Q: Archbishop J, what is the role of synodality in the mission of the Church?
October is mission month. We are invited again to reflect upon the Church and its mission. To do this reflection adequately, we need to rethink how we understand the word ‘mission’.
We are accustomed to identifying the mission of an organisation with nice words on a wall. For the Church, mission is very different.
St John Paul II reminds us in Redemptoris Missio: “The Church is missionary by her very nature, for Christ’s mandate is not something contingent or external, but reaches the very heart of the Church” (62).
In this sense, the Church does not have a mission—the Church is a mission, her very nature is missionary. She exists to be mission in the world in all languages, cultures, and places, to proclaim the love of God to all people.
This notion of mission is a development of the thinking that originated with Pope Leo XIII. Commenting on St John Paul’s interpretation, George Weigel says: “… the Church does not have a mission, as if ‘mission’ were one among a dozen things the Church does; rather, the Church is a mission, and everything the Church does is ordered to that mission, which is the proclamation of the Gospel and the conversion of the world to Christ” (Evangelical Catholicism).
St John the Evangelist tells us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Jesus was sent to us by the Father, to communicate this great love. The mission begins with the Father sending His Son. The Son, after His life, death and Resurrection, sends the Apostles: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mk 16:15).
The Church exists for the mission that the Father entrusted to Christ, which He entrusted to the Apostles. We are the ones to bring the Good News into the whole world.
This is her deepest purpose, the only reason for her existence. St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis have been recalibrating the Church for mission, reminding the Church why she exists.
Synodality and Mission
The theme of the 2023 synod in Rome is intriguing: Communion, Participation, and Mission. This is expressing a specific understanding of Church or ecclesiology.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Church as communion became a major concept—from St John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis.
Communion is integral to the Church’s purpose or mission. The Church exists to draw all people to union with God and each other.
Communion: The Church, as a Sacrament of Communion, is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 775:
The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men. The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God. Because men’s communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. In her, this unity is already begun, since she gathers men “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues”; at the same time, the Church is the “sign and instrument” of the full realisation of the unity yet to come.
When I was named bishop of Bridgetown and Kingstown, I went to every parish and asked the People of God to dream of the Church they wanted. In both places, the first desire, by far, was for unity or communion.
The desire for union with each other, can only be achieved through union with God which is at the core of the mission. In this sense, communion is an expression and realisation of God’s mission (cf Eph 4:3).
But communion is also a precondition for the mission. On the night before He died, Jesus prayed: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17: 20, 21).
Participation: For the Church in Bridgetown and Kingstown, the second desire was participation. This is the model of Church coming out of Vatican II, Church as a People of God.
This is expressed very well in the preparatory document Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, 6: “The ecclesiology of the People of God stresses the common dignity and mission of all the baptised, in exercising the variety and ordered richness of their charisms, their vocations and their ministries.”
The whole people are called to holiness (Lumen Gentium, 39). The implication here is that the whole people of God are also called to participation in the mission. So, Pope Benedict introduced the term co-responsible to describe the relationship between the hierarchy and the laity—we are co-responsible; we are all called to participate.
Mission: It is the hope of Pope Francis, that by walking together (synodality), we might find out identity as disciples of Christ and choose freely to participate in the life of the Church, and ultimately its mission.
The preparatory document states: “[By] journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has been made, the Church will be able to learn through her experience which processes can help her to live communion, to achieve participation, to open herself to mission. Our ‘journeying together’ is, in fact, what most effectively enacts and manifests the nature of the Church as the pilgrim and missionary People of God”, (1).
Pope Francis’ vision of the synod is to animate the whole people of God to communion, participation, and ultimately to mission.
The Church is missionary by nature, we are all called to participate fully in her mission by working for communion with God and others.
Reflect on your eagerness or reluctance to participate in the life of the Church. During mission month, participate in the various activities of the Church.
Jn 17: 20–26