Cardinal Czerny: Synodality is a fundamental trait of ecclesial identity
By Isabella Piro
Synodality is not “a mere decision-making process”, but “a fundamental feature of the Church’s identity, says Cardinal Michael Czerny, Undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, in an article published 31 December, in “La Civiltà Cattolica”. The Cardinal writes that synodality is the way in which “the Church disposes all its members to co-responsibility, enhances their charisms and ministries, and intensifies the bonds of fraternal love”. In this sense, it finds its premises in Lumen gentium: in this dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, “the importance of the laity in the life of the Church is included”, since they are called to participate in its government “according to their tasks, roles and ways”. But that’s not all: while collegiality refers, specifically, “to the exercise of the ministry of the bishops”, synodality, Cardinal Czerny emphasizes, is a “broader” concept, as it “implies the participation and involvement of the entire People of God in the life and mission of the Church”. This is the sense that Pope Francis gives to the word “synod”; that is, not only the sense of “ecclesial structure”, but also of “visible form of communion”, of “path of ecclesial fraternity in which all the baptised participate and contribute personally”.
“Synodality is the path that God expects from the Church of the Third Millennium”, the cardinal writes, quoting Pope Francis: a Church that, “like an inverted pyramid”, “harmonises all the subjects involved in it: people of God, College of Bishops, Successor of Peter”. A clear explication of this concept can be found in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, in which synodality is defined as “an indispensable prerequisite for giving the Church a renewed missionary impetus”. From the laity, in particular, the Church “has much to learn”, for example in the areas of “popular piety, commitment to ordinary pastoral care, cultural competencies and social coexistence”. So much so that, as St John Henry Newman said, “the Church would look foolish without them”. Of course, there are obstacles, Cardinal Czerny says, highlighting the lack of adequate training and the clerical mentality that relegates the lay faithful “to a subordinate role”.
However, these are obstacles that must be overcome, because “the co-responsibility of the entire people of God in the mission of the Church” requires a more active participation of the laity. In this context, the cardinal also situates the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio”, promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018: a document that “marks progress with respect to the Second Vatican Council” because it “translates theoretical arguments into ecclesial practice”. Listening becomes key: of the people of God, the pastors, and the Bishop of Rome. Only in this way can synodal praxis begin, and only in this way will “collegiality be at the service of synodality”.
Another essential instrument for the implementation of synodality, Cardinal Czerny also affirms, is “the preferential option for the poor”, which is “not a preference of a sociological nature, but a properly theological one, insofar as it leads back to God’s saving action”. Far from any expression of “naive goodness”, this option “should be recognised as an integral part of the Gospels and of the process of transformation initiated by the Council”: at the time, in fact, it was argued that the Church should move from “a charitable practice of a welfare type”, in which the poor are a mere “object” of care, to their “recognition as members of the people of God and subject of their own liberation”. What was true then is true now; and it is no coincidence that Pope Francis has repeatedly called for the “effective and concrete” integration of the poor, migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons, urging us not to “drop welfare programmes from above”, but to recognise these people as “active agents of evangelisation”. “The encounter with the poor”, the Vatican Undersecretary stressed, “is a favourable opportunity to let oneself be evangelised by Christ”.
From here also flows the safeguarding of Creation, “our common home”: care of the environment and attention to the poor are closely connected, Cardinal Czerny reminds us. Indeed “Everything is connected”, as Pope Francis’ second Encyclical, “Laudato sí: on care for our common home” states. But how can synodality be made to grow in the Church? The cardinal suggests “initiating processes of conversion”, aiming at “inclusive communion”, which involves all the components of the people of God, especially the poor. Without “mutual acceptance”, the ecclesial structures, instruments of communion, “could prove insufficient to achieve the end for which they were created”.
The last part of Father Czerny’s article dwells on Pope Francis’ modus operandi: the Pope “does not have pre-packaged ideas to apply to the real world, nor an ideological plan of ready-made reforms”, nor “strategies conceived on the drawing board” to “obtain better statistical results”. Rather, the Pope moves forward “on the basis of a spiritual and prayerful experience”, which he shares “in dialogue, in consultation, in concrete response to situations of vulnerability, suffering and injustice”. From this it follows that “the primary commitment and criterion for all social action by the People of God is to listen to the cry of the poor and of the earth, and to recall the fundamental principles of the Church’s social doctrine”, including “inalienable human dignity, the universal destination of goods, the primacy of solidarity, dialogue aimed at peace, and care for the common home”.