Synodality and Interfaith Relations

Synodality and Interfaith Relations

In the past few years, Catholics have been introduced to the word “synodality”. It comes from the Greek preposition συν (with) and the noun όδός (path). It denotes following a path together. It is walking with, travelling with, and accompanying. It is lay faithful, priests, and bishops journeying together. In terms of Catholics gathered in a Synod, it refers to “listening” to one another through “spiritual conversations”. As Pope Francis explains:

A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening “is more than simply hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7). [1]

In this sense, synodality is “intra-church”. It is an ideal of how lay faithful, priest, and bishop listen to one another to discern the voice of the Spirit guiding the Church on its pilgrim journey. I estimate that over 95% of what I have read on synodality takes this “intra-church” approach.

But does God speak only to Catholics or Christians? Does not God speak also with Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs? Does not God also speak also with humanists, secularists, and atheists? If Catholics who form 17% of the world’s population listen only to one another, we miss out on what God is saying to the other 83% of the world’s population whom God loves equally! We run the risk of being in an echo chamber, hearing only our own voices!

I paraphrase the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:46, “if you are synodal with those who are synodal towards you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” I believe that if the Church is to be truly synodal, then it must ‘enlarge its tent’ (Is 54:2). It must stretch to hear other Christians, believers in other religions, and followers of other worldviews.

Besides, if we are synodal with our fellow Catholics—walking together, listening, respecting—but not synodal with others—keeping aloof from them, speaking at them, seeking to change them—then we are hypocrites! We preach one thing among ourselves, but practise something different with others. We lack integrity. Our synodality is a pretence and a sham.

The proposal that synodality must embrace all peoples is not new. Already in Ecclesiam Suam in 1964, Pope Saint Paul VI imagined all of humanity in four concentric circles, each of which was an arena for dialogue. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church took up that same image, declaring that all people ‘belong or are related to’ the catholic unity of the people of God, treating the Catholic faithful (LG, 14), other Christians (LG, 15), believers in other religions (LG, 16a), and all humankind (LG, 16b). Synodality, the path on which Pope Francis is leading us, is simply the mechanism to realise Vatican II’s vision of the Church at the service of all humanity. It is the Catholic Church moving out of a narrow ‘tribal’ identity and truly becoming “catholic”, that is, universal in its outreach.

May synodality open us to the fullness of what God is saying to us through all peoples, especially the poor, the marginalised, and the suffering earth.

Rev Dr Patrick McInerney, Director, Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations.

[1] Francis, "50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops," (2015)

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