“The word that kept coming up in our group was joy – to share, to listen, and to be together.”— North American Continental Synod Document, paragraph 2.
In 2021, at the request of Pope Francis, the universal Catholic Church launched the Synod on Synodality, in which many of us participated one way or another in our own local dioceses. Yet despite hearing about the process and maybe even being a part of it, many of us do not even fully understand the terms “synod” or “synodality,” let alone know how those topics will impact our own faith and experience in the Catholic school system.
So what is a synod? What is synodality? How long will the Church’s synodal process take? And how might it affect Catholic schools here in Canada?
As the North American Final Document for the Continental Stage of the 2021-2024 Synod has recently become available, this is a timely opportunity to check in on the process in our part of the world and see how our learnings from this process can apply to our Catholic schools.
What is Synodality?
Let’s start by defining “synod.” A synod is essentially a meeting of Bishops and leaders from around the world to study a particular topic. For example, we’ve had recent synods on the family, evangelization, and on young people.
What about “synodality”? In its simplest definition, synodality means journeying together. The Church views this method of accompaniment as a unique way of discernment and decision making, as modelled by the Church in the very earliest years after Jesus died, where the apostles and disciples lived in close community and all contributed to the Church’s mission together. This synodal model is marked in particular by listening, prayerful discernment, and input from all.
This doesn’t mean that the Church is a democracy, as we know that there are special anointed roles of leadership within the Church (i.e. the Pope, bishops, clergy, etc.). Rather, synodality gives us a vision for what respectful, authentic leadership looks like.
The 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality is an opportunity for the Church to gather together to study, discern, and explore the very nature of how the Church makes decisions and gives opportunity for each of the baptised, wherever they are, to have their voice heard.
The process began in late 2021 with synod discussions at the diocesan level. The goal was to have every parishioner participate, but also to seek feedback and wisdom from those in other Christian faiths, and even those from outside Christianity as well. This was the longest stage, as every diocese in the world had the opportunity to organize sessions to pray, listen, and provide input to the process.
After the diocesan stage, local regions came together and provided a synthesis, which was followed by a national synthesis, and eventually led to continental synthesises. The North American synthesis, which was issued on April 12, 2023, will be submitted to the Vatican for discussion and discernment along with continental feedback from the other areas of the world. The meetings of the North American continental phase included “931 delegates (50.2% women / 49.8% men) from a variety of vocations, with 391 lay women, 235 lay men, 76 deacons, 148 priests (diocesan and religious), 77 women religious, and 4 non-ordained men religious, in addition to 146 Bishops,” (par. 3).
Key Themes From The North American Document
The key themes that emerged from the Continental phase of the synod are all themes that we can embrace within our context of Catholic education:
“We should release the gifts of everyone,” (par. 16).
The key theme of co-responsibility means that all the baptized of the Church have equal dignity. In light of this reality, it’s essential to especially honour the contribution of those who are marginalized in any way, of which the document highlighted especially women, young people, and other marginalised groups. “The responsibility of ministry is not just for priests, but for each baptized person. This is a real space where we can allow women and some of the more marginalized folks in the Church to really take up leadership roles,” (par 18). In a synodal view of the Church, leadership is not meant to be heavy-handed and dictatorial, but rather it should use the unique gifts of each member of the Body of Christ in building the kingdom.
In Catholic schools, we encourage our students to take co-responsibility for their own learning and growth in maturity; but even more than that, we know that students are not just in school to receive from us, but also to share their unique gifts and wisdom. Co–responsibility in a Catholic school means that we don’t see students, teachers, and administrators merely as projects to be improved, but rather as partners in the endeavour of education and growth.
Just as the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor the head to the feet, “I have no need of you,” so we strive to uncover what unique gifts God has given to each person, and implore them to share in the responsibility of building the kingdom of God in our schools (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:21).
Participation of the Youth
“We are often perceived as the future, but we are also the ‘now’ of the Church,” (par. 20).
Among the most common things heard by the synods across North America was the need for engagement with young people. This document calls for a renewed appreciation of the gifts, creativity, and ingenuity of young people not only as members, but also as leaders within the Church.
Catholic schools have a unique opportunity to help youth understand and experience their role in the Church, not as the future, but as the present. Young people in a Catholic school can mature, experience leadership, and learn about their own passions and gifts while exercising their creativity in a safe and challenging way. Our schools can be an opportunity for students to discover that they can contribute more than they may have thought possible, and that their voices and perspectives are not only valued, but needed.
“There is a desire for greater inclusivity and welcome within the Church. ‘While the reasons for experiencing the Church as inhospitable may vary, what is common in the Church’s need to authentically honour the baptismal dignity of everyone,’” (par. 26).
It is important that “people have a chance to speak but also to be heard and validated, recognized,” (par. 30).
One of the core reflections of the synod discussions is that of “expanding our tent.” The scripture analogy of being inside the tent of meeting from the Old Testament evokes the intimacy between Moses and God as he journeyed through the wilderness with Israel.
At times the synodal document makes reference to “expanding the tent” in order to make it larger and help more people see themselves as welcome and valued in the Church. At other times, it speaks of “getting out of the tent” as a means of saying we need to leave what we know and go to the peripheries with missionary enthusiasm.
With that same missionary enthusiasm, and with the compassion of the Good Shepherd, we may consider: who is on the periphery of our schools? Who is in the margins, and who needs to understand that they are welcome within our tent just as they are? This need for empathy, inclusion, and unity was a core theme expressed by Churches across North America, and can be expressed uniquely in each community where a Catholic school finds itself. Ultimately, though, we have an opportunity to “‘nurture the joy of discipleship’ by accompanying those who experience alienation in our society,” (par. 34).
“At the very beginning of the Church, at the time of Pentecost, there was confusion and fear and yet expectation and hope as well. This is true of every age, including our current time. The response of the Holy Spirit was to gather the Church together in one place and give them the ability to hear and understand the Gospel message,” (par. 55).
This fall, the synod of bishops will gather in Rome to hear, discuss, and discern the submissions of the continental phase. Ultimately, the process will conclude as every synod of bishops does: with a concluding document promulgated by the pope. But whatever the final document says, the Church’s goal is that the very synodal process changes the way we function as a church: that we listen, discern, and share responsibility more intentionally than before.
Within our Catholic school systems, we have a unique opportunity to put into practice the principle of synodality as we live in leadership within our boards, our administrative teams, and especially as teachers within the classroom. Catholic schools provide a concrete opportunity for each and every student, Catholic or not, to be cared for, shown their inherent dignity, and given the opportunity for co-responsibility by the many teachers, administrators, and other mentors that they meet throughout their educational journey.
As the Church continues to reflect on the theme of synodality—of how we journey together with understanding and compassion for all we meet—let us reflect on how the mission of Catholic schools can lead the way and provide true synodality within our workplace cultures and educational practices.
“People enjoyed sharing, rather than just being talked to—there is no going back.”— North American Continental Synod Document, paragraph 57.
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