What to know about the Synod Lecture Series
Chances are by now that most students at the University of Dallas have seen fliers detailing a lecture series titled “Diocese of Dallas Synod 2024 Speaker series” being sponsored by the Synod Preparatory Commission. So far, three of the talks have occurred and several more are scheduled for the rest of the semester.
The lecture series comes in the wake of two events: the calling of the diocesan synod by Bishop Edward Burns, and the calling of a universal synod by Pope Francis, often referred to as the “Synod on Synodality.” According to America Magazine, the Synod was called on Oct. 18, 2021 and has been extended into October 2024. The theme of the Synod is as follows: “For a synodal church: communion, participation and mission.”
The series will focus on topics related to both the diocesan synod and the universal synod. Father John Bayer, a Cistercian monk and adjunct professor of theology, is the main organizer behind the series. He is a member of the Synod Preparatory Commission for the diocesan synod in Dallas and an alum of UD.
Fr. Bayer explained that the series is hoping to make use of the intellectual vibrance at UD to promote a better understanding of the synod. “One of the goals of the Synod series is to avail ourselves of the faculty and their expertise to comment on this important moment in the life of the Church,” he said
Sister Mary Angelica Neenan, O.P., is an affiliate assistant professor of theology and a speaker for a talk in the series titled “Synods and Councils in the Church: A History of Synodality.” She explained that synods are not new; these gatherings have been part of the Church since the time of the events of the Bible. “We actually see the first synod happening in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s right there in Scripture and historically validated,” Sr. Mary Angelica said.
She added that part of the confusion surrounding the universal synod is the newer concept of more laity participation in the proceedings. “What’s new with Pope Francis is that not only does he want to hear from priests and experts, but also wants to hear from everyone, so it’s opened up to the laity,” Sr. Mary Angelica said.
In terms of the diocesan synod, it was called by Bishop Burns as part of an effort to galvanize the local church after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. “He [Bishop Burns] wants to seize what he calls a ‘tremendous opportunity’ to promote the administrative, pastoral and spiritual renewal of the Diocese,” Fr. Bayer said.
Fr. Bayer explained that one of the results of the Second Vatican Council was the emphasis on the Church as “communio,” which stresses the nature of the Church as a hierarchical communion.
“The relationship between the different aspects of the church is hierarchical, but it’s also a reality that’s structured towards a certain mutuality,” Fr. Bayer said. He further explained that the way to look at the Church’s structure is that it’s similar to rule in a family, rather than an autocratic ruler and his subjects.
Clearing up confusion that Catholics may have, Sr. Mary Angelica stressed that the synod has no authority by itself to bind Catholics to anything. “The synod is really a consulting body,” Sr. Mary Angelica said. She compared it to meetings to discuss topics that all human organizations must have to function properly. “Even Dunkin Donuts has to have meetings.”
Fr. Bayer expanded upon this point, explaining that the synod is only as authoritative as the pope makes it. “If the pope writes a post-Synodal exhortation, that would be where any authoritative judgment would come,” he said.
The synod is a tool for the pope to gather information about the Church in order that he can be a better shepherd of the flock. Fr. Bayer explained, “That Synodal body gathers in service of his ministry. It doesn’t possess an authority over and against him.”
The universal synod has seen certain moments of controversy. For example, the Catholic News Agency reported on questionable artwork that was produced by synod social media accounts that seemed to be contrary to Catholic teaching, such as showing what appeared to be a woman priest. Part of the controversy also stems from the fact that the universal Synod was called by Pope Francis, whose pontificate has brought tensions for many Catholics, especially with regards to the liturgy.
Though he admits that occasionally some Catholics and even prelates can say and do things that appear confusing to him, Fr. Bayer doesn’t think Pope Francis is using the synod to undermine Church teaching. “My sense from Pope Francis is that this has nothing to do with changing essential doctrine. I just don’t see that in the documents of Pope Francis,” Fr. Bayer said.
When speaking on Francis, Fr. Bayer has said that reading the writings of the Pontiff themselves has provided encouragement. “I grow confident when I read Pope Francis himself.”
Fr. Bayer believes that one of the benefits of the lecture series is that it could provide a clearer view of the synod. “It could be helpful to hear a UD professor that students trust speak about it, instead of only going to their favorite blogger or news source, many of which could be great, but still might only have one particular perspective,” he said.
Sr. Mary Angelica thinks one of the specialties of the UD student body is being able to respectfully discuss controversial topics, and believes these lectures are a great way to facilitate that even among those with different viewpoints. “Sometimes we’re afraid of disagreement, but the Catholic Church should not be afraid of that because we don’t have anything to fear,” Sr. Mary Angelica said.
Regardless of how one feels about the synod, Fr. Bayer thinks one should attend the lectures with an open mind. “I would encourage anybody who’s interested in the universal synod to try the synod series. Not because we can answer every question, but because this is hopefully a way that the professors can help us all think more deeply about the topic,” Fr. Bayer explained.
Fr. Bayer is confident that God is at work in the synod, and that He will not fail the Church no matter what controversies arise. He said: “We have to try to be generous toward each other, pope and faithful, and above all try to understand whatever it is the Holy Spirit is saying through him. Forgive him wherever it seems there’s something strange, and always trust in the grace of office that whatever his personal frailty may be, God doesn’t abandon his Church.”