Synodality Is Already the Church’s Method

The Communion and Liberation (CL) movement is present in 90 countries throughout the world with members on nearly every continent. Its founder, the late Monsignor Luigi Giussani, was a friend of popes and some of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century. His books and articles have been translated into various languages and have influenced many of those who have read them, including our present Holy Father, Pope Francis. Yet it often happens that when I mention Giussani’s name or the ecclesial movement born out of his experience, most people are completely unaware of both. This year, on the 100th anniversary of Giussani’s birth, a closer examination of his life and works can help shed light on this historical moment in the life of the Church and the importance of the Holy Father’s renewed insistence on synodality.

In an interview with Traces, the monthly publication of CL, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Papal Nuncio to the United States, spoke of the connection between the thought of Pope Francis and Giussani:

I find the same elements: the encounter, the danger of ideology, the missionary dimension, openness to the other, the relationship between Christ and the church, the journey together, and today too, synodality as method. You find all these concepts in Giussani. They help you understand in today’s context where one must go to grow in faith.[1]

It is interesting that Archbishop Pierre “book ends” his list of similarities between the Holy Father and Giussani with encounter and synodality. Pope Francis’s enthusiasm for speaking of Christianity in terms of an encounter with Christ is well known. This theme of encounter was taken up in the first document of Francis’ papacy, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in which he quotes his predecessor, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” He continues, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel.”

For anyone who has come across any of Giussani’s many articles or books, or has ever met someone who follows the CL movement, it is immediately evident that the category of encounter lies at the heart of his thought. In a address to a gathering of those who follow CL, Pope Francis expressed profound gratitude for the work of Giussani, a sentiment he has repeated multiple times both before and during his pontificate. He told the assembly:

I am grateful to Don Giussani for different reasons. The first and more personal is the good that this man did for me and for my priestly life, through the reading of his books and articles. The other reason is that his thoughts are deeply human and reach the most intimate yearning of mankind. You know how important the experience of encounter was to Don Giussani: the encounter not with an idea, but with a Person, with Jesus Christ.

Much can and has been said about the intersection of these two men’s thought with regards to encounter. But the depth of their shared understanding on the concept of synodality has yet to be explored. Francis has recently made synodality one of the central themes of his pontificate, and it appears increasingly important given the challenges facing the world today. Growing division, a crisis of authority, and a collapse of evidence which makes it difficult to agree on shared values all make for a situation that threatens to tear apart not only the world, but also the Church.

The meaning of the word synodality is implied in its name, which comes from the Greek words syn (together) and hodos (road, path). Synodality implies a journey which is made together under the guidance of ecclesial authority. The International Theological Commission, in its recent document on synodality describes the implication of such an understanding of the Church, saying:

Synodality is established to energize the life and evangelizing mission of the Church in union with and under the guidance of the Lord Jesus, who promised: “where two or three meet in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18,20); “look. I am with you always; yes, to the end of the world” (Matthew 28,20).[2]

Synodality, then, speaks of the dynamic of following the Lord who is present in our midst. However, it is about much more than following, but becoming witnesses to him in the world in which we live, and so, to invite others to follow. This respects both the communal and personal dimension of the faith which is rooted in personal experience but is never isolated from the community.

The Holy Father has been careful to avoid an over-systemization of the concept of synodality, preferring it to be experienced rather than succinctly defined. In an address to the faithful of Rome at the opening of the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis said:

Synodality is not a chapter in an ecclesiology textbook, much less a fad or a slogan to be bandied about in our meetings. Synodality is an expression of the Church’s nature, her form, style and mission. We can talk about the Church as being “synodal.” without reducing that word to yet another description or definition of the Church.[3]

In other words, beyond a purely speculative theological concept, Francis understands synodality to be the Church’s method.

Pope Francis has sought to distinguish the synodal path the Church is being called to travel from a sort of ideology or vague abstraction. Instead, he has consistently invited the Church to travel this path together, to experience synodality as method, growing in greater awareness of the Lord’s presence in our midst along the way. In this sense, we are not the protagonist of this process, but the Lord. Synodality is the way in which we come to recognize him.

Likewise, in the same interview with Traces, Archbishop Pierre spoke of the convergence between the personal and communal implications of the encounter with Christ, describing it “not just as ‘culture of meeting each other,’ as a social dimension, but precisely as encounter with Christ, which is very concrete.” In the convergence between the personal and communal there is Christ whose presence in our midst makes it possible to journey together. A synodal Church is called to follow Christ through the concrete circumstances of life, not as a sociological exercise but as the result of an encounter with the one who claims to be the way, the truth, and the life.

Much like Pope Francis’s comments regarding the nature of synodality as something that must be experienced, Giussani did not write a theological treatise about synodality: he lived it. In a 2004 letter to Pope Saint John Paul II, Giussani describes the synodal dimension of his experience in the birth of the movement:

Not only did I have no intention of “founding” anything, but I believe that the genius of the Movement that I saw coming to birth lies in having felt the urgency to proclaim the need to return to the elementary aspects of Christianity, that is to say, the passion of the Christian fact as such in its original elements, and nothing more. Perhaps it was precisely this that awoke the unforeseeable possibility of encounter with personalities of the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant and Orthodox worlds, from the United States to Russia, in an impetus of embrace and appreciation of all that remains of truth, of beauty, of good and of right in whoever lives a sense of belonging.

Giussani’s life bore witness to the synodal method of the Church, something he lived intensely. And his experience has compelled hundreds of thousands of others to live it as well. Having followed CL for nearly a decade, I have come to realize that I have been living an experience of synodality through my participation in the life of the movement. From the weekly gatherings of CL called School of Community, to the assemblies, retreats, and vacations, the synodal approach inherent in Giussani’s method becomes clear.

At the heart of Giussani’s educational proposal is an insistence on the verification of the faith in experience, in the various encounters we have with others, in the profound stirrings of our hearts. When those who follow CL gather, they discuss precisely that. They discuss their judgments on their experience, which is to say, they discuss how Christ has been present in their experience. In a speech to the National Council of CL in 1992, Giussani said:

The Method of the Movement is indicated in the word “event:” revealing the presence of Christ as a present event. It is, in fact, in a present event that Christ is attractively revealed. The method of the Movement is all about replacing perpetual categories or repeated discourse with an event.

The method he describes is lived out in the context of the various circumstances one faces in life. It is not about “categories or repeated discourse,” or as Pope Francis has said, “yet another description or definition,” but a concrete encounter with Christ made evident through our own experience and the experiences of others.

This method guides the movement’s self-expression, even in the way in which it is led. The president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, the head of the movement, does not lead in a top-down way. Guidance of the movement is a response to what is happening in the world and in the lives of those who follow. This fact sheds light on the diocesan phase of the synod now underway. The exercise of ecclesial authority in the Church is not a matter of imposition but of invitation.

Those who lead the Church—the pope, bishops, pastors, heads of various movements and religious communities—exercise true authority to the extent that they help others to depend more profoundly on Christ, who is not only present through the Church’s Magisterium but in and through the various circumstances of our lives. This process of listening to how Christ is at work in the Church indicates the way in which those in positions of authority are called to follow. As Giussani often said, “No one generates unless he has been generated.”[4]

Every gesture of CL presents those who follow with an opportunity to be generated, to be made new by Christ, and to grow in a greater awareness of the fact that we depend on an Other to lead us, we depend on Christ. And so, we are called to be attentive to the concrete circumstances of life—our relationships, our work, our studies, world events, etc.—to listen and to share with one another in such a way that we become more capable of acknowledging our dependence, not only on others, but on Christ who reveals himself through the other.

We are not alone on this journey when we have others to show us the face of Christ, to make him a concrete presence in our lives capable of breaking down the barriers that lead us down the path to isolation. Only a concrete encounter with something outside of us makes us realize that we don not have to shield ourselves from the harsh blows of reality, because it is precisely there that we discover the meaning of our lives. As Archbishop Pierre recently said in a speech to the US Bishops on the topic of synodality, quoting Giussani, “Reality has never betrayed me.”[5] Which, I would propose, is another way of saying, “Christ has never betrayed me.”

Jesus Christ is present in reality, and so our lived experience becomes a primary locus of encounter with him. With synodality as a common method, the Church has the opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of what this presence means for our life and the life of the Church. As Giussani would point out to his students while teaching high school in Milan, Christ is not only “the central point of prayers in the Church, but the central point of life. And what does life mean? Everything. Christ is the central point of everything. For example, Christ is the root of a new vision of oneself and of the world.” He continues, “To say that Christ is the central point of life is to say that he frees life. It means he allows life to be life.”[6]

Well beyond any parliamentary process, an attempt to democratize the Church, or a prolonged exercise in ecclesial naval gazing, the Synod on Synodality which the Church has embarked upon in recent months has the opportunity to draw the world into an experience of faith capable of embracing all of life, according to the shared understanding of both Pope Francis and Giussani: “the encounter, the danger of ideology, the missionary dimension, openness to the other, the relationship between Christ and the church, the journey together, and today too, synodality as method.”

As Archbishop Pierre said in the closing of a recent homily in honor of the anniversary of Giussani’s death, “Giussani has left us a legacy of faith, and now it is a time for us to continue to make his charism known for the life of the whole church and for this country.”[7] I cannot help but think that in some way, this is happening today through the ministry of Pope Francis.

[1] C.f. Archbishop Cristophe Pierre, Encounter with the Human, Tracce-Litterae Communionis, no. 1 (2022).

[2] International Theological Commission, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, 103.

[3] Pope Francis, Address to the Faithful of the Diocese of Rome, 18 September 2021.

[4] C.f. Luigi Giussani, Joy, Gladness, and Audacity: No One Generates Unless He Has Been Generated, Tracce-Litterae Communionis, no. 6 (1997).

[5] Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Address to the General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 16 November 2021.

[6] Alberto Savorana, The Life of Luigi Giussani, 180.

[7] Archbishop Cristophe Pierre, Homily on the Occasion of the 16th Anniversary of Fr. Giussani’s Death, 3 March 2021.