Cardinal Schönborn: the synodal process asks us to listen, to share, to discern

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, discusses the meaning of the word synodality, and its origins, as the process culminating with the 2023 Synod of Bishops on Synodality gets underway in the Vatican.

By Francesca Merlo

One of the most frequently asked questions in the run-up to the 2023 Synod on synodality is “what does synodality mean?” According to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, it is actually “very simple”: Synodality means to walk together. And in order to walk together, he continued, we must be settled. "Thank God" Cardinal Schönborn added, "we are," noting that “many in this world are not settled,” refugees for example, “but we are.”

The second element of synodality is that we can never do this 'walking together' on our own. “This basic reality applies to the Church”, he explained, recalling the time “when it was quasi daily use” to refer to a “teaching Church” and to a “learning Church”.  In this case, the Cardinal said, the “teaching Church is the clergy and the learning Church is the laity”.

We are all people of God

Remarking on the fact that Vatican II has reminded us that we all belong to the people of God, Cardinal Schönborn asked: “So what does the Holy Father intend with this synod on synodality?” "Nothing else," he replied, "other than what Vatican II wanted us to live”.  The Pope, he said, seems to believe that we still have a lot to learn, “and it is true. I have to learn to listen more”, the Cardinal said. He noted that as Archbishop of Vienna, he tries to listen to the priests and to the people of his diocese. “That is what we have been trying to do in five great diocesan assemblies in the last ten years: listen to each other” and to what each person has deep in their hearts.

Not a parliament

Cardinal Schönborn went on to note that something the Holy Father insists on a lot is that “we are not a parliament”. The Synod is not a Church parliament where different interest groups fight for the majority. A Synod, he said, finds its rules in the Church and in the Acts of the Apostles, “Pope Francis has addressed the diocese of Rome, speaking about how the Apostles dealt with difficulties in a synodal way”, and he noted that in Chapter 15 of Acts, the discussion was born from one side saying that all pagans had to become Jewish in order to then become Christian, whereas Paul and Barnabas said that it was not so, and that faith in Christ was sufficient.  

Cardinal Schönborn explained that in this very grave conflict they did not form a commission, and neither did they write papers: “They listened to each other.” This is what the Holy Father wants us to do too: “to listen not only within our small inner circle of the Church but to have an open ear to what is in the life of so many people: Christians and non-Christians.. what are their worries.. what are their joys.. and then to ask 'what do we do when we have listened?'”

What next?

Pope Francis and the rest of the Church "do not then expect polls, but rather that we do what the Apostles did in Jerusalem: speak about their experience."

Cardinal Schönborn noted that this is what we invite people to do in our dioceses and diocesan assemblies: “Speak about your experience”; “How did you come to faith?”, “What does it mean in your life to be faithful?”, “How did you pass on this faith to your children?” This experience, he said, is not something abstract. And in sharing this experience, Cardinal Schönborn encourages the faithful to examine themselves… “what does the spirit tell us?”, he asks.  This, he added, “is what Pope Francis calls discernment”. Personal experience on the local level, praying together, listening to each other, and coming to an understanding of what God really wanted is what leads us to say “we, along with the Holy Spirit have decided…”

This is the Synodal experience the Holy Father wants for us, said Cardinal Schönborn, adding “it sounds very abstract but it is very practical.

Getting involved as laity

Cardinal Schönborn also focused on the fundamental need to involve the laity and on how his own diocese has been trying to do that: "You all carry a treasure of life experience, even the younger ones, the children. Let us, first of all, share our faith experience".

Noting that we often ask why the free churches, the evangelical churches are so alive and why they have so many young people, he said "It's very easy, [...] They listen to each other, they tell their experiences". We must share our experience he said reiterating that "We must listen to the readings and to the Gospel on Sunday and we must ask ourselves 'what does this say in my life' and 'what can I take from these words?'". 

"We must learn," the Austrian Cardinal concluded, "how to discern what God tells us today, personally, in our community, in our country, in our Church and even on the universal level".

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13 October 2021, 13:33