Vatican Media interview with the Archbishop of Vienna

Cardinal Schönborn: ‘Synodality is way of living communion in the Church’

 Cardinal Schönborn: ‘Synodality is way of living communion in the Church’  ING-038
22 September 2023

“Synodality is the modus operandi of ecclesial communion; it is participation also on governance issues and decisions, on aspects of the life of the Church. The Synod on synodality is a synod on how ecclesial communion, the journeying together of all the members of the People of God, is lived in an evangelical way.”

In an interview with Vatican Media, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, summarizes with these words the focal point of the forthcoming synod, pointing out the connection between the synodal process that the Church is currently experiencing and that of 1985 dedicated to the theme of ecclesial communion.

This emphasis helps us understand how communion and striving for unity — ut unum sint — come before different points of view, with the hope that it will also determine the way of presenting and discussing them.

Your Eminence, the first of the two Synod General Assemblies on synodality is about to begin: what kind of results do you expect to emerge from this common work?

Many things can happen in this synod, we don’t know. Pope Francis has put us on a rather unique path, that of listening and discernment.

These are things that always need to be done, they are elementary things for the life of the Church, but the Pope has placed a much more explicit emphasis on the question of discernment: what does the Lord show us? What does He want for us, for the Church today? Therefore, the synod is an attempt to deepen, to learn, to experience this path of discernment.

In the Church of Vienna, a few years ago, you celebrated a diocesan synod. What happened?

I have to correct you a little, because it was not a diocesan synod. The diocesan synod has very precise rules established in Canon Law. I had the idea, and we shared it with many, of taking another path, that of diocesan assemblies. We have held five of them, each with 1,400, 1,500 delegates coming from parishes, institutions, orders, from all the realities of our diocese.

The guiding idea was the one that Pope Francis mentioned several times, that of the Council of the Apostles, which we read about in the Acts. I proposed to the diocese that we talk to each other in an orderly way about what we have experienced in our journey with the Lord, what God has made us perceive in our lives, in our parishes.

What struck you most about that process?

The methodology was that of the Acts of the Apostles. At that time there was a problem, that of pagans who had become Christians: should they be baptized or not? And if they were baptized, did they also have to take on Jewish law or was the faith in Christ enough? To resolve this dramatic issue, they listened to experiences and made some discernment. Peter spoke, then Paul and Barnabas spoke, and finally the whole assembly listened and prayed. In the end they came to this conclusion: “The Holy Spirit and we have decided…”.

When Pope Francis asked me to give the speech for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synod in 2015, in the Paul vi Hall, before his famous speech on synodality, I had to give a summary of what the synod is and I spoke first of all about the experience of the primitive Church. And I think that this path — Pope Francis has often repeated this — the path of telling, listening and discerning is good for the synodal process we are experiencing now.

What was the outcome of these diocesan assemblies?

What we have tried to do in the diocese has certainly deepened the communion between us and encouraged pastoral initiatives. We did not vote, we did not produce resolutions or publish texts: we only shared the life of the Church in the light of our experiences. This was the method of these five diocesan assemblies. It was a very positive experience, in a difficult time, because of the tragedy of abuse and the crisis of the Church’s credibility. But we truly had a strong experience of faith and communion and this certainly helped us to move forward without becoming despondent.

“Synod on Synodality”: this title that may appear far from people’s sensitivity, a somewhat technical title. What do you think?

I participated in the 1985 synod not as a bishop but as a theologian. I was one of the theologians who collaborated in this synod which was held twenty years after the close of the Council and the theme was communion, communio, an essential word of Vatican ii . That synod also did not have a specific theme but was almost a synod on communion: communio, as an essential feature of the Church, as a characteristic of ecclesial life. And I think that the Synod on synodality is something similar. Synodality is very simple: it is the modus operandi of ecclesial communion, participation also on governance issues and decisions, on aspects of the life of the Church. The one on synodality is a synod on how ecclesial communion, the journeying together of all the members of the People of God, is lived in an evangelical way. Of course, it can be said that the most synods after 1965 have had a more specific theme: for example penance or the family, as we had in 2014-15. But I think that this theme of synodality is a further step in the reception of the Second Vatican Council, communio and the modus operandi of communio, synodality. We must not forget that the journey together of synodality does not only occur in the contemporary world, but also in history. Therefore, synodality also means remembering the journey of those who preceded us in the faith.

Pope Francis insists on underlining that the synod is made of prayer, listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, mutual listening and discernment. And that it is different from the works of a parliament — ​​equally positive — which are subject to the logic of majority and minority.

You said that the work of a parliament is a positive thing. We are grateful for all the countries that have a parliament, a real parliament, a parliamentary democracy. I would like to add a small note. Of course, parliament does not explicitly invoke the Holy Spirit: in some parliaments there is a tradition of prayer, they are rare but they do exist. But I think of that stupendous speech by Pope Benedict to the parliament in London, where he showed that even in a parliamentary democracy there is some form of discernment... He had spoken of the conscience of Thomas Moore who had to take a position opposed to that of the king, but first of all he had talked about a decision of the Parliament in London, that of the abolition of slavery, showing how progress in the awareness that slavery is contrary to human dignity had taken place in parliamentary discussions. For this reason, I would like to add a positive word about the work of parliament. Although the synod is certainly not a parliament, this does not mean that the work of the parliament is not a good thing.

Can you explain this difference between synod and parliament?

The difference is that synodality, life in the Church, is always a search for unanimity, not in the parliamentary sense that everyone must vote in the same way — as happens in dictatorships or communism — but as a tension towards unity. It is listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit who goes forward in the search for truth, in the search for good until reaching almost unanimity. This is what the councils and even the synods that I have known have done: the rule of the synod is that there are votes, but these must obtain two thirds of the votes. Let us also not forget that the synod is consultative, it is not a legislative body. It serves for listening, common listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the Pope wanted both for the synod on the family and for this one on synodality, two stages or several stages, local, continental, etc. And in the end two meetings of the synodal assembly because it is a path towards a unanimity which must always be ut sin, cor unum et anima una, as they say of the primitive Church: they were of one heart and one soul. This harmony is the sign of the Holy Spirit.

What does “listening to the voice of the Spirit” concretely mean?

The Pope taught us — and we already practice successfully — the method of spiritual conversation. What does it consist of? It is listening to each other with respect, with acceptance, to attain discernment, to understand what God’s will is. And I was impressed by the facts that in the document Querida Amazonia Pope Francis proposed an echo of this to the Synod on the Amazon, in which I was able to participate. In certain points he said: here it seems to me that discernment has been lacking, more discernment is needed. How do we know that we have made the necessary discernment to arrive at a decision? This is certainly the art of the Pope’s governance, but also of the harmony of the synod, of the synod members. And therefore, I think we will live a strong experience of being Church in this listening process. Of course, on many questions and topics the list of issues is long and there will be a lot of time to dedicate to discussion and exchange on this or that issue, but always in the perspective of listening to the Spirit.

Certainly, a new feature of this synod was the attempt to involve and listen broadly to the local Churches, involving the communities and even those who have distanced themselves from the Church. Is this method important and, if so, why?

Yes, it is important to also listen to the voice of those who are not “inside”, who have moved away, because this echo allows us to better discern. And then listen to the voice of the faithful. Just read Saint John Henry Newman’s famous little book on listening to the faithful in matters of faith. This little book written at the time of the First Vatican Council is very important for our situation in the search for synodality.

What does listening to the faith of the People of God mean?

It is the sensus fidei. Of course, this is not revealed in statistics. If we don’t do this work of listening to the sensus fidei we are not listening to the Holy Spirit, because what lives and is perceived in the sensus fidei of the People of God, is the crux, the heart of the faith of the Church. I think of a personal experience, when I was a young theology student and we were all taught about the ideas of Bultmann and Entmythologisierung (demythologisation, ed.). It was a radical questioning of the Christian faith. When I came home, I spoke about it to my mother who listened to me and after a while she looked at me in a somewhat surprised way and simply told me this: ‘But if Jesus is not the son of the living God, then our faith is empty.’ I have always said that what my mother taught me was to listen to the People of God, to the faith of the simple, the faith of the People of God. This is why Pope Francis’ insistence on popular religiosity, on the faith of the people — an insistence that we already find in the Aparecida document — is really important. I remember that famous sermon by then-Cardinal Ratzinger during the crisis with Hans Küng, when he said: theology that does not humbly put itself at the service, to listen to the faith of the People of God, is of no use, it is gnosis but it is not a service to the faith. Therefore, I think that the method of involving a large number of faithful and also people who have distanced themselves from the Church is important for discernment.

Another characteristic of this synod is the participation of non-bishop members, with the inclusion of a significant number of lay faithful, and in particular women. How does the physiognomy of the synod change and what, in your opinion, will the consequences be?

There have always been lay people, men and women, who participated as experts, as listeners in the synods of the past 50 years. Now for the first time a good number of lay people, men and women, are full members of the synod. I think that the physiognomy of the synod does not essentially change, because it is certainly a synod of bishops, the majority are still bishops, because the synodal tradition is first and foremost that of bishops of a region, of a nation, etc. meeting, but this participation of lay people is certainly important to improve listening. I have participated in a good number of synods and I remember interventions by men and women, lay people, experts, listeners, who had a profound impact on the proceedings. This time we go one step further to involve these voices. There will still be experts in this synod, there will still be delegates from the other fraternal Churches. I think it’s simply enriching. We must then remember the Synod created by Paul vi more than 55 years ago: it was conceived as the voice of the episcopate of the universal Church gathering around the Successor of Peter. We know all too well that there is voting and very significant voting, but these votes are an expression of the sensus fidelium, also of the expectations of the People of God which are ultimately transmitted to the Pope for his further discernment. This new participation does not essentially change the meaning of a post-conciliar synod.

A consequence of this broad participation has been the inclusion in the Synodal Instrumentum laboris of many topics that have been discussed for decades. For example, the request for specific reforms for greater participation of lay people and women in the life of the Church, or to rethink some issues related to moral theology. How much will they weigh in the Synod?

I couldn’t give an answer to this question, we’ll see. What I perceived is that the continental synods and also the echo of several episcopal conferences in the world certainly insist on the question of the participation of the laity in the life of the Church. This was already a central theme in the Second Vatican Council. The participation of the laity is at the heart of the Council’s intentions and there is still much to learn and to do. Saint John xxiii had already said that the theme of women in the life of the Church is one of the signs of the times, it is one of the great questions emerging throughout the world and this theme will certainly be present. However, I am a little skeptical about the fact that the list of hotly debated topics, especially in the secularized Western world, are so central for the entire Church. I’ll give you an example. At the synod on the Amazon there was strong pressure from certain groups to reach a decision on the viri probati, the priestly ordination of married men. Maybe I will be criticized for remembering it, but it was said at the synod. Some have wondered: how is it possible that there are as many as 1,200 priests from Colombia, a country that has many priestly vocations, living in the United States and Canada? Why don’t a hundred or two hundred of them go to the Amazon? The problem of the lack of priests would be solved. So I think that sometimes we need a little more discernment and also honesty in seeing the complexity of the issues. In this sense, I am confident that the synod will be a beautiful and powerful occasion, an opportunity to discern together on these issues.

Secularization is advancing in Western societies, the transmission of the faith that in the past took place in the family seems to have been interrupted. How do we go back to announcing the Gospel in these contexts? How can the next Synod help in this?

You said, the transmission of faith took place in the family. It is true that if it does not happen in the family, the transmission of the faith is not impossible but it is much more difficult. For this reason, the double synod of 2014-15 on the family is very important for the transmission of the faith. I confide that the transmission of faith happens and happens because it is the work of the Lord. It is the Lord who calls, who invites, it is the Lord who acts in the hearts of people, who attracts as Jesus said: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’ This attraction of Jesus is active throughout the world but there is also a need for those who help to grasp this call, this work of the Lord. Of course, secularization is a great challenge. But, once again, I recall Benedict xvi who said surprising things about secularized society. I remember that when he went to the Czech Republic, a very very secularized country, he said: here there are also opportunities for the Holy Spirit to act, to be operational. And this is true. Therefore, secularization is not only a disadvantage, it also has a positive side, in the sense that personal existential questions are raised in a perhaps more direct way. And therefore, the Lord is active. This is the Gospel: it is a force of life, it inspires life and, in this sense, I am confident that this synod, despite all the criticisms that are already being made, will be a step towards carrying forward the communion of the Church.

By Andrea Tornielli