Scott Warden
November 13, 2023 // Bishop

‘We’re All on a Journey Together:’ Bishop Rhoades on the Synod and the Mission of the Church

Scott Warden

Two years ago, on October 17, 2021, Bishop Rhoades celebrated a special Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to mark the opening of the diocesan phase of the Synod of Bishops. The Gospel reading during the Mass centered on Christ’s challenge to the apostles to be servant-leaders.

“The Church,” Bishop Rhoades said, is “a hierarchical communion. The hierarchy’s authority, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the authority of service. Exercising authority in this Christ-like manner, it seems to me, includes us bishops listening to you, the People of God, as we lead and serve you.”

Little did Bishop Rhoades know then what that service would entail for him.

This past July, it was announced that Bishop Rhoades was named one of five bishop-delegates appointed to the synod by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In late September, Bishop Rhoades flew to Rome, where he participated in a three-day pre-synodal retreat before the general assembly officially opened on Wednesday, October 4. For nearly four weeks, Bishop Rhoades and his fellow delegates from across the world listened to one another about the challenges and hopes of the Church.

In a wide-ranging interview with Today’s Catholic, Bishop Rhoades addressed his work at the synod, why Pope Francis sees synodality as vital to the mission of the Church, key topics discussed in Rome, skeptics of the synod, and what he hopes will be its fruits in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo provided by Bishop Rhoades
Fellow bishops join Bishop Rhoades for a liturgy inside of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican.

Today’s Catholic: For those who might not know, can you explain what the Synod of Bishops is and its role in the universal Church?

Bishop Rhoades: Pope St. Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops at the end of the Second Vatican Council, and this was the 16th ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The vision Pope Paul VI had was that the synod would be a representative body of bishops that the pope can consult, that would be able to give him advice, their insights. It’s really a consultative body, it’s not a deliberative body. And certainly, it was used by Pope Paul VI himself, as he held the first synods, and St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both had many synods. At the end of each synod, which is usually a one-month meeting in Rome, the pope would take all of the recommendations and write an apostolic exhortation.

Now, this current synod, on the topic of synodality, has some changes that have been instituted by Pope Francis. There’s much more involvement of consultation of the whole People of God throughout the world. This synod really began a couple of years ago with local churches engaging in small-group discussions and listening sessions on the mission of the Church, as we did here in our own diocese, and giving our input to the [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops]. A national synthesis was then drawn up that was included in the continental assembly, of which there were seven. After the continental assemblies and their reports, a working document was made for the actual gathering of the assembly in Rome, which is what just took place. The instrumentum laboris, the working document, is what formed the basis for our discussions and various questions that we discussed and reflected upon. So, it is quite a process.

I would say one of the new things instituted by Pope Francis is that about one-fourth of the delegates were non-bishops. That was an innovation. Non-bishops before could be there as observers, could give input, but they would not have a vote. So, we had, at this assembly, priests, sisters, and I think there was a deacon, and, of course, most of the non-bishops were laity, and they were allowed to vote. You can go back to Lumen Gentium, Chapter 2, which is entitled “The People of God.” The Church doctrine behind it is that we’re all on a journey together as God’s people, and, therefore, it’s very important that all the People of God have a voice. And so, Pope Francis has taken that to a new level because of the worldwide consultation that took place. And the whole method, so to speak, is to discern God’s will, to discern the Holy Spirit. A lot of it is listening, listening to people. But remember, it’s not a deliberative body. So, the magisterium, the pope in particular, in this case, but also the College of Bishops, are the ones who ultimately make decisions. It’s not a parliamentary thing; it’s not like the U.S. Congress. This is a spiritual discernment that is supposed to take place, maintaining that truth of our faith – that Christ entrusted to Peter and the apostles the task of doing the ultimate discernment.

Today’s Catholic: Regarding this synod in particular, as you understand it, what is Pope Francis’ goal in focusing on synodality itself?

Bishop Rhoades: The pope really wants synodality, which he says is constitutive of the life of the Church that must be practiced on every level – so not just at the synod, which is the universal level, but also in a diocese, or in a parish, or in other institutions of the Church. He is stressing that everyone should have a voice.

Let me give you an example. In a parish, the idea is that the pastor is obviously the shepherd, but he’s not to exercise that leadership and governance without listening to the people. So, there was a lot of criticism of dictatorial or authoritarian styles of leadership, whether it be pastors, bishops, or whomever – that it is important that we listen and that we discern, that we respect the fact that all the baptized have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and, therefore, it is important that we listen to each other. And also, that the people listen to their pastors, because we’re all in this journey together as brothers and sisters in Christ by our baptism.

So, on a parish level it’s important that the people’s voice be heard, which is why we have parish pastoral councils, which is often to be the voice of the parishioners. But how are they being used? Are they being effective? Are they really vibrant councils? Do they spiritually discern? Do they pray? We did a lot of prayer in the midst of our discussions in Rome, because it’s not just, ‘OK, we’re going to argue about something and take a vote.’ That’s not spiritual discernment.

Synodality doesn’t mean that the Church is becoming a democracy, because the process relies heavily on discerning the will of God, the voice of the Holy Spirit, and we have to be careful that we don’t listen to a contrary spirit, the spirit of the world. So it’s not just people’s opinions. There are some objective criteria that we have to keep in mind, obviously – the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the revealed truths of our faith. They are not up for debate. Now, what’s up for debate is how we live our mission. How can we do better? How can we make sure that everyone in the Church feels valued and respected? For example, that was one of the things that the pope wanted us to talk about, that no one should feel excluded.

Provided by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades
Bishop Rhoades works during the first session of the general assembly of the Synod of Bishops at Paul VI Hall at the Vatican.

Today’s Catholic: That leads to the next question, which is that, going into the synod, there was a lot of discussion about marginalized people. Pastoral councils and listening to people within a parish is important, but those people are already involved in the Church. What was discussed about how to bring in people who find themselves outside of the Church?

Bishop Rhoades: Pope Francis was insistent that we include those whose voices are not normally heard – the marginalized and, in particular, the poor. And dioceses were urged to seek people out who are on the peripheries. You can look at all different categories, and it also depends on cultures and nations, that people who are in the United States who may feel marginalized may be a different kind of population than those who are marginalized in another country.

Perhaps the number one thing that impacted me by being at this assembly was getting to know bishops from around the world, and other delegates, as well, and listening
to their experiences, their challenges, their hopes, their fears. Across the world, in many countries, Catholics and other Christians are persecuted minorities, are marginalized in their cultures, where religious freedom is denied. And there are places that are ravaged by wars and conflicts, or extreme poverty. All these different circumstances of the Church’s life, we needed to hear their voices at the synod to make clear that ours is not just a Western, first-world Church.

Obviously, the huge crisis of displaced people and migrants was a major issue, because it’s an issue here in our country on our southern border, but also people drowning in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe from Africa. We’ve heard those voices. We even had a prayer service in St. Peter’s Square for migrants and refugees. So, on the level of the universal Church, it was very enlightening for me, although I had probably some experience because of my travels with Catholic Relief Services as a board member. But I even learned a lot more at the synod.

While we were there, we had the Hamas attack on Israel. The Patriarch of Jerusalem was one of the delegates at the synod, as were many bishops from that region. But yet, we are called to be a people that walks together, so that’s the key when we talk about a synodal Church. It means that we are all walking together, journeying together as brothers and sisters in Christ, so we need to care about one another.

Our mission shouldn’t be so parochial that we’re only thinking of the people of our parish. We certainly do need to reach out to those who are marginalized or on the peripheries in our parish communities. Maybe there’s homeless people in the region of the parish, or the elderly homebound who need to be visited and cared for. The whole idea is that the Church is ordered toward mission. Keep in mind the three themes of the synod were communion, participation, and mission. So, we have this shared mission, which is really to bear witness to Christ in our day-to-day actions.

Photo provided by Bishop Rhoades
Bishop Rhoades is seen on screen speaking to other participants of the Synod of Bishops at Paul VI Hall at the Vatican during the first session of the synod on synodality.

Today’s Catholic: Can you give us a look into the everyday workings of the synod as well as your role as a delegate?

Bishop Rhoades: It was a rather grueling schedule. We would meet every morning, always beginning with prayer. And at the beginning of every module – there were four modules during the synod – we would have a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Prayer was part of the whole experience, and we would have morning prayer together if we didn’t have Mass. For the working groups, there were 10 of us at a table. Basically, we would be discussing a particular question that we had wanted to discuss. So, from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., we would be in our meetings, then we’d have a break for lunch until 4 p.m., then we were back from 4 to 7:30 p.m. So that was pretty heavy.

After the working groups had their meetings, we had a time for discussions. Each working group had to come up with a report to the whole body, which would involve everyone in the hall, and that’s when Pope Francis would usually participate. All the reports would be given from whatever it was, 30 or 32 groups. And then there would be open floor discussions so individual delegates could make interventions from the floor.

By the final week, all of this is being brought together after we had covered the whole four modules. Then we had to do a synthesis document, which was compiled and written by seven relators. That had to have been a lot of work. They were up all night, as you can imagine. After we got a draft of the document, we were allowed to submit amendments, of which there were more than 1,300. So, this group of seven then had to go through all of those and then revise the document accordingly.

On the last day, the synthesis was read aloud in Italian, and because it was 41 pages long, it took three hours to get through it. We voted on each paragraph, and for the paragraph to remain in the document, it needed two-thirds approval. All of the paragraphs were approved. That was a long day. It went into the night. Now, the synthesis document is the basis for the consultation that will take place throughout this year before next October.

Photo provided by Bishop Rhoades
Bishop Rhoades poses with a woman inside Paul VI Hall during the first session of the Synod of Bishops on synodality at the Vatican.

Today’s Catholic: It’s unlikely that many of the lay faithful in the diocese will read the synod’s synthesis report. What would you say are some of the key takeaways from the document?

Bishop Rhoades: Well, the title of the document is “A Synodal Church in Mission,” and I think at least the introductory letter from the delegates to the People of God, it’s only two pages long, so hopefully people will read that, which is really an instrument for ongoing discernment. [Editor’s note: The full document, as well as the introductory letter, can be found at]

I would say one of the key themes, really, is what is synodality? What does it mean to be a synodal Church? The word “synod” itself means “to journey with.” Basically, it’s the understanding that we walk in communion with each other, with Christ, toward the kingdom, and we also walk along with the whole of humanity. I think, at its heart, that is the theme of the synod. The idea is that we are to enter into solidarity with one another, and I think that was quite prominent, that we need to be concerned about our brothers and sisters here and across the world.

Also, the theme of “sensus fidei” is an important one. It’s a theological idea that focuses on the need to understand that through the Holy Spirit, the People of God have a spiritual instinct for the truth of the Gospel. It’s clear this isn’t understood well enough. We need to teach what we mean by that. We’re not talking about popular opinions, particular interests, or the spirit of the age. We have to be careful. All the People of God who have been baptized have been blessed with this sensus fidei, but it’s the responsibility of the magisterium to discern the authentic manifestation of the sensus fidei. Where do you see the sensus fidei most dramatically? It’s an instinct for the truth of the Gospel. It’s in the lives of the saints. They are the bearers of the light of the sensus fidei.

Another takeaway is to accompany those on the margins; the importance of the preferential option for the poor came up many, many times as so integral to the Gospel – not only material poverty but also spiritual poverty; there are so many who lack a sense of meaning or purpose in their life. So, we need to stand with those who are poor.

Pope Francis issued the apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum, a follow-up to Laudato Si’ on the environment. So that was something that also was a concern is how the ecological crisis especially harms the poor. In the synthesis report, there are matters for further consideration and concrete proposals, as well.

There was concern about polarization in the Church and the importance that we walk in communion with one another, and the synodal methodology is a way, hopefully, to overcome some of the division and polarization. But there definitely was recognition of that tension in some areas of the world.

Another thing that was highlighted was the fact that we’re all part of the Latin Church. Remember, the Catholic Church also has 23 Eastern Catholic churches. And the heads of all the Eastern Catholic churches were delegates, so they were prominent at the synod. There was a concern about the migration of a lot of people from the Catholic East into territories like ours, which have a huge Latin majority, that they be welcomed and served, and that we appreciate more the heritage of our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters. One thing that came out was the “ecumenism of blood,” how we should recognize jointly the martyrs from our different Christian churches and communities. And they’re hoping that when we have the anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, which took place in the year 325 – so the 1,700th anniversary will be celebrated in 2025 – it might be possible for all Christians to celebrate a common date for Easter.

Another topic of conversation at the synod was that all of us are called to discipleship and mission. This comes from the sacraments of initiation. By baptism, confirmation, and the holy Eucharist, we all have equal dignity, whether we’re ordained, whether we’re consecrated to religious life, or whether we’re members of the laity. There’s various charisms and vocations within the People of God, but we’re all called to be missionaries. For example, the life and mission of women in the Church was discussed. I think in some cultures women aren’t very much a part of decision-making in the life of the Church. I think it’s different in places like the United States. But it was much broader than the question of women’s ordination. I think it was a bigger issue of simply women’s participation in leadership, and that can happen outside of ordination. We have many examples here in the leadership of our own diocese. … But there are other countries where that might not be the case. And so, developing a deeper understanding of women in the life and mission of the Church was a theme. …

One last thing I’d like to add that was discussed is that, especially with young people, how do we exercise our mission in the digital environment? It can’t be overstated how much this has changed things. This is crucial for our witness in today’s culture. We really can’t evangelize these days without engaging the digital culture.

Today’s Catholic: Now that the first session of the synod is over, what does the next year look like before the final session begins next October?

Bishop Rhoades: I really think we need some clarity on how we’re going to proceed with this next stage of consultation. There isn’t a plan yet, and this is something that will likely be discussed at the bishops’ meetings in Baltimore [from November 13-16]. I think the episcopal conferences are the ones being asked to do this, so I would expect that there would be various bodies, for example, that I can consult with, or that we can have in our diocese to reflect on this document, this synthesis, so that we can get input and work its way up, again, to the episcopal conference. We’ll only have 10 months or so until the next session, so the preparation can’t be as extensive as the leadup to the first session, but there will certainly be input that will come on what it is that we need to focus on. It will be challenging, but it’s necessary.

Today’s Catholic: In one of your earlier answers, you mentioned polarization in the Church. As a delegate at the synod, you know better than most how skeptical some people were of the synod. Now that you’ve completed the first session, what would you tell people who were concerned that the synod might be a vehicle to change Church doctrine?

Bishop Rhoades: Overall, I did not experience that. The delegates that I got to know, they really love the Church. There may be some who have an agenda to change doctrine, but the way I look at it, that’s not what the pope has in mind here.

I think that perhaps we need greater clarity here in explaining the rule of magisterium when it comes to what authentic doctrinal development is. It’s not the opinion of the majority, because we’re bound by God’s revelation, by the Scriptures, by the Tradition of the Church – the tradition with a capital T. Some think that the synod is an effort to come in through the back door to change doctrine. I don’t want to be naive to the fact that there might be some who are trying to do that, but I don’t really see that being the role of the synod because of the importance of discernment when it comes to doctrine.

When it comes to doctrine, we’re not talking about changes, so to speak, as much as the development of doctrine, because the Holy Spirit doesn’t teach something in one century and then change his mind in another century. The word of God is truth. Now, we can come to a better understanding, a deeper understanding of the truths of our faith. St. John Henry Newman is kind of the expert on this matter – other writers, too, but he stands out in my mind. How do you judge something as authentic development of doctrine? It’s really penetrating more deeply into the mysteries that have been revealed. But no one has the authority to change the word of God.

Today’s Catholic: We’re only partly done with the synod; there is still the second session next year and then the pope’s final post-synodal exhortation on the matter, but as it stands now, what are you hoping are the fruits of this synod for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South bend?

Bishop Rhoades: I would say revitalization and mission – in a sense, more participation. I think that begins on the parish level. One of the three keys to the synod is participation. We need to listen more in the process of discernment, especially on the parish level, and at the diocesan level.

I think probably even a greater hope for me is a deeper communion. Because in our country, there’s this terrible political polarization, and in a way, it’s infiltrated the Church. And that is not who we are called to be. I mean, the Church is communion. And we should be a sign and instrument of the world, in the world … of the communion between God and his people and among one another. We need to overcome that. Maybe this synodal method can help at least reduce polarization, but we need to return to the spirit of the Gospels, and Jesus and love and truth go together. We can’t have one without the other.

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