Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, opened the public session of the bishops’ June meeting with an address on synodality.
Two years after Pope Francis inaugurated the global process for the synod on synodality, Pierre told the USCCB in Orlando, “it may be we are still struggling to understand synodality.”
“Perhaps it has been hard for us to embody this ‘style of God,’” the nuncio said. “Perhaps ‘the adventure of this journey’ has made us a bit ‘fearful of the unknown,’” he suggested, quoting Pope Francis.
Inviting the U.S. bishops to be more “courageous” and “humble” in their embrace of the synodal process, Pierre also repeatedly called them to be open to the Holy Spirit through closer adherence to Pope Francis’ synodal plan — suggesting several times that the synod, the pope, and the Holy Spirit were effectively inseparable.
Francis, as pope, is integral both to the universal communion of the Church and to the synodal process in particular. But Archbishop Pierre’s presentation of a synodality as a kind of personal charism of Pope Francis may also present a problem for the durability of the current synod, and its ability to shape the Church for decades to come.
In his address to the conference, Pierre encouraged the bishops to view the synodal project as an opportunity to evaluate, and when necessary abandon, their settled ways of thinking and engaging with the faith and the faithful in favor of finding a new “way of being Church” better suited to evangelization.
But the nuncio also chided the bishops, suggesting that many of their more common questions about the synodal process would be answered already “if we have followed the Pope’s lead,” and offered the conference a renewed presentation of the synodal process which, he reminded them, “the Holy Father is calling us to adopt.”
As the convening ecclesiastical authority for the upcoming meeting of the synod of bishops in October, and the initiator of the global synodal process which has preceded it, Pope Francis is, for sure, the central figure in the discussion of what synodality is, and how it should be adopted.
And it is only by proceeding “cum Petro and sub Petro” that the synodal process can avoid polarization, the nuncio reminded the assembly in Florida.
But the nuncio appeared to go beyond encouraging the bishops to mere ecclesiastical communion with and through their head, the pope.
At times he appeared to credit Francis with a kind of prophetic charism in kicking off the synodal process, saying the pope had inaugurated the process by “listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”
Inviting the bishops to “trust that the Spirit still speaks through Peter’s successor,” Pierre said the synodal process “is a way of being Church that allows us to discern the path on which the Spirit of God is calling us.”
Of course, the petrine office does have the unique charism to speak and teach free from error on matters of faith and morals, albeit in very formalized circumstances. And the Church holds that the Holy Spirit is alive and (hopefully) acts a guiding force in the Church’s life, in every era.
But as the synodal process has unfolded differently in different parts of the world, the project has seen very different levels of participation from the faithful, ranging from under 1% of Catholics in some places to nearly 20% in others.
The results have also varied. While some wings of the Church have produced thoughtful reflections on the relationship between the hierarchy and the faithful, and the shared dignity of all the baptized, others — like the Church in Germany — have produced radical proposals for the upending of Church teaching.
Different agendas and expectations for the synodal process have fueled contentious conversations, including in Rome, about how practical a model it is for the universal Church as a permanent organizing and animating premise.
Many planning to attend the synod in Rome in October will be expecting frank discussion of that question. And having those frank discussion would seem like a key part of what the Holy Father is asking of the synodal fathers.
Many, too, will be expecting to offer equally frank assessments of the synodal process thus far, and to discuss alternative visions for how the same ideas and ambitions for the Church could be brought to life.
But if — as Archbishop Pierre seemed to suggest on Thursday — the bishops are expected to approach the synodal process with the understanding that it is somehow divinely willed, that would lead to a very different conversation.
It is one thing to say that Pope Francis has, as pope, exercised his discernment and authority to inaugurate a kind of grand experiment in the life of the Church — one for which he has high hopes, and high expectations from the world’s bishops. It is another to claim the Holy Spirit is speaking through Francis in the synodal process.
One accepts and frames frank discussion as the kind of collaborative feedback which the pope has a right to expect from the College of Bishops, whose head he is. But a framing in which the synodal process is presented definitively as the work of the Holy Spirit would seem to make discussion rather circumscribed — even healthy and constructive criticism could be seen as kind of rejection not just of papal authority but of the Holy Spirit itself.
That kind of framing, many would argue, could stifle exactly the kind of honest spirit of encounter and dialogue which Pope Francis has repeatedly called for and lessen the value of what is at its core a consultative process meant to help the pope shape his own mind.
But billing the synodal process as a kind of quasi-revelation, uniquely invested in the person of Pope Francis, could also undermine the longevity of the whole project.
As Pierre addressed the U.S. bishops on Thursday, Pope Francis was preparing to leave the hospital in Rome where he has spent a week recovering from surgery.
The 86-year old pope has already extended the synodal process by a year beyond its initial timeline and, without giving in to morbid speculation, it is reasonable to accept there is a chance it will fall to a future pope to conclude the current synodal.
While the ability of that hypothetical pope to exercise his own discernment within and over the synodal process is well defined canonically, rhetoric like Archbishop Pierre’s could strike some as setting up an standard for measuring the legitimacy of any successor to Francis.
Could a future pope decide that synodality as it is currently being tested isn’t the most apt way of “being Church”? If we really accept that the current process isn’t just a noble experiment in ecclesiology by Francis, but an expression of the divine will, it would seem not.
That kind of logic, ironically, would seem to rule out the kind of flexibility, engagement, and active discernment which Francis has said should be at the heart of the Church’s life and mission.