Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it.” This adage, attributed to Einstein, but probably a paraphrase of similar remarks made by many others, may serve as a reminder to us all as we begin our journey toward the XVI Ordinary Genera Assembly of Bishops in October 2023 (Vatican City). What’s that, you may ask. It’s a Synod on Synodality! What’s that?

Don’t look it up in Webster’s Dictionary. It’s not there. Yet. But a web search will reveal a lot of information coming from Vatican sources and many Catholic websites. Despite the odd-sounding words, the vision is very simple: it’s about experiencing our faith as a journey together, accompanied by Jesus and the Apostles. Does that sound complicated?

The Bible gives us many stories of how God comes to accompany people of faith. God is faithful and those who trust God experience amazing graces and wonderful happenings. We see it in the stories of the great Exodus, through the wanderings in the desert and the arrival in the Promised Land. This is a metaphor — a sign, a parable — of our journey throughout life and time to our eternal home, where God’s Kingdom comes to fulfillment.

When the Word becomes flesh, when Jesus enters the world, his ministry unfolds over three years, as witnessed to in the Gospels, accompanied by the Apostles and the crowds, on his way, ultimately, to Calvary and beyond, through the passion, cross and Resurrection. The mission continues with an outpouring of his Holy Spirit, through whom “even greater works” (John 14:12) are accomplished, as documented in the Acts and the testimony of Christians over two millennia.

Pope Francis is now inviting us to celebrate and live this model in the third millennium. Over the next two years, the whole Church, at every level, will engage in a process of listening, praying, and discerning how the Holy Spirit is accompanying us at this time and how we will grow together on our journey forward in time to where God’s Kingdom reaches its destiny.

No one has seen God, the Scriptures remind us, and God’s glory yet to be revealed is beyond our imagination (cf. Jn 1:18). The mystery of God, however, though veiled and hidden, can be heard, seen and felt in our relationships and the sacramental life of the Church, when we open our hearts in faith to the Holy Spirit in our midst. This is God’s promise, revealed in and through Jesus Christ, who is with us “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

Does that sound like church? I know it’s a temptation at times to think of “church” as a place to go and not a dynamic way of being. In the aftermath of the recent pandemic, we have all heard musings whether people will “come back” to church, and “will we have them back in the pews.” Yes, it is a good thing for us to be together in person and for obvious reasons. 

It’s good to come home when you are hungry! Church is home and we all have hungers — spiritual, social, physical — which are interconnected. We gather in church, we can be with one another, personally present, in a way that phones and Zoom cannot connect us. We get to see one another, hear and reflect on the Word of God, receive the real Body and Blood of Christ, and strengthened by that food, become revitalized and sent on our mission in the world.

Those last words of the Latin Mass — “ite, missa est” — that send us forth, remind us that “the Mass IS,” it never really ends, as we take the presence of Jesus in our hearts and in our communion with him, into the world that he loves and which hungers for good news. This is why we can say that “being church” is more than “going to church,” more than sitting in a pew. It is about communion, participation and mission.

Communion, participation and mission are three words that define our ecclesial (church) identity. They are also the three things that describe so-called “synodality,” which is not a program, but a process, a way of being. To say we are a “synodal” church is to express the reality that we are more than a time and a place, more than even a parish or a diocese, but people connected by the Holy Spirit, as members of one body — the Body of Christ.

People who travel together on a common mission tell stories. They listen one to another, share hopes and dreams, reflect, sing and celebrate. This is the vision Pope Francis is calling us to share as a “synodal” church. It is to be enjoyed on many levels: family, parish, diocesan, regional, national and universal. Everyone is part of it and has a part to play, including those who are not always “in” church or may not even fully share our faith in its wholeness.

We have been given some guidelines and questions by the Holy See that we will follow and address in a structured and organized manner over the next few months. A team that I am assembling will help to engage individuals and groups — people of all ages, in all circumstances, women and men, clergy and religious, young and older, those within and those outside the fold — in a process of listening, reflecting and responding. This will be a very ambitious and far-reaching enterprise, but our Holy Father wants all voices to be heard and everyone to be a part of this synodal process.

Keep in mind that while the outreach “to the crowds” is meant to cast a wide net to include different and diverse peoples — the Church, after all, is sent into the world, as its mission — it is always with Jesus and the Apostles, as we see throughout the Gospels. In other words, this missionary journey is always with the three essential components of our ecclesial life: Jesus, the Apostles (and their successors), and the crowds, the many people whom they encountered on the way. Sometimes in the course of our history, the Church has been described as “The Way,” building on the words and mission of Jesus who is, “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6).

The outcome of this exercise in synodality is not to be a “new” Church but a renewed Church. Our doctrine does not change. Our faith remains rooted in Jesus and in the Church he built on the apostolic foundation and infused with his Holy Spirit, the great connector and source of unity. On the road we will meet opposition and the “fourth party,” the satanic forces of division that Jesus always encountered, but we remain secure in his presence. The journey will embolden us, enliven us, and strengthen our identity, giving us all a chance to grow together. It will make our faith more an adventure than a routine, a revival more than a mere ritual. And Jesus is inviting each and every one of us to “come and see” (Jn 1:39).