We, the Oblates of Stanbrook, have been mulling over the idea of Synodality. Synodality is very much the buzz word but it is a neologism and no one is quite sure what it means or what Pope Francis’ call for a ‘synodal’ Church might really entail. As a starting point we took the concept of ‘gathering and walking together’ to be of importance, and our first leg of the journey has been to look at the Rule of St. Benedict and identify in it any implications of a ‘synodal path’. My personal task was to look at Chapters 21 – 32 and what follows are some of my comments on these chapters.
Firstly, Chapter 21: The Deans of the Monastery, seems to suggest a devolution of power or a sharing of authority within the monastery. How this is handled emphasises the priority of community and the togetherness of its members. The deans have to be exemplars of community living and are appointed according to their aptitude rather than their rank within the monastery, and if they fall short are to be replaced. The same goes for the Prior. Such a sharing of authority is synodal as it implies a mutual commitment to the community’s common goal and a regard of ability over office .
In Chapter 22: The Sleeping Arrangements of the Monks, again the emphasis is on the synodal. What is of note here is not so much the technicalities of sleeping in a 6th century monastery but is rather the stress on togetherness and, as in RB 22.8, the support given to each other.
As for Chapters 23-26: Excommunication for Faults, it is important to bear in mind that the practices of the 6th century are not the same as those of the 21st century. To get at the synodal underpinnings here, this must be recognised so that the priority, in these chapters, can again be seen as contributing to the togetherness of the community. Quite simply the theme here is that those who veer from the communal path should be made aware of their behaviour and its cost to the community. There is a scale for correction of faults, from the private warning (RB 23.2) to the exclusion for serious faults (RB 25) to the unauthorised association with the excommunicated (RB 26); all of which are intended to safeguard the bonds of community and ensure that its members are walking the synodal path together.
Some of Chapter 27: The Abbot’s Concern for the Excommunicated may seem harsh but in this chapter there is a decided similarity with Pope Francis’ call for synodality. This is in the sense of a wide-ranging inclusivity – a shepherding practice wherby the defector is encouraged back to the fold.
Chapter 28: Those who Refuse to Amend after Frequent Reproofs follows on from the previous where, having explored every avenue to secure the reform of the defector, the abbot must dismiss the wayward monk. Again for the health and stability of the community.
Chapter 29: Readmission of Brothers who Leave the Monastery suggests an open door policy which again compares with Pope Francis’ notion of synodality: the acceptance rather than the criticism of defaulters. It is offering them a fresh start by giving them a chance to reassess their situation and return to the community.
The statement in Chapter 30: The Manner of Reproving Boys that chimes with synodality is RB 30.1: ‘Every age and level of understanding should receive appropriate treatment’. This seems to be a crucial characteristic of the synodal way – a way which allows for the understanding and acknowledgement of diversity.
In line with the synodal way Chapter 31: Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer deals with the responsibility to serve others. The cellarer can be seen as representing the model monk, demonstrating qualities of consideration and calmness. In taking care of the members and goods of the community the behaviour of the cellarer demonstrates the importance of good person to person relationships within a community.
In, Chapter 32: The tools and goods of the Monastery the sharing of assets reiterates the togetherness of the community. It also emphasises the respect for and care of worldly material things. This is a down-to-earth quality, such as is advocated by Pope Francis.
Looking at what my fellow Oblates have been working on, I can see that throughout the Rule there are many other suggestions that the Benedictine way is an example of a synodal path. All of this seems to suggest that the structure and practices of monastic life are characteristic of synodality and that, by comparison, it is the structure and practices of the Church, as institution, that need to be examined. I am inclined to conclude that Pope Francis’ call for Synodality is not a matter of questioning either our Catholic faith or the Christian message, but rather it points to the need for change within the institution of the Church.
Gloria McAdam Oblate of Stanbrook Abbey