For anyone interested in ecclesiology, one of the most striking (and under-reported) events of the recent Synod on the Family was Pope Francis’s address on Saturday, 17 October commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops. Many of the English-language news reports covering the speech called the address a call to a “more decentralized” church. Although this is true enough, summarizing the pope’s speech in this way doesn’t do justice to the truly revolutionary vision of the church it sets forth. The quotes from the text here are taken from the English translation of the original Italian, found at the Vatican website linked to above.

Read the entire address; it’s not lengthy. Francis’s insistence that “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium” should be music to Orthodox Christian ears. Francis notes that “the Synod process begins by listening to the people of God, which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office”, according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: “Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet”” [what affects all must be discussed by all]. Thus he invokes a central point in Orthodox arguments in the 20th century about what must be the basis upon which Orthodox and Catholics enter into full communion: the practice of the undivided church of the first millennium. Note, however, that he quotes a truncated version of the saying, which reads: quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet: “What affects all must be discussed and approved by all,” an interesting omission in light of what he says a few lines later about the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

At the same time, Francis interprets authority in the church in terms of kenotic service (my term):

Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself. If we understand, as Saint John Chrysostom says, that “Church and Synod are synonymous”,(19) inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the “journeying together” of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord, then we understand too that, within the Church, no one can be “raised up” higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person “lower” himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.

He goes on slightly later in the address to reaffirm St. John Paul II’s call for a rethinking of the exercise of papal primacy in an ecumenical context:

I am persuaded that in a synodal Church, greater light can be shed on the exercise of the Petrine primacy. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but within it as one of the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as a Bishop among Bishops, called at the same time — as Successor of Peter — to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.(29)

While reaffirming the urgent need to think about “a conversion of the papacy”,(30) I willingly repeat the words of my predecessor Pope John Paul II: “As Bishop of Rome I am fully aware […] that Christ ardently desires the full and visible communion of all those Communities in which, by virtue of God’s faithfulness, his Spirit dwells. I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”.(31)

These are extraordinary things to hear from a Bishop of Rome. How will we Orthodox respond?

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