This is a story about the origins of the “synod on synodality.”
It is a story about dreams—and déjà vu.
All his life, Carlo Maria Martini (pictured above left) was a dreamer. In the Italian documentary Vedete, Sono Uno di Voi, we hear Martini’s conviction that only dreams make reality bearable.
As a boy, Martini’s dream had been to throw himself into studying the Holy Bible. He grew up to be a respected Biblical scholar—until Pope John Paul II plucked the shy Jesuit from his books to become the new Archbishop of Milan.
That’s when the other dream gripped him.
In 1981—says biographer Marco Garzonio—Martini “began to speak of a ‘synodal Church,’” categorizing this goal as a “dream.” According to Garzonio, this was a “dream” because “as a realistic person, as well as a prudent Jesuit, he had understood that his arguments did not constitute material welcome to the leadership.”
“He presented his ideas as a goal that was perhaps a long way away, but he was not silent,” says Garzonio.
This tension between dreams and reality gnawed at Martini—and by 1999, he could no longer wait.
For Martini—the bookish Biblical scholar—had a secret. Since the mid-1990s, he had been leading the St. Gallen mafia. It was a clandestine group of high-ranking churchmen opposed to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. These men favored decentralizing and revolutionizing the Church—and, it is said, they at first wanted Martini to be pope.
At the mafia’s January 1999 meeting (according to the authorized biography of member Godfried Danneels), Martini shared the latest permutation of his dream. He said he wanted a new council.
A new council. It was the deepest dream of a man who would one day tell Aldo Maria Valli that the time of Vatican II had been the greatest period of his life (Valli, Storia di un Uomo: Ritratto di Carlo Maria Martini).
Later that year, at a synod on Europe, Martini stood up and shared a version of this “dream.” Invoking Vatican II’s memory, he spoke of a future “collegial and authoritative consultation among all the bishops.” Then he listed the “key issues” to address collegially, from “sexuality” to the “deficit… of ordained ministers.”
“Though Martini never used the words ‘a new council,’ the Italian press wasted little time reporting his comments that way,” says vaticanista John Allen, Jr. “Others, however, say Martini was talking about a new instrument between a synod and a council.”
Yet according to Garzonio, there was an edge of “bitterness and disappointment” in Martini’s voice. For as the new millennium approached, his dream remained elusive, unrealized.
Time passed. Martini revealed he was ill with Parkinson’s and retired to Jerusalem in 2002; Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005; the St. Gallen mafia allegedly broke up around 2006; Martini died in 2012.
That’s when the déjà vu began.
“When Cardinal Martini talked about focusing on the councils and synods he knew how long and difficult it would be to go in that direction. Gently, but firmly and tenaciously.”
It was October 2013, and a new pope, Francis, was telling journalist Eugenio Scalfari of his plans to copy Martini’s focus on “councils and synods.” Soon, Pope Francis announced a synod on the family—and tapped St. Gallen alumnus Cardinal Walter Kasper to deliver an agenda-setting address at a key consistory. The subject of Kasper’s crusade was Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, which Ratzinger had formally condemned through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994.
The eerie part was that in 2009 Martini had himself told Scalfari that his dream was to hold, first of all, a council on the divorced (Scalfari, Il Dio Unico e la Società Moderna, p. 21). The opening synodal maneuver of the Francis pontificate had been presaged, years in advance, by another Scalfari interview.
In 2015, vaticanista Sandro Magister began decoding Martini’s 1999 “dream” speech as a blueprint for the Francis pontificate. Spotting the uncanny symmetry between Martini’s old wish list and Francis’s synods, Magister accurately predicted that the next synod after the family synods would address the ordination of married men.
Meanwhile, in 2016, vaticanista Edward Pentin—author of a key book on the rigging of Pope Francis’s first synod—published a report highlighting concerns about synodality’s subversive potential. As Pentin put it:
[S]ome are concerned that [synodality] is essentially ‘protestantizing’ the Church, turning it into a quasi-democratic republic rather than a papal monarchy that safeguards and defends Church doctrine.
One Church observer, an expert in ecclesiology… believes synodality as it is currently being discussed has Trotzkyist connotations (‘permanent synodality’ being synonymous with ‘permanent revolution’).
The current emphasis on synodality partly derives from the aspirations of the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini who hoped for ‘a sort of permanent council of regents for the Church, beside the Pope.’ He was one of the first to propose the model of a ‘synodal’ Church in which the Pope no longer governs as an absolute monarch.
Which means that the upcoming “synod on synodality” isn’t just a self-referential bureaucratic exercise.
“Given the tensions and acrimony associated with recent synods, and especially the national ‘Synodal Path’ underway in Germany, which critics say could lead the country’s Church into schism, apprehension is growing about the disunifying effects of this kind of governance and its tendency to be used to introduce heterodoxy into the Church,” Pentin notes.
The official preparatory document of the synod on synodality does little to soothe these fears. Mentioning some version of the terms “synod,” “synodal,” or “synodality” over sixty-five times, the document seems fixated on the very concept that Martini wanted to weaponize. The accompanying Vademecum text, notably, alludes to the controversial “synodal journey” in Germany. But it does not condemn this potentially schismatic energy; rather, it urges the country to “creatively articulate the synodal processes already underway.”
When the preparatory document, meanwhile, goes on to suggest “remaining open to the surprises that the Spirit will certainly prepare for us,” the déjà vu is undeniable: in Night Conversations, Martini had already talked of being “open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit.”
Because, almost a decade after his death, Martini still won’t let go. The synod on synodality will be yet another battle to escape the hold of a dream that refuses to die. With a synod about the very weapon of the St. Gallen mafia—a synod apparently approving the German path to schism—this could be the end game: Martini’s dream come true.