From the Cardinal: Formation is necessary to sustain synodal culture, spirituality | September 8, 2023
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Vol. 4. No. 24
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
As I continue to reflect on themes that are presented to us in the Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document) for the Synod of Bishops on synodality in Rome Oct. 4-29, 2023, it’s clear that “adequate formation” is necessary to sustain a synodal culture and spirituality in the way we organize ourselves to carry out the Church’s mission.
Without the kind of formation that truly shapes our minds and hearts and spirit to conform them to Christ, we cannot effectively proclaim the Good News to others. We are all called to be missionaries—to carry the Word of God to people and places that are foreign to us (even if they are very close to home). As the Synod’s Working Document makes clear:
A synodal culture and spirituality are needed animated by a desire for conversion and sustained by adequate formation. The need for formation is not limited to the updating of content, but has an integral scope, affecting all the abilities and dispositions of the person, including mission orientation, the ability to relate and build community, willingness to listen spiritually, and familiarity with personal and community discernment. Also necessary are patience, perseverance, confidence and freedom in speaking the truth (parrhesia).
It takes great patience, and perseverance, to share with others truths that are uncomfortable or that threaten the status quo. That’s why preparing for missionary discipleship involves so much more than just intellectual formation. Evangelization is more than knowing the right things to say. It involves knowing the people and cultures that we are evangelizing, listening to their cares and concerns, accepting others as God’s children (even when they say and do things we disagree with). We cannot effectively share the Gospel message unless we have accepted it ourselves and have acknowledged before God our own inadequacy as co-responsible leaders and evangelists.
As missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, we must seek ongoing conversion of life and be open to changing the way we see things and do things so that we can be faithful to our calling. This does not mean sacrificing anything of substance or “watering down” what we believe. On the contrary, it means being willing to speak the truth boldly with respect for the dignity of those who don’t share our beliefs—never imposing anything on others, but always confidently and unapologetically inviting others to consider prayerfully the liberating power of God’s Word.
If we are properly formed as missionary disciples, we will be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our efforts to promote the active participation of all God’s people in the work of building God’s kingdom here and now. As the Working Document says, participation “safeguards the uniqueness of each person’s face, urging that the transition to the “we” does not absorb the “I” into the anonymity of an indistinct collectivity.” Authentic participation, which is so much more than just observing the correct rituals, “guards against falling into the abstractness of rights or reducing persons to subservient instruments for the organization’s performance.” Finally, the Working Document assures us that true participation “is essentially an expression of creativity, a way of nurturing the relationships of hospitality, welcome and human well-being that lie at the heart of mission and communion.”
As a synodal Church, we are called to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit, which is often mysterious, unexpected, even counter-intuitive. We must, of course, depend on our Church’s traditional teachings and practice to provide structure and meaning to our Christian witness, but as Jesus himself demonstrates so powerfully in Sacred Scripture, we must never allow a form of rigidity in our religious beliefs or an ecclesiastical “political correctness” to prevent us from showing the kindness, compassion and mercy of Jesus even as we “speak the truth with love” to those who challenge our faith.
Addressing the pilgrims gathered in Lisbon for World Youth Day earlier this month, Pope Francis said, “There is room in the Church for everyone, everyone, everyone; not just the perfect, but sinners too…everyone.” This is the kind of synodal culture and spirituality that our missionary Church must reflect in all its processes, structures and institutions. It is the way of Jesus—open to everyone, everyone, everyone, while challenging all of us without exception to repent and believe in the Gospel.
Please pray for me, and for all of those who will participate in this important First Session of the Synod in October, that we will allow ourselves to be properly formed by the Word of God and by the working of the Holy Spirit in our deliberations.
Sincerely yours in Christ the Redeemer,
Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Archbishop of Newark
A selection from INSTRUMENTUM LABORIS For the First Session (October 2023)
B 3. Participation, governance and authority: What processes, structures and institutions in a missionary synodal Church?
56. “The words ‘communion’ and ‘mission’ can risk remaining somewhat abstract, unless we cultivate an ecclesial praxis that expresses the concreteness of synodality at every step of our journey and activity, encouraging real involvement on the part of each and all” 9. These words of the Holy Father help us place participation in relation to the other two themes. Participation adds anthropological density to the concrete character of the procedural dimension. It expresses concern for the flourishing of human beings, that is, the humanizing of relationships at the heart of the project of communion and the commitment to mission. It safeguards the uniqueness of each person’s face, urging that the transition to the “we” does not absorb the “I” into the anonymity of an indistinct collectivity. It guards against falling into the abstractness of rights or reducing persons to subservient instruments for the organization’s performance. Participation is essentially an expression of creativity, a way of nurturing the relationships of hospitality, welcome and human well-being that lie at the heart of mission and communion.
57. From the vision of integral participation presented above emerges the third priority also addressed at the meetings of the continental stage: the question of authority, its meaning and the style of its exercise within a synodal Church. In particular, does authority arise as a form of power derived from the models offered by the world, or is it rooted in service? “It will not be so among you” (Mt 20:26; cf. Mk 10:43), says the Lord, who after washing the disciples’ feet admonishes them: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). In its origin, the term “authority” indicates the capacity to enable others to grow, and therefore it is a service to the uniqueness of each person, supporting creativity rather than being a form of control that blocks it, and a service to the creation of personal freedom and not a binding that restrains it. Linked to this question is a second one, charged with the concern for concreteness and continuity over time: how can we imbue our structures and institutions with the dynamism of the missionary synodal Church?
58. From this focus derives a further, equally concrete, theme which aims precisely at sustaining the dynamic of participation over time. The theme of formation appears across all the documents of the first phase. As repeatedly emphasized in the reports of Continental Assemblies and, before them, the reports of the local Churches, institutions and structures alone are not enough to make the Church synodal. A synodal culture and spirituality are needed animated by a desire for conversion and sustained by adequate formation. The need for formation is not limited to the updating of content, but has an integral scope, affecting all the abilities and dispositions of the person, including mission orientation, the ability to relate and build community, willingness to listen spiritually, and familiarity with personal and community discernment. Also necessary are patience, perseverance, confidence and freedom in speaking the truth (parrhesia).
59. Formation is the indispensable means to make the synodal way of proceeding a pastoral model for the Church’s life and action. We need integral formation, initial and ongoing, for all members of the People of God. No Baptised person can feel extraneous to this commitment, and it is therefore necessary to structure adequate proposals for formation in the synodal way addressed to all the Faithful. In particular, then, the more one is called to serve the Church, the more one must feel the urgency of formation: Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Consecrated men and women, and all those who exercise a ministry need formation to renew the ways of exercising authority and decision-making processes in a synodal key, and to learn how to accompany community discernment and conversation in the Spirit. Candidates for ordained Ministry must be trained in a synodal style and mentality. The promotion of a culture of synodality implies the renewal of the current seminary curriculum and the formation of teachers and professors of theology, so that there is a clearer and more decisive orientation towards formation for a life of communion, mission and participation. Formation for a more genuinely synodal spirituality is at the heart of the renewal of the Church.
60. Numerous contributions highlight the need for a similar effort to renew the language used by the Church in its liturgy, preaching, catechesis, sacred art, as well as in all forms of communication addressed to the Faithful and the wider public, including through new or traditional forms of media. Without demeaning or debasing the depth of the mystery that the Church proclaims or the richness of its tradition, the renewal of language must instead aim to make these riches accessible and attractive to the men and women of our time, rather than an obstacle that keeps them at a distance. The inspiration of the freshness of the language of the Gospel, the capacity for inculturation that the history of the Church exhibits, and the promising experiences already underway, even in the digital environment, invite us to proceed with confidence and resolution in a task of crucial importance for the effectiveness of the proclamation of the Gospel, which is the goal to which a missionary synodal Church aspires.
For the complete text of the Instrumentum Laboris, read below or download the document.
A Message from Pope Francis: Words of Challenge and Hope
A selection from the Holy Father’s Address for the Opening of the Synod in Rome, October 9, 2021
The Synod has three key words: communion, participation and mission. Communion and mission are theological terms describing the mystery of the Church, which we do well to keep in mind. The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that communion expresses the very nature of the Church, while pointing out that the Church has received “the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God, and is, on earth, the seed and beginning of that kingdom” (Lumen Gentium, 5).
With those two words, the Church contemplates and imitates the life of the Blessed Trinity, a mystery of communion ad intra and the source of mission ad extra. In the wake of the doctrinal, theological and pastoral reflections that were part of the reception of Vatican II, Saint Paul VI sought to distill in those two words – communion and mission – “the main lines enunciated by the Council”. Commemorating the opening of the Council, he stated that its main lines were in fact “communion, that is, cohesion and interior fullness, in grace, truth and collaboration… and mission, that is, apostolic commitment to the world of today” (Angelus of 11 October 1970), which is not the same as proselytism.
In 1985, at the conclusion of the Synod marking the twentieth anniversary of the close of the Council, Saint John Paul II also reiterated that the Church’s nature is koinonia, which gives rise to her mission of serving as a sign of the human family’s intimate union with God. He went on to say: “It is most useful that the Church celebrate ordinary, and on occasion, also extraordinary synods”. These, if they are to be fruitful, must be well prepared: “it is necessary that the local Churches work at their preparation with the participation of all” (Address at the Conclusion of the II Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, 7 December 1985). And this brings us to our third word: participation. The words “communion” and “mission” can risk remaining somewhat abstract, unless we cultivate an ecclesial praxis that expresses the concreteness of synodality at every step of our journey and activity, encouraging real involvement on the part of each and all. I would say that celebrating a Synod is always a good and important thing, but it proves truly beneficial if it becomes a living expression of “being Church”, of a way of acting marked by true participation.
This is not a matter of form, but of faith. Participation is a requirement of the faith received in baptism. As the Apostle Paul says, “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13). In the Church, everything starts with baptism. Baptism, the source of our life, gives rise to the equal dignity of the children of God, albeit in the diversity of ministries and charisms. Consequently, all the baptized are called to take part in the Church’s life and mission. Without real participation by the People of God, talk about communion risks remaining a devout wish. In this regard, we have taken some steps forward, but a certain difficulty remains and we must acknowledge the frustration and impatience felt by many pastoral workers, members of diocesan and parish consultative bodies and women, who frequently remain on the fringes. Enabling everyone to participate is an essential ecclesial duty! All the baptized, for baptism is our identity card.
Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit! For we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and spreads joy. The Holy Spirit guides us where God wants us to be, not to where our own ideas and personal tastes would lead us. Father Yves Congar, of blessed memory, once said: “There is no need to create another Church, but to create a different Church” (True and False Reform in the Church). That is the challenge. For a “different Church”, a Church open to the newness that God wants to suggest, let us with greater fervor and frequency invoke the Holy Spirit and humbly listen to him, journeying together as he, the source of communion and mission, desires: with docility and courage.
My Prayer for You
Please join me in praying these words of Pope Francis during his opening address for the October 2021 Synod:
Come, Holy Spirit! You inspire new tongues and place words of life on our lips: keep us from becoming a “museum Church”, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future. Come among us, so that in this synodal experience we will not lose our enthusiasm, dilute the power of prophecy, or descend into useless and unproductive discussions. Come, Spirit of love, open our hearts to hear your voice! Come, Holy Spirit of holiness, renew the holy and faithful People of God! Come, Creator Spirit, renew the face of the earth! Amen.