Pope Francis’s New Meanings for Synod

Pope Francis presided over a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Synod of Bishops Saturday, right in the midst of the current Synod on the Family. Though there have been synods in Christian churches going back to the earliest days, this celebration marked the half century since Pope Paul VI instituted the modern idea of regular meeting of synodal bodies to advise the pope in 1965. The event was vintage Pope Francis in that he not only affirmed Pope Paul’s intentions, he pushed the very idea of synod further, calling for a “synodal Church”: “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing. It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”

Unfortunately, it was also vintage Francis in that it also contained several things that may prove confusing and one fundamental misstatement. The pope said, as he and others have before, that the very name synodos in Greek means: “walking together – laity, pastors, the bishop of Rome – [it] is an easy concept to express in words, but is not so easy to put into practice.”

There is no question that this is what the Holy Father wants “being synodal” to mean, and he even remarked that, “The journey of synodality is the journey that God wants from his church in the third millennium.” But that is a modern notion of synod, as a “walking together.” There is no such meaning to that word in ancient Greek and Christian usage. You can look it up, for instance here. In the past, synod merely meant coming together, notably for the Church, in deliberative bodies like the present one; or coming together, as the dictionaries indicate, in the clash of armies in battle or even a man and a women, sexually.

In one way, this might be dismissed as a trivial matter. A pope can proclaim the deliberations of the Church as a “walking together,” getting the Greek wrong while getting an important point right. But we know now from several painful episodes how Francis’s words get used by the media in ways intended to imply the unCatholicizing of Catholicism. And also how the ordinary faithful in the pews begin getting agitated because they feel the established points of reference in the Church seem to be slipping away. So it’s important to look carefully at what he is and is not saying.

Francis has clearly decided to de-emphasize the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, which he seems to think is an obstacle to the Church’s mission in a democratic age. That dimension of his thinking came through quite clearly in his remarks Saturday: “The sensus fidei (sense of faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate the ecclesia docens (teaching church) and the ecclesia discens (learning church) because even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new paths that the Lord is opening up to the Church.”

Pope Paul VI opens the First Synod of Bishops
Pope Paul VI opens the First Synod of Bishops

This is perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching, properly understood. And there have even been times when great saints who have not had great learning or high social status – one thinks of Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi – have given crucial lessons to the entire Church.

But there are ways in which this can be easily misunderstood as well in a radically disordered democratic age like our own, where both the economy and politics pander to popular appetites, and not justice or truth. Francis understands and has even railed against the way the current global system, in his view, reflects that distorted emphasis.

On Saturday, however, he may have made it easy to misinterpret his words by using an odd image. He denied that the Catholic hierarchy is like a pyramid, in which some, and particularly the pope, are simply set over others. That’s an important truth since the Catholic hierarchy does not simply wield power like worldly authorities. But Francis then used an odd image: “in this Church, as in an upside down pyramid, the apex is found underneath the base.”

An informed Catholic will know what he means: he’s saying what Pope Gregory the Great meant when he famously defined a pope as “the servant of the servants of God” (servus servorum Dei). Authority in the Church is by its nature directed toward service to God and Man, not to the increase of personal power or some private ideological bugbear. But the uninformed, Catholic and not, are going to picture this inverted pyramid and see yet another example of radical democracy, in which the people tell the pope what Catholicism ought to be.

That, let us be clear, is not the vision that Francis presented. In fact, he later mentions there is an authoritative role for the hierarchy, who “act as authentic custodians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, attentively distinguishing it from the often changing fluxes of public opinion.” But don’t expect to see that in the secular new reports. And don’t expect to find it on the lips of Catholic progressives either.

In terms of the work at hand – the Synod on the Mission and Vocation of the Family – the Synod Fathers already know that the pope is encouraging a more open process, in the sense of listening to one another and to faithful lay people about how the Church may go about “walking together” in our time. But they also need to pay attention, careful attention, to what he is – and is not – saying about what such “listening” really means, since our various opinions only really matter if, in the end, we are all listening to the Word spoken by God.

  • No comment on this passage from the Holy Father’s speech, Dr Royal?

    … the Synod is an ecclesial expression, that is, it is the Church that walks together to read the reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God; it is the Church that questions herself on her fidelity to the deposit of faith, which does not represent for her a museum to look at and even less so to safeguard, but is a living source in which the Church slakes herself and slakes and illumines the deposit of life.

    This appears to be a direct denial of Church teaching: it is precisely her duty to safeguard the deposit of faith.

    How long, Dr Royal, will you continue to demurely turn your eyes away from the most troubling utterances (remember the pope’s repeated claim that Our Lady cursed God at the foot of the Cross? Or the never-denied and entirely Bergoglian assurance that a little bread and wine does no harm?) in order to express mild, hand-wringing concern over minor rhetorical tics?

    • mw006

      The Pope’s quote is abstract, theological gas and bears an eerie resemblance to liberal jurisprudence in which the constitution is held to be a living, breathing document. This living, breathing document in the hands of liberal judges has become an instrument of tyranny. With trepidation I wonder what the deposit of faith conceived as a “living source” will usher in. And can somebody please interpret for me in simple, clear language what “slakes and illumines the deposit of life” means?

      • And can somebody please interpret for me in simple, clear language what “slakes and illumines the deposit of life” means?

        Ha. You and me both. I didn’t even notice “deposit of life” until after I’d posted my comment, and then I was like What in blazes is the deposit of life?

        Lord, may the next pope suppress the Jesuits, this time for good.

    • quisutDeusmpc

      You see what you want to see, as we all do. The stress could just as easily be placed on the words “fidelity to”, as in “…it is the Church that questions herself on her FIDELITY TO the ‘depositum fidei’…”. In that sense it is not questioning “her duty to safeguard the deposit of faith” as much as it is how faithfully has she lived up to doing so, and how faithfully has she herself incarnated “the deposit of faith”. Disaffected people place the emphasis where they need it to be so they can set up the ‘straw man’. How do you know the pontiff is not merely making a distinction between doctrine (the Chalcedonian understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed) and practice (living the faith in loving obedience and service to our fellow man)?

  • Francis


    For Francis, we listen to the sheep, then we listen to each other, then we listen to him, the decider.

    For the Tradition through Pope Benedict, the listening was fundamentally to God who has revealed himself and his plan of salvation.

    • Daniel

      “then we listen to him, the decider.”
      What if a pope teaches or supports heresy, are we supposed to still listen to him? do you know the history Pope Honorius, the Heretic?

      • barnabus jonus

        Check out this doozy Francis spoke during a recent homily:

        Concluding, the Holy Father posed two questions: “Do I believe that the Lord saved me gratuitously, freely? Do I believe that I have done nothing to merit salvation?”

        No I don’t believe that Bergoglio, because it’s protestant heresy.

  • adorationservants

    The “the uninformed, Catholic and not” will see this as a way for one diocese to teach one thing and another diocese to teach another.

    San Francisco Archbishop Cordileone will be free to teach against homosexuality to the the consternation of a diocese who have pretty much made “Who am I to judge” a mantra in support of active homosexuality and gay marriage.

    Chicago Archbishop Cupich will be free to teach “let your conscience be your guide” and encourage errors in Conscience.

    I do see a good reality TV show here: “Bishop Swap”

  • Chris in Maryland

    It pains me to have to say that I cannot agree that Pope F encourages openess…he encourages secrecy and soviet-style suppression… I think of his close friend…the sex-abuse cover-up agent Cdl. Danneels…and the gay-synod mouthpiece Rev. Rosica.

    • Chris in Maryland

      Pope F also cruelly persecutes the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate.

  • edith wohldmann

    Pope Francis worked in the vineyard of the Lord all his life and spread love and mercy sometimes with words. The church the Pope says “is like an upside-down pyramid”, the top on the bottom. That is how I feel, he turns everything upside down. Jesus said to Peter: Love me, Love ME, LOVE ME, and feed me sheep, my lambs and follow me. The successor of Saint Peter is delegating to the faithful, because “even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new paths that the Lord is opening up to the Church”. So come up with food and make it a holy one.

  • Eric Robert Brown

    I can’t help but think/feel the Church is in a strange time. Things just don’t seem right. It is as if we have lost our focus. I can’t help but think the Church is having its own “Enlightenment” where it is putting humans in the center instead of God. I felt uneasy when Pope Francis declared a “Year of Mercy”. I asked myself “What for?” I hear this talk about no apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis on this Synod, how this particular Synod has really gone on for over a year now, and the Year of Mercy. Is the new Synod the Pope talks about a never ending dialogue? The Church should always be in a Synod? I do think a Synod needs to have a beginning, middle and end. I am concerned because I worry that more and more of the traditions that held the Church together may be starting to break down. I continuously pray to St. John Paul II to pray for the Church. I think we all need to be doing that more.


    I have to admit I am pretty leery here. I am suspicious of the way things sound and add it to everything else being said at the synod, it doesn’t sound good. I am trying very hard to see the best in Pope Francis but I don’t understand a lot of what he says and why. We must be in prayer.

  • Tom Williams

    reported about events and the personalities involved in the Synod’s proceedings since it began in 2014, I see affecting The Church’s future direction in a negative manner. It appears The Pope lacks ability to exercise his authority to correct the twisted agenda coming out of the Synod which undermines The Church’s Teaching authority in the world.It appears in some way he actually endorses it by saying we must listen to what these ill informed prelates espouse.
    As a married man with a female wife raising our children and teaching them the faith as we have been taught or learned through exposing ourselves to The Truths taught by Scripture, Revelation & Tradition of The Catholic Church, I am somewhat amazed at how badly the leaders of The Church today have failed to communicate these Truths
    effectively. When any of my children error in behaviour that has a negative impact on the family, I as a father must act to correct the situation to protect the family. It would appear Our Papa has not corrected errant leaders and allowed their bad ideas to fester in The Church, even giving them voice and positions to advance their erroneous propositions against Church Teachings and
    Her Traditions. The Authority vested In The Church to communicate The Truth must not be tampered with. This is a formula for failure, no matter how humble or holy the pope may appear personally. I also believe God has allowed this to happen in our time just as He allowed Satan to test Job in the Old Testament. My question is how did we get to such a place in The Church and what can we do to change it? I have some ideas but won’t share them here.

  • Tanyi Tanyi

    Francis has made up his mind to take Catholicism down the path of Protestantism. Eventually, Rome will collapse and we will have national Churches. There is no need defending him, Dr Royal. Francis is using the powers of the Papacy to undermine the Papacy and the Unity of the Church. Everyone knows the emperor is without clothes!

    • Midgie

      Maybe it is God’s Will that the Church break in pieces? I’ve always wondered what
      Dan 2:44 meant:

      ” And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. “

  • Elena0412

    His Holiness speaks many languages, but clarity is not one of them.

  • “Dr. Royal doth explain the pope too much, methinks,”

  • LAM

    He speaks most clearly through his appointees to the Synodal process, Kasper, Cupich, Roscia, etc., who seek to undermine the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church on sexual morality, marriage and the Eucharist which will severely harm the Catholic family.

    • Tony Padua

      news flash: the Catholic family has been “severely harmed” for the past several decades. Where were you in the process and what was your Bishop doing about it?

      • DJR

        News Flash: Where was the Bishop of Buenos Aires while millions were leaving the Church in Argentina?

    • Midgie

      Jesus chose Judas, so I wouldn’t be too quick to judge the Pope by his appointees to the Synodal process.

  • Tony Padua

    The Sacrament of Marriage has been trampled upon for decades by “Catholics”. “Catholic” parents have failed to catechize their children and produced youth who are truly lost. A young man today in his early 20s is but a shadow of the typical young man in the 1950s where the latter fought wars, married their high school sweetheart, raised children and had a full time job before the age of 30. The Catholic Family Unit: gone, left to wither on a vine, vanquished and ignored by Catholic adults who opt to throw their elderly parents in “nursing homes”, their spouses dumped at a moments notice in lieu of their vows, for a hot fling they met on-line. Then there’s on-line: parents toss at their children TV programs, DVDs, and smart phones to busy their kids because they don’t want to engage them as mentors, evangelize them, teach them the way of the Biblical stories. Walk by any restaurant and you see it from the sidewalk windows: parents at a table with their children, all engaged independently on smart phones. Parents? typo. Make that single parent.

    The ”Faithful Catholics” (oxymoron) have failed to leave their comfort zones in the peripheries, shunning to evangelize in the town square, engage the homeless, the widow, the sick (mental and physical) both on the streets and in the pews. It is a lie of Satan and Pride (might as well throw in their Sloth & Gluttony given the trends in obesity in this country) that we have been living a glorious Catholic zenith these past several decades. We have been hemorrhaging in the Church for decades and I see both “traditional” and “progressive” Catholics do nothing. That is NOT acceptable. That is the way of the coward who whines, complains and grimaces about how hard it is to follow the Lord. Pope Francis has preached courageously almost daily on the fearful Catholic, the same Catholic who Pope John Paul II exhorted during his pontificate: “Do Not Be Afraid!” Well, where are they now? cowering in their Latin Mass, not understanding the Latin, memorizing a few bible quotes like Evangelical Baptists and Fundamentalist Muslims, and wearing all of the “proper” clothing to show the world how righteous they are. Pharisees you have met your match.

    Stop whining

    Act like Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “there is much work to do. Let us begin”

    Otherwise you are salt that has lost its flavor and in the spirit of the Council of Trent: anathema sit. Get off your duff and engage your neighbor, your fellow human being on the sidewalk, your co-worker, and stop preaching to your “friends” on-line whom you have never met on websites who only want your money to fund their schismatic “c”atholic internet sites

    Go out and smell like the sheep.



    • The ”Faithful Catholics” (oxymoron) have failed to leave their comfort zones in the peripheries, shunning to evangelize in the town square, engage the homeless, the widow, the sick (mental and physical) both on the streets and in the pews.

      Evidence? Or do you just feel that this is the case?

    • lwhite

      The destruction of the institution of marriage and the family sadly began when Pope Pius XII approved NFP, although it was to be used only in grave circumstances.
      How he could not see that this was the opening of the window to the enemies of Christ within the Church only God knows but it was a terrible mistake and the consequences are being lived out with each passing day.

    • PGMGN

      “…That is the way of the coward who whines, complains and grimaces about how hard it is to follow the Lord. Pope Francis has preached courageously almost daily on the fearful Catholic, the same Catholic who Pope John Paul II exhorted during his pontificate: “Do Not Be Afraid!””

      Well, perhaps these Holy Fathers should lead by example as fathers should. If they were not afraid of the Faith then perhaps their flock would similarly not be afraid. But giving the outward impression of its-all-good has a trickle down effect, friend. (…so while you blame parents, look to the “Holy Father”. That’s father for a reason. Not Holy Pal or Holy Suggestion Maker.)

      Back in the days you tout, “Father Knows Best,” was the byword. Today, it’s don’t be afraid, but Father knows nothing and will tell you to just make a mess. That’s scary. So yeah, we Catholics are meeting our match. That is the lay folk are meeting shepherds who play like they are but sheep, led around in an effort to get along.

      You can hide all you’d like behind the boogaboo of Latin Mass, but that actually did much without even a word to teach the Faith, friend. Maybe that’s what frightens you so even though you preach, “Do not be afraid.”

      As for using social media, I’d say tweet the Pope.

      Go out and smell like reality, friend. And choose your scapegoats better next time.

    • DJR

      And the hemorrhaging you speak of, going on for decades, also is taking place, and has been taking place for decades, in Buenos Aires, and South America in general, on this pope’s watch as ordinary. This pope also had the opportunity to speak truth to power in the U.S. Congress regarding abortion, euthanasia, “same sex marriage,” among other things, and he was silent on those issues. In fact, he never even mentioned Jesus.

      And just who do you think is attacking marriage at the present time? The laity? Try reading what is going on at the synod.

      It is not the laity’s role to “go out and smell like the sheep.” We ARE the sheep. It is the hierarchy’s role to teach, govern, and sanctify the sheep. The present crop of hierarchs are, for the most part, hirelings who will one day have to give an account to Our Lord of their misfeasance.

  • Alicia

    Pope Francis isn’t an ignorant, loving priest from a mountain village who was elected pope. This is an intelligent Jesuist who worked himself up through the right positions.
    So far when speaking clearly on dogma, he’s been ok. But then, he does and says very troubling things which imply more troubling things, and deliberately chooses not to speak clearly leaving lots of dangling, worrisome questions in the air.
    I’m tired of having my Pope’s actions and teachings explained or interpreted to me by faithful Catholics who want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes caution that we must be alert.
    Pope Francis clearly has an agenda.
    I’m positive he knows when he is being ambiguous, and deliberately drops time bombs he chooses not to clearly explain.
    Are we worrying about nothing ? Or are we sadly going to say in the future – we should have seen the writing on the wall. ?
    I’m very worried and find myself repeating during the day and after communion – Jesus, please, help your church. Then I think – where’s my faith? The Holy Spirit is in charge.
    Faithful Catholics shouldn’t be worried for the church, but I see I’m not alone from the comments on TCT, Mr. Royal’s Synod articles, and other Catholic sites.

    • Tom Williams

      I agree that Pope Francis’ ambiguous words do fit an agenda which undermines the Teaching Authority of his office. We are in for a slippery ride..hold on with prayer and fasting.

    • angie

      Live the words of the
      gospel, love instead of criticize! Stop picking at every words the pope
      said; instead understand the spirit of it ..reaching out to poor and
      the vulnerable. I am proud to be a Catholic because of pope Francis. He
      is a great gift from God.

  • LAM

    Ross Dothan’s article at the NY Times today, The Plot to Change Catholicism, clearly states, “the chief plotter is the pope himself.” May St. Joseph and Our Lady protect the Church’s doctrines and sacraments, especially marriage, during these perilous time.

  • lwhite

    The Protestantization of the institutional Church that Paul VI foisted upon us with his Novus Ordo and destruction of the Pontiff as Supreme Head of the Church making the pope “one among the bishops” are the two pillars the enemies of Christ within have used to reach their ultimate goal of destroying the true faith to establish a universal, “Cosmic god”, (Francis said there is no Catholic God), and man can practice his vices, sin without guilt, and blasphemy the Triune God to his heart’s content, until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead that is.

    The souls lost in the last 50 years are beyond measure. Christ asks (knowing the answer) how many who believe and have practiced the one, true faith, will he find when he returns. I cannot imagine His sorrow at how those who were to lead the lost sheep into the fold of the Eternal Living are instead leading the flock into eternal death.

    Celebrating the destruction of the true faith is not something I can do.

  • lwhite

    This is Modernist-speak. Contradiction is how they have succeeded in fooling the people into believing they hold the Catholic faith, which they do not, while they work to undermine it.

  • Diane

    There are priests on the blogs who tell us that we worry too much. They are the ones making us worry by not objecting to what is going with some of those in the Synod. I don’t just worry, I am also afraid.

  • Mike M

    Getting words right and striving to make sure that the things that you say are true is not trivial. Synod doesn’t mean “walking together.” It just doesn’t. One shouldn’t say that it does.

    Pope Francis does this sort of thing all the time. He misquotes people and then the pseudo-quotes are misattributed. He cites “facts” that aren’t quite right. He talks about the specific as if it’s the general and vice versa.

    The occasional error is understandable, but the frequency of it seems to indicate an underlying lack of concern with truth and clarity.

  • kathleen

    If Pope Francis is calling for a decentralization of the Church, and declares that this is the new way of the Church, then will we be called Catholic Congregationalists? Where do we go from here. Will Dr. Royal explain, please?

  • Maggie McT

    But always remember that whatever this pope institutes, a future pope can alter. No pope’s policies last forever and no pope is bound by decisions made by a predecessor on policy issues. And remember too the Holy Spirit; if this is a terrible decision, then it won’t go through. Pray, pray, pray.


    I can not understand all that the Pope is saying and doing. I can’t decide if something was wrong with his Papacy from the beginning, if he just misquotes or is ill informed or is being used like a puppet by certain evil leading members of the Church. We must pray and also remember that God promised to protect the Catholic church. He just didn’t tell us how he would do it. Pray the rosary.

  • Antonina

    Robert Royal fait ici une très mauvaise querelle au Saint Père qui a toujours insisté sur la notion d’Eglise “en marche”, dans le sillage de Paul VI pour lequel synodos signifiait “chemin ensemble”. Il existe en grec ancien comme en grec moderne deux mots différents, mais très proches par le sens et l’étymologie puisqu’ils contiennent tous les deux le mot odos (route): synodos qui signifie effectivement réunion, assemblée, conseil, concile, assemblée religieuse, voire affrontement ou commerce intime et synodia qui signifie voyage fait en compagnie, convoi, cortège, suite. Le glissement de sens est donc tout à fait justifié. Antonina (Je sais le grec et je sais aussi l’anglais, mais j’espère que vous n’êtes pas monolingue).