A Synodal Church: The Church as a Pilgrim People

Communion means unity in diversity and equality in dignity of all that constitute the Church

Also read: A Synodal Church: An ecclesiological perspective

The term synod comes from the image of journeying together – of walking together. The dogmatic constitution on the Church – “Lumen Gentium” – emphasizes that the Church is a pilgrim people that journeys towards her final destiny – the reign of God.

The image of pilgrimage and journeying together is important. We are constantly on the move. We journey together.

There are two ecclesiological themes associated with the pilgrim people: Communion and People of God.

Communion is primarily relational – how the members of the pilgrim community relate to one another and with the Triune God.

People of God is mission-oriented: participation in Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly/servant mission. Thus, we can say that the synodal Church is a pilgrim community whose members live in communion and participate in Christ’s mission as a priestly, prophetic and kingly people of God.

Living in Communion

In the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the term communion appears in the first chapter under the general heading of the “Mystery of the Church.”

In the first article the Church is regarded as the sacrament of communion: “Since the Church, is in the nature of sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” (LG 1)

The vertical and horizontal dimension of communion is explicitly affirmed here. The end of the fourth article echoes St. Cyprian when it declares that “the universal Church is seen to be ‘a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.’” (LG 4). Here, the Trinitarian communion is affirmed as the basis of ecclesial communion.

What does communion mean and imply? The Latin equivalent is communio which is a translation of the Greek word koinonia, which connotes having something in common, being connected by a common bond, union, solidarity, fellowship, kinship, fraternity, community, partnership, sharing, participation. Among Greeks, it is often associated with friendship: “friends are of one heart and mind and they share everything in common” (Nicomachean Ethics, Acts of the Apostles).

From an ecclesiological perspective, communion emerged as the earliest model of the Church (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35) – the fellowship of believers, communion of faith, table-fellowship, communion of goods. This was later eclipsed by the institutional model of the Church although its spirit was preserved in religious life through the centuries. This was retrieved in Vatican II especially in “Lumen Gentium,” which became the dominant ecclesiology connected with the People of God. “The Church is a people made one by the unity of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Ecclesial communion is, therefore, the reflection of Trinitarian communion. In the document on ecumenism – “Ut Unum Sint” – the restoration of full communion is the goal of ecumenical dialogue. St. John Paul II associates communion with consecrated life in “Vita Consecrata.” In “Familiaris Consortio,” he affirms the realization of communion in the family which is the domestic church.

The understanding of communion in Vatican II is indeed broad. It describes primarily the nature of the Church and also how it should be structured. It refers to the various dimensions and levels of communion – with the Triune God, among the faithful, among the hierarchy, between local churches, within local churches, and in local communities. It is also the goal of ecumenical dialogue. It is the basis of collegiality and synodality.

The communion model is an alternative to the pyramidal model of the Church.

The Church is viewed as interconnected network or web of relationships – a communion of communions or communities at various levels. Communion means unity in diversity and equality in dignity of all that constitute the Church.

To be a synodal Church is, therefore, a Church where everyone lives in communion. The Church is experienced as community where there is a sense of belonging and solidarity, where we regard one another as brothers and sisters and as friends, where we share our goods and resources – our time, talent and treasure. This means partnership and participation not just in governance but especially in mission. The role of the clergy is to be servant-leaders and to promote communion and participation in mission.

Tomorrow: Participation and Mission

Father Amado Picardal is a Filipino Redemptorist priest who holds a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He has lived a life of solitude as a hermit after an active life as missionary, professor, promoter of Basic Ecclesial Communities, and peace and human rights advocate. He is currently executive co-secretary of the Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Rome.

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