Should We Be Skeptical About Synodality?

We are currently amid what has been termed the largest consultation process in human history. Launched at Pentecost 2021, the Synod on Synodality—the hallmark of Pope Francis's pontificate—will take place this October, just months away. The Working Document for the Continental Stage has been compiled from submissions from national Bishops’ Conferences. It has been reviewed by each Continental Assembly, the reflections of which will feed into the Instrumentum Laboris for the October Synod. Yet, skepticism about this colossal process is rife. At best, there are mission-rooted frustrations that the “Synod on synodality” is a vague, tautologous, and self-referential meeting about meetings. At worst, there are deep-seated fears about hijacks of the ecclesiological process for the sake of radical doctrinal reform.

This article has a couple of starting assumptions: first, that the synodal process is a sincere endeavor of the universal Church to pursue renewal for the sake of communion, participation, and mission, even with the presence of undoubted hijacking attempts; second, that the synodal process is less about the destination (the October Synod—and, by implication, less about doctrinal change) than about the process of building a culture of synodality—“synodal muscle,” if you will—at every level of the Church’s life. Accepting with goodwill Pope Francis’s conviction that “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium,” it is a quest to understand—cutting through the ecclesial jargon and conceptual language—what synodality looks like practically.

I approach these questions as a practitioner, from the standpoint of my work with hundreds of parishes in the UK—and thousands around the world—through the parish renewal ministry, Divine Renovation. Having seen parishes buck trends of decline against the odds, in one of the most secular countries in the world, by adopting new methods more adapted to the post-Christian age, I have witnessed truly lived “communion, participation, and mission”: the fruits that Pope Francis hopes synodality will help dwindling parishes achieve. Divine Renovation is just one of a growing number of ministries in a “parish renewal movement” (Rebuilt, Amazing Parish, and many others now work in this space). Divine Renovation’s particular flavor leverages what we call the “three keys” of parish renewal: the primacy of evangelization, the best of leadership principles, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Each of these “three keys” strikes me as characteristic of how the Church understands synodality. And I believe the parish renewal movement offers a unique gift in concretizing what synodality looks like.

Most overworked and pragmatic pastors and parish leaders have a simple desire: “Just tell me what works.” While, of course, the spirit of synodality is important, “synodal muscle” will develop in parishes only if it translates into concrete, replicable practices. My goal in this article is to share practical expressions of synodality through each of the “three keys” noted above. Only by getting practical will the dream of a synodal Church come to life.

Please indulge one small theological diversion before getting practical: we cannot proceed before defining synodality. One of the greatest frustrations of understanding synodality is finding an adequate definition. A good definition should contain no circular references, and its attributes should be simple and binary. “Journeying together” gives the literal meaning of “synodality” (“on the way together”) but, being a circular reference, is unsatisfying as a definition.[1] Having found no definitions that satisfied my quest for a precise and specific statement, I (rather tentatively) crafted my own definition drawing on the International Theological Commission’s document, “Synodality in the life and mission of the Church.” I offer this definition cautiously, very open to critique, and desirous of its improvement:

The Church best lives out her identity when she makes real and tangible the communion of life and love between God and human beings. Synodality is a way of living and operating in the Church that makes the communion between God and human beings tangible. It has implications for how we lead, live together in community, serve those in need, and evangelize. 

In the ITC’s document, I found what I think is a key description: “synodality . . . reveals and gives substance to [the Church’s] being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission” (§6). Synodality is “the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church”—in other words, it is a “constitutive” (non-optional) way of being the Church that encompasses every aspect of a parish’s life: leadership, community, ministry, pastoral care, teaching, evangelization. It both reveals and gives substance to the Church’s being as communion.

Some sacramental theology helps to unpack this description. “The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and instrument of the communion of God and men” (CCC §780). The Church, united to Christ (see De Lubac, 1956: 152), continues to make present the communion in God’s life open to humanity, and she is a sacrament of this communion: that is, both a sign of it, and one who effects the communion it signifies. The sacramentality of the Church as an efficacious sign of communion is summed up in §8 of Lumen Gentium.

The sacramentality of the Church means that the visible, human reality of the Church is intended to express the divine reality. Too often, the human reality has fallen far short of expressing the divine reality of communion with God. Too many scandals, tragedies and woefully poor experiences of the Church mean that many have not experienced the Church as opening the possibility of communion in the life of God—quite the opposite. Because of the glaring human brokenness of the Church at every level, it is a timely moment for renewal: the synodal process invites the Church to renew her most authentic self-expression and express humanly what we know to be true yet invisible of the Church’s divine reality.

This is the theological understanding behind my definition: “Synodality is a way of living and operating in the Church that makes the communion between God and human beings tangible.” Now, as promised, to get practical.

Key #1: The Primacy of Evangelization

At the beginning of this year, 2023, Pope Francis embarked on a new series of catechesis on mission and evangelization. His uncompromising passion for evangelization—epitomized in the defining and inspirational Evangelii Gaudium—has catalyzed a new missionary zeal within the Church. His direct style, which has turbocharged missionary efforts, is encapsulated well in these recent words:

When Christian life loses sight of the horizon of evangelization, the horizon of proclamation, it grows sick: it closes in on itself, it becomes self-referential, it becomes atrophied. Without apostolic zeal, faith withers. Mission, on the other hand, is the oxygen of Christian life: it invigorates and purifies it.[2]

Fr. James Mallon points out an important link between the root of the Greek word for synodality, “syn-hodos” and the similar word, exodus, or “ex-hodos.”

“Syn-hodos” means “on the road together”; “ex-hodos” means leaving to go on the road. The problem is that so many of our churches are still locked up into a kind of fortress mentality. You’re not going to be on the road together if you’re locked up in the fortress. I think there needs to be an “exodus” first and foremost.

Synodal meetings that have had a whiff of self-referentiality about them—hand-wringing, insular politics, and tired doctrinal debates—have likely been attempting the “syn-hodos” without the “ex-hodos”: communities that have not left the building, that are “closed in on themselves” and “locked up,” blind or ambivalent to the disengaged falling away in droves.

And yet, when the “syn-hodos” is effectively defined by the “ex-hodos,” we see the gift to the evangelization of building “synodal muscle.” While we may have experienced a fair amount of eye-rolling at the phrase, “listening Church,” countless small testimonies across the world have witnessed to the evangelizing power of listening. Deep listening is a step towards “making room” or empathy, overcoming divisions through getting into the shoes of the other, with a desire to understand his or her otherness. A synodal approach calls us to acquire these new skills or muscles which are so needed in a Church marked by deeply anti-missionary culture wars.

Using listening in this way can be a powerful pre-evangelization tool—not the kerygmatic proclamation itself (see General Directory for Catechesis  §31–37 for the stages of evangelization). Many have described listening as a healing or bridge-building process (cf. Sherry Weddell’s first threshold of conversion, “trust”[3]). If you are actively engaged in walking with someone to faith, whether from no religion, or in the case of someone who has lapsed, back to the Church, you will know that a good proportion of your evangelistic activity is spent listening. Fr. Mallon comments,

I’m in an Alpha small group right now with a group of young people several of whom have no connection with the Church and almost see the Church as an enemy, and yet here we are, sitting in a circle opening our hearts to each other. And some of the things that are said are pretty wild and crazy, and there’s that voice that says, “shut up and listen.” Because it’s in the listening, in hearing the heart of another person that builds relationship, that builds trust. It’s this process that can open people up to hearing the truth of the Gospel.

Sr. Nathalie Becquart shares that, “synodality begins with a cup of coffee . . . In a diocese in the United States, . . . they organized 60,000 cups [to be distributed to parishes]. They asked each person in the pews to have coffee with three people who are not part of the community.” It is a clear and tangible example of synodality with a missional (exodus) heart.

While there are countless communities that have not yet left their churches to go on the road (maybe walking together around the insides of their parish halls?), there are growing numbers of other communities that have left their church buildings: for these communities, listening to those far from the Church is leading to profound moments of healing and conversion. It is precisely the power of evangelization tools such as Alpha, which have the wisdom and experience to listen before teaching.

Practically Speaking

Synodal evangelization, I would suggest, entails three realities:

1. Evangelizing Collectively (As Well As Individually)

For decades, Catholics have known they are commissioned to evangelize, and yet individuals without a strong personal charism of evangelism will be defeated by a powerful, non-evangelizing Catholic culture. The only way to shift culture is the power of everybody. Building “synodal muscle” reminds us that we are more powerful when we go out together. Parishes normalize evangelizing culture over years through multiple, overlapping means: preaching about invitation; evangelizing collectively through tools such as Alpha; pastors modeling invitation by engaging their own unchurched friends; prayer campaigns where every parishioner prays at the same time each day for those they plan to invite; testimonies of conversion at big gatherings or at Mass. Relentless, determined energy is needed to change stubborn and ingrained cultural behaviors and this is where support from ministries like Divine Renovation can be invaluable.

2. Pre-Evangelization Tactics Such as Listening are Only the Warm-Up Act to Kerygmatic Proclamation

All our patience in listening reaches its climax in the proclamation, the main event. “We have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal” (Evangelii Gaudium §164). Evangelization that stops with listening, or with great hospitality and welcome, is not evangelization. And proclaiming the kerygma always invites a response: “Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple” (Redemptoris Missio §46).  

3. Going Out, Not Just Welcoming In

Churches developing inviting environments, hospitality, and welcome ministries are undertaking admirable preliminary groundwork for evangelization: but they are still missing the all-important “ex-hodos” and have not left the building. Building the culture of a collective approach (“everybody’s doing it”) normalizes a culture where parishioners grow in natural evangelization: building relationships, witnessing to, and inviting friends, colleagues, family members, and even strangers.

Key #2: The Best of Leadership Principles

Understandably, as a pastor considers synodality and what it might mean for his parish, he wonders what it means for his own leadership: am I doing this right? We hear much about how synodality is a corrective to the risk of an overly hierarchical approach to leadership.

The structure of the Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, itself reveals that the hierarchical Church (chapter 3) should be understood through the lens of the Church as People of God (chapter 2), which in turn flows from the mystery of the Church as sacrament of the life of God (chapter 1). Synodality, it is argued, is Vatican II’s ecclesiology lived out, and “offers us the most appropriate framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself.”[4] Pope Francis spells it out:

Sometimes there can be a certain elitism in the presbyteral order that detaches it from the laity; the priest ultimately becomes more a “landlord” than a pastor of a whole community as it moves forward. This will require changing certain overly vertical, distorted and partial visions of the Church, the priestly ministry, the role of the laity, ecclesial responsibilities, roles of governance and so forth (“Address of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Opening of the Synod”).

Yet, in his concern to avoid an “overly vertical” approach to leadership, a pastor may understandably swing too far in the opposite direction and here lies peril too: the risks of directionless, passive, paralyzed, and ultimately negligent leadership. To lead a parish that will thrive in a secular milieu is entirely different from leading one where the surrounding culture is even nominally Christian. To evangelize in the post-Christian west, horizontal, consensus-based leadership is just as perilous as an authoritarian approach.

Pastors around the world recognize this. In their hunger for practical leadership coaching never received in seminary is a recognition that, if their parishes are to thrive amid aggressive secularism, they need something that parishes did not need seventy years ago: vision. To reach a vision for a parish, we invite pastors to dream: what kind of evangelistic presence do they want their parish to have in the local community? What type of impact do they dream of? Whose lives could be transformed?

The vision approach to parish leadership walks the tightrope between the overly vertical and the overly horizontal.

First, the indispensable vertical element: vision cannot be created by a committee. Committee-crafted visions are of the blandest, vanilla variety that inspire no one. In scripture and throughout the history of the Church, God plants vision in the hearts of individuals. That is why we define “vision,” adopting evangelical pastor Bill Hybels’ phrase, as “a God-given picture of the future that produces passion in you.” Through casting vision, which is by its nature particular and not general, leadership exercises its important role of defining boundaries. This is essential before any consultation within any community such as a parish: what is up for grabs, and what is off the table? Leadership’s gift to a community is to make such boundaries clear.

The ITC document supports this vertical dimension of leadership by acknowledging the important distinction within the People of God: the ecclesia docens (bishops or “teaching Church”) from the ecclesia discens (laity or “listening Church”). Furthermore, it names that there exist both “deliberative and consultative votes” (ITC §68), delineating the processes of “decision-making” (whole community) from those of “decision-taking” (bishops) (§69). An analogous distinction might be made within a parish, too, recognizing that every single individual in a parish community cannot have responsibility for “decision-taking.” The “authority of Pastors is a specific gift of the Spirit of Christ” and “not a delegated and representative function of the people” (§67).

And yet, as with all good Catholic theology and pastoral practice, there is a “both/and” to this picture: the vertical dimension must be balanced by the indispensable horizontal element. Vision ultimately remains a castle in the air unless others are engaged through a relational approach, unless they mold it, share their reactions, buy into it, and make it their own. The best visions are those that have been formed in the heart of a pastor through his humble listening to the Holy Spirit and to the people around him. The best kind of leadership, according to Catholic business leader Patrick Lencioni, consists of one-third advocacy and two-thirds inquiry. Fr. James Mallon comments, “I find that I’m at my best as a pastor and as a leader when I’m listening twice as much as I’m speaking.”

A pastor with a desire to lead well will discern and sacrifice his own pet ideas that do not resonate with those with whom he shares his vision, and likewise, he will facilitate a process where the fingerprints and inspired dreams of many may be incorporated. By these practical means, a synodal approach to leadership avoids charismatic “hero-leader” clericalism and leaves potentiality for the action of the Holy Spirit.

Practically Speaking

Here are three practical suggestions for synodal leadership in the parish:

1. Lead Out of a Team

If the goal of synodality is to make God’s communion with humanity tangible ecclesiologically, a practical expression at every level of the Church is for every pastor and bishop to lead out of a team. A leadership team “consists of a small group of [4 to 6] people who gather around the pastor to help him make tactical decisions” (Mallon, 2020: 179). Rarely would a leader in any sector other than the Church make isolated decisions as their normal modus operandi. The purpose of the leadership team—as any business leader will tell you—is not to reach consensus but to make the best possible decisions.[5] This is not the abdication of leadership, but the sharing of authority. Fr. James Mallon comments,

The pastor must make the internal shift from talking about “I” to talking about “we.” . . . Priests [we coach] generally identify the Senior Leadership Team model as the single biggest game changer for them. Many of the pastors . . . report that this approach has transformed their priesthood. They no longer feel alone as leaders. There is no burden related to leadership that they cannot speak about with their teams, and they see greater fruitfulness in the growth and transformation of their parishes (2020: 179–80).

The leadership team model is a concrete, structural expression that allows “a reciprocal exchange of gifts” (ITC §9) among the Church’s members, consigning to history an ecclesiological model where clergy are active ministers and laity the passive recipients of ministry. It is a model that allows a “singularis conspiratio between the faithful and their Pastors, which is an icon of the eternal conspiratio that is lived within the Trinity” (ITC §64). This evokes an image of pastors and laity “breathing together.”[6]

Any pastor or bishop who starts leading out of a living, breathing leadership team soon realizes that there is no room for formalism in this approach, “satisfied with appearances alone” (“Address of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Opening of the Synod”). The leadership team—avoiding any artificial harmony—should be a place of robust disagreement, debate and even conflict, as the best decisions are reached. Such a culture of openness contributes towards building a “parish of closeness” where there is ‘no distance or separation between the community and its Pastors’ (ITC §69). In Ratzinger’s words, “Being truly ‘synodal’, therefore, means moving forward in harmony, spurred on by the Holy Spirit.”[7]

2. Build a Servant Leadership Model Throughout the Parish

While a leadership team at the parish (and even diocesan) level may fulfill a “decision-taking” role, one must be wary of simply creating a new clerical caste or “small elite.”[8] “All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients” (EG §120). It is not enough to have a leadership team: a culture of healthy leadership can be embedded throughout the parish where every single individual has an understanding of their own leadership, of the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells within them, of their extraordinary capacity to influence and make disciples of others. Two leaders from parishes that are actively building a leadership culture commented,

All of our ministries have a leadership pipeline. So we have people that we raise up into more influential roles and more responsibility because they have the capacity and the desire for it. I just asked a young woman to come on as my apprentice. Apprenticeship is a big value of our parish culture. She’ll basically be with me whenever I’m developing anything, she’ll have input into it, ask questions, understand the ins and outs of how I do what I do.

[Our pastor] empowers us. He encourages us to step out of our little box and see the bigger picture, and gives us confidence in who we are and what we believe. He has faith and confidence in us to share things and lead groups. I think it’s important to empower people, to ask people to give a witness . . . People love to be asked, they really do.

Such a leadership model replicates Jesus’ own, where he invested much of his time into Peter, James, and John, and then into the wider Twelve, who ministered to the disciples, who were sent out to the crowds. It is a model that is not just good leadership; it also allows more effective evangelization. It is a scalable model of multiplication that enables more lives to be transformed.  

3. Build a Culture of Vulnerability-Based Trust and Healthy Conflict

Here is where “synodal muscle” is strengthened. We noted that, when a pastor authentically leads out of a team, it will not be long before conflict arises. A healthy leadership team will be united unanimously around the parish’s vision, but their diverse insights, backgrounds, and strengths will mean they are likely to disagree about how to get there: in other words, there should be debate over strategy and tactics. Fr. James Mallon writes,

[Conflicts] force proponents of a particular path to consider all the angles, to defend their position, and to modify the plan based on the truth behind opposing arguments. When it comes to tactics, if you are not in conflict, you have a serious problem. Perhaps the team has succumbed to groupthink, or people are not authentically sharing their points of view (2020: 195).

Creating such a culture allows space for a priest’s own weaknesses and vulnerability, too, which can be a transformative experience for both priests and laity. One parishioner shared such an example,

I remember one particular staff meeting where [our pastor] profusely apologized. He said, “I’m so sorry I have allowed this to happen.” And he said, “I’m going to change, and I’m going to [take the necessary steps] to make the change.”

Key #3: The Power of the Holy Spirit 

While I present the next key to parish renewal last, it is truly the first. I present it last as the culmination or as the summit because without the power of the Holy Spirit all our efforts in renewing our parishes are in vain. Pope Francis has long emphasized this point about the Synod too: listening to the Holy Spirit is the first call of synodality. He says:

It is not about garnering opinions, not a survey, but a matter of listening to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the book of Revelation: “Whoever has ears should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7). To have ears, to listen, is the first thing we need to do. To hear God’s voice, to sense his presence, to witness his passage and his breath of life (“Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Faithful of the Diocese of Rome”).

I want to say again that the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is not present, there will be no Synod . . . The Synod then offers us the opportunity to become a listening Church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen. To listen to the Spirit in adoration and prayer. Today how much we miss the prayer of adoration; so many people have lost not only the habit but also the very notion of what it means to worship God! (“Address of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Opening of the Synod”).

We need to interrogate ourselves: do we believe that the Holy Spirit is the “protagonist” or are these just words? When we say we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to renew our parishes, do we expect anything different to happen in our parishes when he comes? When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” are we expectant for his consuming and transforming presence? Are we ready for the Holy Spirit to blow up our plans?! The then Cardinal Ratzinger commented that bishops and other Church leaders “must not turn their own pastoral plans into the criterion of what the Holy Spirit is allowed to do” (The Ecclesial Movements: A Theological Reflection on Their Place in the Church).

As the world becomes darker, as God disappears from the human horizon, and as humanity “loses its bearings with increasingly evident destructive effects,”[9] the desperate need for new outpourings of the Holy Spirit becomes manifestly clear.

In defining synodality, I claimed that it should give tangible expression to the communion between God and humanity, concrete models of how we lead, live together in community, serve those in need, and evangelize. If synodality is for the sake of mission, God’s love urgently needs to be made tangible in the world too: it is not enough, when “so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ” (EG §49), that we proclaim the Gospel in powerless words alone. Rather, its proclamation must be accompanied by healings, signs and wonders that make God’s love experienced and felt.

Pope Francis’s conviction is that synodality is the model that best gives space for the Holy Spirit to act, so that we do not just talk about him, but truly experience him.

Practically Speaking

What might this look like practically?

1. Expect the Holy Spirit to Show Up in Power

A mantra for us at Divine Renovation is, “parishes change when people change.” We are not concerned with training parishes to implement effective leadership techniques. We believe God wants nothing less than for lives to change. Evangelization tools such as Alpha introduce the expectation that the Holy Spirit will change us right from the beginning, from the proclamation of the kerygma. At the Alpha weekend away, unchurched people have an opportunity to encounter Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. The ancient prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit” can bring about a powerful, personal Pentecost moment when

the Spirit of God [is] poured out in superabundance, like a cascade capable of purifying every heart, extinguishing the fire of evil and kindling the flame of divine love in the world (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemnity Pentecost, 11 May 2008).

One university student at a parish in England who never previously came to church attended such a weekend and said,

A few hours later that evening, I felt this overwhelming need to just tell people about Jesus and express my love for Him.

The Holy Spirit will transform the culture of our parishes to one of expectation and faith, where people have their lives changed, if we let him.

2. Build a Culture of Adoration

Pope Francis is convicted that, “we miss the prayer of adoration; so many people have lost not only the habit but also the very notion of what it means to worship God!” As God becomes displaced from the human horizon, parishes need to be places where the supernatural is unashamedly central. The formalist approach of nominal “nods” to prayer (like beginning a meeting with “a quick Our Father”) is not enough to counteract the “tsunami of secularism.”[10] Our meetings and pastoral planning processes need to be prayer-soaked. Some parish leadership teams that we coach take one out of every four meetings just for prayer, engaging in corporate intercession for the needs of the parish. Some will pray novenas before making important decisions. Some will fast and offer sacrifice for specific intentions. We encourage all parishes to have a dedicated intercessory prayer team. Eucharistic Adoration is transformative since, in adoring the Eucharist, “we enter into this movement of love from which flows forth all interior progress and all apostolic fruitfulness” (John Paul II, Speech of the Holy Father John Paul II in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre, 1 June 1980).

3. Rely on the Holy Spirit in Discernment

The synodal pathway is understandably marked by Ignatian approaches to discernment and listening to the Holy Spirit. Ignatian spirituality supplies some extremely helpful principles that, if adopted into parish culture, will greatly increase potentiality for the Holy Spirit to act. One such principle is that of “indifference” or “detachment”:

Thus as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created. (Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises §23)

Such a principle is invaluable for a pastor discerning vision or for a leadership team involved in decision-taking.

Yet, there are myriad spiritualities of discernment within the rich heritage of the Catholic Church, many of which might be adopted by parishes. Think of the uniquely Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican (and other) spiritualities that give guiding principles for discerning how the Holy Spirit is acting. There are models of prophetic listening where a team or ministry may follow steps of discernment based on an understanding that God can speak directly into a situation through individuals, whose words are confirmed by others. What matters is that we build traditions and cultures of prayer, listening, and discernment that are more than perfunctory, box-ticking exercises.


In a time of immense darkness and confusion, the world needs the light of Christ to shine in the Church brighter than ever before. Millions are thirsty for the love at the heart of the Trinity, and the Church is God’s irrigation system to bring his love into the world. It is Pope Francis’s conviction that synodality is the concrete way of being the Church that will best demonstrate and offer the communion at the heart of God to broken humanity so desperately seeking it.

In the earliest days of the Church, it was the way the early Christians lived their lives that made Christianity spread contagiously. They “devoted themselves to . . . the communal life . . . All who believed and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need” (Acts 2:42, 44–45). Once again, we need parishes to display the love of God in a way that is infectiously attractive:

Not only with words, but by a presence that can weave greater bonds of friendship . . . A Church that does not stand aloof from life, but immerses herself in today’s problems and needs, bandaging wounds and healing broken hearts with the balm of God. Let us not forget God’s style, which must help us: closeness, compassion and tender love (“Address of His Holiness Pope Francis for the Opening of the Synod”).

Models for parish renewal demonstrate concrete, synodal approaches to evangelization and leadership, but strategies for these alone are not enough. Ultimately, this is a “spiritual path”: only when we empty ourselves and become dependent upon the Holy Spirit to change us will our parishes become sanctuaries “where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey” (EG §28).

EDITORIAL NOTE: Many of the insights of this article originated in a Divine Renovation webinar in which I hosted a conversation between Fr. James Mallon (Founder of Divine Renovation) and Sr. Nathalie Becquart (Under-secretary to the Synod of Bishops), which can be viewed here.

[1] “To put it in a nutshell, synodality is journeying together . . . It is about looking at the Church and living the Church as People of God, altogether, missionary pilgrims on the road. It is about putting into practice three key words: communion, participation, mission. It means that in a parish all the processes will foster communion among the community. It’s about enabling people to participate, be protagonists, be a missionary disciple as [the] baptised, it’s about carrying on the mission together. It’s always for the mission” (Sr. Nathalie Becquart).

[2] “Mission is the oxygen of Christian life,” L’Osservatore Romano, 13 January 2023.

[3] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples.

[5] “When you work towards consensus, you often end up ‘negotiating down’ from the best decision, settling on a suboptimal approach in order to secure the support of the entire team” (Mallon, 2020: 180).

[6] It is an image first developed by St. John Henry Newman who spoke of the ‘conspiratio fidelium et pastorum’ in his On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.

[7] See J. Ratzinger, “Le funzioni sinodali della Chiesa: l’importanza della communion tra I Vescovi” in L’Osservatore Romano, 24 January 1996, 4.

[8] Cf. Pope Francis’s comment: “It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives” (Letter of His Holiness to the People of God, October 9, 2019).

[10] Cardinal Wuerl, press conference at the Holy See Press Office, Oct 8, 2012.

Featured Image: Official Synod on Synodality logo taken from the website, Fair Use.


Hannah Vaughan-Spruce

Hannah Vaughan-Spruce is Executive Director of Divine Renovation UK.

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