Two years after Pope Francis invited Catholics to walk together on a synodal path, offering every member of the Church the right to make their views known, we stand on the threshold of the first of two big meetings in Rome on the theme ‘For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission’.
There has been intense speculation as to what will happen when the Synod of Bishops gathers for almost all of October – historically, for the first time, with non-Bishop voting members.
Delegates from England and Wales
The Catholic Church in England and Wales will be well represented. Archbishop John Wilson, the Archbishop of Southwark, and Bishop Marcus Stock, Bishop of Leeds, were elected by their brother bishops to attend. Joining them will be Bishop Nicholas Hudson, an Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Westminster, chosen by Pope Francis, and Professor Anna Rowlands and Dr Austen Ivereigh chosen as expert facilitators. Father Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican preacher, will lead a retreat for all Synod members prior to the official opening on Wednesday, 4 October.
In this 20-minute conversation, Father Jan Nowotnik, who will attend as a voting member and whose doctoral thesis focused, in part, on the preparation for a Synodal Church, joins theologian Professor Anna Rowlands to talk about the Synod just a few weeks before it starts.
Both will be in Rome, and both will have a key role in proceedings.
The ‘who’ not the ‘what’ of the Church
Professor Rowlands stresses that the Synod will be concerned with the ‘who’ of the Church rather than the ‘what’ of the Church:
“It’s not sorting out doctrinal issues, that’s not what this will do. There’s a fear of that in some quarters, that this is a Synod that’s going to make big doctrinal changes – some fear that, some desperately hope for it. I think both groups will be quite disappointed if they’re looking for big doctrinal change because the Pope’s focus is on the ‘who’ of the Church, on the question of the way in which our life itself is focused on mission to the world.
“The Church is the only institution that exists not fundamental for its own members, but for the sake of the conversion and the salvation of all. So [we need] a renewal in that focus on mission. But you don’t get to that mission if you haven’t done your housekeeping – thinking about the kind of community that we are, and that we would be drawing people into.
“It’s that question of participation, the ‘who’ question again. Who belongs? How do they belong? Who participates? How do they participate? How is all of that being held by the inspiration of the Spirit who pours out on the Church the gifts, skills and talents? This is how the Church is different from any other institution.
Renewed for mission
“So [the focus is on being] renewed for mission to the world, renewed in the ‘who’ question and the ‘how’ question of participation, and renewed in communion – in a way of being together.
“What could be more important for the world to hear right now in the fractured, brittle, divisive times that we live in, the friend/enemy constant distinction? Who are you for? Who are you with? We are for Jesus Christ together as brothers and sisters.”
Fr Jan Nowotnik agrees:
“I’m often saying to people that I think what the Synod is, in Pope Francis’ mind, is about drawing all the members of the Church – and those beyond the Church – into a deeper relationship with God and a deeper relationship with each other.
“The Church exists to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ, and to bring his healing mercy to the Church.”