“Synodality” is certainly one of the key words contributed by Pope Francis to the Catholic Church over the past eight years of his service as pontiff.

It is a word that also features twelve times in the Instrumentum Laboris for the Australian Plenary Council. Let’s look at them:


Major topics discussed in this Instrumentum Laboris include: renewing a Christ-centred Church
that heals wounds and warms hearts; strengthening practices of discernment and synodality;
the call to co-responsibility in mission and governance


As a concrete expression of the “synodality” to which Pope Francis is calling the Church, it was
quickly decided that a formal consultation of the whole Church in Australia should be undertaken.

A structured process of listening and dialogue, based largely—though not exclusively—on the
principles of Ignatian discernment, was developed and offered to the whole Church as the means
through which this consultation should take place.

Footnote to §21.

Francis, “Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops”, (speech, Paul VI Audience Hall,
Vatican City, 17 October 2015), para 5. All subsequent references to ‘synodality’ in this document refer to this sense of the
word expressed in Pope Francis’ speech


From the very beginning, the Plenary Council has been an exercise in the practice of synodality.
Pope Francis has reminded us that synodality involves:
a Church which listens, which realizes that listening is more than simply
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’ (John 14:17) in
order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).


An expression of this vocation to communion is the synodality which is “a constitutive element
of the Church”. A synodal Church expresses its communion through mutual listening and
. The local participation of all the baptised “from below to above” must interact with
the universal discernment “from above to below” by which the bishops exercise their collegial
A synodal Church strives for ever fuller communion through “the guidance of the Holy
Spirit, that is, walking together with the whole Church under his light, his guide and his irruption,
to learn to listen and discern the ever-new horizon that [the Spirit] wants to give us”.

The Gift and Challenge of Synodality 


In relation to the interconnected themes of authority, governance, leadership and decisionmaking, Pope Francis indicates that synodality is a way forward for the Church. This concept of
‘walking together’ implies a common journey in which the faithful respond to God’s call and
come to see their experiences in the light of faith, within the whole body of the Church and
according to the Holy Spirit, so that new horizons for Christ’s mission become open and effective. 

116. The Governance Review also identifies synodality as an essential component in promoting
inclusion and co-responsibility in the Church’s exercise of governance
. This includes a significant
emphasis on the need for the Church to open more the gifts, charisms and contributions of women
in leadership and decision-making at appropriate levels. 

117. The Church in Australia is challenged to forge its identity as a communion that ‘walks together’ for the sake of mission. This requires a deeper understanding of synodality so that it can properly
inform relationships, responsibilities and accountability at all levels of the Church’s life—in
parishes, dioceses, the collegiality of bishops and the bishops’ communion with the Pope, all
under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Renewing the Ministry of the Ordained

118. The Synodality for which Pope Francis calls will depend to a significant degree on the renewal of
life and ministry of the ordained members of the Church…


The fifth Plenary Council in Australia, convened to discern what God is asking of us in Australia
at this time, is a unique opportunity to embrace more fully this practical spirituality of St Mary
MacKillop. Throughout the pages of this Instrumentum Laboris, and through the various stages
of consultation and discernment, the whole Catholic community in Australia, in an exercise in
synodality, has sought to identify the needs to which the Church today is called to respond.

Key points

The first point to note is that the IL bases its understanding of “synodality” on what Pope Francis says in his 2015 address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops. We will return to this below.

The basic idea is clear, however, namely “listening” (§21), “mutual listening” (§27), “discernment” (§21), “dialogue” (§14), “walking together” (§115, §117). This involves There is a desire for increased “co-responsibility” (§116) and “accountability” (§117). 

It’s clear that the IL is making a commitment to this kind of synodality at every level of the Church, beginning with parishes (§117). There is a specific desire to include women in this process (§116). There is desire to promote synodality in both directions “from below to above” as well as “from above to below” (§84).

Pope Francis on Synodality

For Pope Francis, synodality is broad and also starts from the level of local or particular churches:

The first level of the exercise of synodality is had in the particular Churches. After mentioning the noble institution of the Diocesan Synod, in which priests and laity are called to cooperate with the bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community, the Code of Canon Law devotes ample space to what are usually called “organs of communion” in the local Church: the presbyteral council, the college of consultors, chapters of canons and the pastoral council.

 Then he continues on to explain this further:

Only to the extent that these organizations keep connected to the “base” and start from people and their daily problems, can a synodal Church begin to take shape: these means, even when they prove wearisome, must be valued as an opportunity for listening and sharing.

The key here is to “start from people and their daily problems.”

Here we can hear a clear echo of Cardijn on his second trip to Australia in 1966:

We must educate (workers). We must speak with them. We must know and discover their problems in their daily life, in their work and environment, in the factory, in the workshop, in the office — everywhere! Millions and millions! Can we help them? Can we educate them? Yes, we can today.

For Cardijn and Pope Francis, this is the key to synodality and it seems to be missing from the Instrumentum Laboris.

Stefan Gigacz


Australian Plenary Council, Instrumentum Laboris

Pope Francis, 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops

Joseph Cardijn, The workman and his family (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)






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