True Synodality According to a Greek-Catholic Bishop

August 28, 2023

In a comment published on August 3, 2023, Bishop Manuel Nin, the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church’s apostolic exarch to Greece, expressed several concerns regarding the Synod on Synodality general assembly, the first session of which will take place October 4 to 29, 2023, and the second in October 2024.

Bishop Nin said that, despite claims to the contrary, the upcoming Synod on Synodality is unlike any synod of the Eastern churches. Rather, it resembles a parliamentary process, and lacks a clear and coherent goal.

The prelate acknowledged that this exercise of authority has a “synodal dimension” in the sense that decisions taken at a “fully collective level belong to the synod’s bishops,” but he stressed that, if the West understands synodality as the place where “everyone, lay and clerical, act together in order to arrive at some ecclesiastical, doctrinal, canonical, disciplinary decision, whatever it may be, it becomes clear that such synodality does not exist in the East.”

“Synodality, in all Christian Churches, both East and West, cannot be a kind of reflection of the modern world whereby the Church becomes like a ‘modern Western democracy,’ possibly parliamentary, where everyone can say everything,” he warned. The life of the Church “has never been a form of democracy in which everyone decides everything by majority rules.”

This “Christian parliamentarianism,” he continued, can lead to the construction of a “pyramidal ecclesiology” which, by inviting lay people and non-clerics to take part with voting rights, marginalizes or forgets episcopal collegiality in matters of the administration and life of the Church.

He also noted the “absence of clear clarification” on the meaning of synodality, and observed that the whole process, which began at the national and continental levels in 2021-22, is a place “where anyone can express himself on anything, even propose issues and opinions which are normally left to the exclusive right of the Bishop of Rome.”

As an Eastern Catholic bishop, he was particularly surprised by the claims of “many people, even of known authority,” who have said: “You in the East have always had synodality,” unlike the Church in the West. “But what synodality are we talking about?” asked Bishop Nin, and he warned against confusing synodality with the episcopal collegiality of synods in the Eastern churches.

Episcopal collegiality, he said, “is associated with the exercise of authority, pastoral ministry, service within the Christian Churches, which takes place in the assembly of the bishops (almost always called a “synod” or sometimes a “council of hierarchs”) belonging to an Eastern Church.” And he explained that such meetings are convened by the presiding bishops in view of important decisions relating to the “Christian journey undertaken by pastors for the good of their faithful, spiritually, and materially.”

In contrast, he stressed that the Synod on Synodality is a “collective ascent” of laity and clergy. But, he asked, “To go where? To what end?” He also asked the following question: “With whom are the participants walking?”

The word synod, he noted, comes “directly from the Greek and means ‘walking with,’” but he added that what needs to be “clarified immediately so that our reflection on synodality does not go astray” is the meaning and real object of the Greek preposition syn (“with”). “It does not refer to the 'journey,' but to 'someone' with whom it is carried out and completed,” he writes.

It is therefore the object or the person “with whom” the preposition syn connects and unites us. Bishop Nin underlined that it is therefore neither to the road, nor to laity, nor to clergy, but the preposition syn “connects us Christians and brings us to a Person who is Christ.”

“Therefore, a first clarification should be made: it is not a ‘march of all together’ but rather a ‘march of all together with Christ,’” he said. “Let us not forget that this ‘with Christ’ is completed in the Church, which is nourished and animated by the Holy Gifts of His precious Body and Blood.”

Synodality in the East and the West is a lived experience, he continued, and the “synodal” journey has always been a part of the Christian life because the life of each of the baptized is a “journey together with Christ the Lord who is the way, the truth and the life.” This walking of the baptized with Christ is “important to emphasize,” he said, and it is something that should be “restored to the forefront of our Christian life.”

He recalled the story attributed to St. Anthony the Great, a desert father of the early Church, who thought the footprints in the sand were his, only to discover that they did not belong to him but to “Him who walks beside Anthony and who sustains him in moments of weakness.”

Finally, Bishop Nin evoked monastic life, both in the East and in the West, as “a model of that synodality” which allows one “to be guided by the Gospel,” along with earthly spiritual guides, to “walk with Christ in search of God.”

He concluded by asking the question: “What then is synodality?” The bishop replied that, for him, it is the “journey of all of us who have been baptized in Christ, who hear His Gospel, celebrate our faith, receive His grace in the sacraments, even through our bothers and sisters – a journey definitely together, guided and accompanied, at times, by the hand, or even carried on the shoulders of our pastors, following in the footsteps of the One who is the way, the truth and the life.”