Sacrament of the Church that Jesus gave us.

The Church is not the brick or stone building we have become comfortable in; it is not over there but right here, where we are.

That means the change Pope Francis contemplates requires us to change.

We know that we can no longer persist in the old paradigm of comfort from inside. The public square requires us, individually and collectively, to take the Lord’s message to the people and to act differently.

There is the clearest imperative to start the process. There are three key elements of synodality — Communion, Participation and Mission. If they are to have real bite we need to begin at the local level.

We, as a local parish, are a microcosm of the Church. No better place to start.

Discernment for the Synod meeting will be enlivened by actual experience of existential parish practice.

As we embrace the pope’s call to become a Church that acts differently (not a new Church) there is no reason for delay.

The first key element — Communion

How might we start – locally?

If communion means conversations that lead to a conversion to Christ and commitment to active participation in the mission given by Christ, we can do that better. There is nothing new here –- in substance — but there is ample room for radical improvement.

Francis explained that in detail more than eight years ago in Evangelii Gaudium, the apostolic exhortation from 2013.

Improvement is the nature of Christian life. If we add to the mix recognition that we are now living in a secular society where religion has an optional place there is a crying need for missionary discipleship to take on a new dimension.

The second key element – Participation
Equally, the idea of the People of God talking with one another and importantly listening to one another is not new.

But it must now be different, and the listening must be genuinely active – at all levels and on all subjects.

The third key element – Mission

The communion that exists for a common purpose will enable the mission to flow – ever more smoothly.

Missionary discipleship must be the impulse for the whole Church as Francis invites us. The inseparable bond between our faith and the poor must remain axiomatic (EG 48).

On this journey, it is essential that we abandon any vestige of clericalism –on the part of clerics and the baptized faithful. That’s easier said than done, given our historical attachment to monarchical structure, class, power and position.

Hopefully, the concept of collaboration in all parish affairs will be recognized and practiced uniformly.

“Father” is no longer expected to approve the replacement of failed light globes, let alone actually undertake the replacement task.

The parish council or leadership group is elected or appointed after consultation. In its operations, it will act collaboratively and consult widely.

Its role will be welcomed.

The engagement between the parish council and the pastor will be a model of collaboration. The mutual role of service will be embraced.

Parish tasks will be shared as widely as possible and not held tightly by a few.

The end of anonymity

Pope Francis says communion describes the very nature and mystery of the Church. That implies parish members will know more than a handful of parishioners’ names.

There’s no room for anonymous arrival, private prayer and unchallenged departure under the guise of celebrating the Eucharist.

All will arrive at church or place of worship in communion, greet each other warmly and worship in communion.

  • Full, active participation will be transformative because of the connection of a people no longer present as individuals but intimately linked in the Paschal Mystery.
  • The Word of God will be broken open to participants who increasingly appreciate the detail of the scriptural message of redemption and companionship, a familiarity too long neglected.
  • The memorial of the Last Supper and Calvary will offer an impact like never before as we gather in communion at the foot of the cross.
  • The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ will be received in communion for the ultimate earthly encounter with the Lord and the fuel of the mission to follow.
  • The dismissal that concludes the formal celebration of Eucharist will more clearly signal the beginning of the missionary work of Christ, as parishioners depart in communion to “put out into the deep”.

Parish groups will be open, collaborative and reflect the sense of communion that underpins the synodal parish. Territorialism, power, “we have always done it this way”, anonymity and control must be abandoned.

Parish activities will reflect the new order – in practice not just in theory.

We are talking about deep change and we know most change is anathema!

There are many potholes, loose rock and byways to encounter on this journey. The change cannot happen overnight. But let’s make a start.

Let’s grow synodal parishes for a synodal Church.

  • Justin Stanwix is a deacon at St Mary’s Star of the Sea Parish, Milton in the Diocese of Wollongong (Australia).
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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