By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Synods are not new to the Catholic Church. We have had a few over the centuries. But their revitalization, normalization if you like, began with Pope Paul VI when he re-instituted the synod as part of the overall governance apparatus of the Roman communion. Limited in its scope and function, it was nonetheless a creature of the Second Vatican Council, an example of meaningful episcopal collegiality.
There are various kinds of synods—ordinary, special and extraordinary—and I had the privilege to attend 3 of them over my career as an administrator and academic at St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo.
The first that I attended was the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 (I should make it clear that I went as a credentialed and authorized journalist and not as an auditor) and it was a rich, hands-on, direct experience of both the genius and the muddle that is Rome.
The interventions or delegate speeches (all delegates were bishops and bishops only) were infrequently available—we were given summaries in bulletins only and if we wanted access to the full texts we had to persuade timorous prelates that we were not the enemy and could be trusted to get it right. Transparency was at a premium; secrecy omnipresent; redactions and deletions the order of the day. Many of the bishops themselves felt constrained by the structure and inhibited by the Vatican authorities that ran the Synod. The best conversations occurred in the trattoria and gelateria and not in the Synod Hall. And many bishops and their accompanying periti, especially the Canadian crowd, were forthright and helpful.
The tone, ambiance, and thrust of the synods under Pope Francis are strikingly unlike their predecessors—they are marked by an invitation to be spontaneous and fearless, to probe, to be collegial without being conformist, deferential, and self-censored. In other words, to speak freely as fellow baptized Christians; in other words, be messy.
For a further exploration of these and other related ideas, here is a link to this week's panel event from the St. Mark's College Centre for Christian Engagement. "Perspectives on Synodality: Local, Global, and Ecumenical"