Benedictine Life: A Model for Synodality

In October 2021, Pope Francis invited the entire Church to participate in a Synod on Synodality. Drawing from the New Testament and the life of the early Church, the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s called for a return to a church that engages every member of the Christian community. Pope Francis calls for a renewal of this way of being church. At the beginning of the three-year Synod, local dioceses throughout the world were active in gathering people to “listening sessions” to talk about their experience of Church.

A general review of the Synod’s work, its intention, and the processes it followed bears striking resemblances to Benedictine monastic life. Growing in the “full stature of Christ” is the goal both of the Synod and of Benedictine life. Both ask the question: “How is the Spirit inviting us to bring the message and mission of Christ to the world in the third millennium?” A Spirit-filled response to the question, whether in the monastery or in the synodal church, relies on every member’s vision and voice.

Invited members of the Synod gathered in Rome to hear and collect what came from churches throughout the world. Traditionally, a papal synod is an assembly of bishops representing the Church to give counsel to the Pope in the governing of the universal church. The current Synod looks very different from past synods, in which bishops (the sole participants) gathered in a theatre-style hall to advise the Pope about concerns in the universal church. At this synod, participants sat in small groups at round tables that included a mix of lay people, deacons, those in consecrated life, priests and bishops. The process demanded deep listening to understand and accept the broad diversity of persons and perspectives in the Church. Listening led to dialogue, communal discernment and consensus building. Pope Francis has long emphasized the importance of “mission” for the Church of the future. The Synod on Synodality clearly demonstrated that mission rests, in the first place, with the priesthood of the baptized.

Benedict’s synodal pattern of life originates from the baptismal call that unites the members of the Body of Christ. The emblematic “Listen” at the beginning of the Rule of Benedict strikes a tone very much like that of the Synod. The monastic community, a micro-church, is made up of “a variety of characters,” all of whom bring individual voices, diverse gifts and different habits of being.

The promise to listen is the promise to obey. “Journeying together” depends on everyone’s engagement in the common life. In its structure, the practices of daily living, and the exercise of obedience and authority, the monastery is synodal. Benedict does not regard status or title of singular importance. The structure of the life is organic rather than bureaucratic. In the manner of the early Church, the exercise of authority grows from the gifts of the community members. The work of the synod affirms this understanding of authority. It is a gift that rises from within the community rather than something imposed from the outside. In the monastery, the prioress or abbot “is believed to hold the place of Christ” (RB 2:2) and is first to receive our obedience. Her authority rests, in part, with the community, who has called her to this task. Her obedience, like all the members, lies in “listening with the ear of her heart” (RB Prologue 1) to what is the mind of the community.

When there are important decisions to be made, she calls the whole community for counsel. The voices of the young, the observations of visitors, the wisdom of the elders, and the treatment of one another are the actions of a “synodal monastery.” As one body, the community discerns the Spirit’s call into an unknown future in the same manner of the current synod. Through deep listening, dialogue, communal prayer and consensus building, Christ is realized in his Body and all its members.

In his opening address of the Synod, Pope Francis said, “We are here to walk together with the gaze of Jesus, who blesses the Father and welcomes those who are weary and oppressed. So let us start from the gaze of Jesus, which is a blessing and welcoming gaze.”

As we move into the third millennium, Pope Francis believes that the Holy Spirit is calling for a synodal church that is dynamic, engaging and alive in Christ. Insofar as monastic life grows in inclusivity, hospitality and acceptance of diversity, it can model the synodal church with dynamism and engagement.

Christian Morris, OSB

This article was featured on pages 8–9 in the spring 2024 issue of Benedictine Sisters and Friends.

Photo: Sister Janine Mettling helped lead Synod listening sessions in the Diocese of Saint Cloud.