I reviewed all of my diocese’s synod responses. Three missing elements could point the way forward for the church.
As one of the coordinators of our archdiocesan consultation process for the Synod on Synodality in Chicago, I faced the daunting task of going through a foot-high stack of papers that represented the voices of many people. I read and eventually tried to synthesize everything that had been submitted. In the process, I gained a deeper understanding of synodality as well as a sense of the tasks and challenges that face us in the church.
Bishop Robert McElroy recently made a persuasive case in America for the need to carry the work of the synod into the future and to guard against viewing it as a closed-end process. My experience confirms his intuition. We face an immense formational task that involves helping the church to claim its reality as a people on the road together, rooted in the Gospel and inspired to carry that Gospel into the world.
One way to understand synodal formation is to note, as I did in the course of reading our archdiocesan-wide feedback, what seemed to be missing. This via negativa can open up a positive way to understand the tasks and challenges ahead of us. Let me share three significant deficits that I noted and which can, in fact, point us in positive directions.
In so many ways, the synodal process that is deeply embedded in our history has also become unfamiliar to us.
An exercise in prayer
In our consultation, most people had not accurately or fully grasped the path of synodality as Pope Francis had presented it. For so many respondents, the synod consultation was about figuring things out or sharing a personal opinion about how things ought to be, or some form of need-based planning. The Holy Father’s hope for the synodal process aligned things much differently.
For Pope Francis, everything about the synodal path begins in prayer. Out of their prayer, believers encounter each other. In their encounters, they are summoned to listen deeply to each other. And finally, in their listening, they discover where the Holy Spirit might be prompting them to move. The essential elements are prayer, encounter, listening and discernment. This process is a clear reflection of the way the early church gathered and organized itself, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, and of the very best moments of the life of the church throughout her history.
But in so many ways, the synodal process that is deeply embedded in our history has also become unfamiliar to us. The gravitational pull seems directed to figuring things out, sharing opinions or doing need-based planning. Clearly, the formational task is to help the church retrieve that synodal spirit that marks her earliest beginnings and her best moments.
This growing and unfolding formation replicates the beginnings of the church as chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles.
From the church, not to the church
As I studied the synod responses, I also discovered another anomaly that future synodal formation will need to address. As people offered their comments with true sincerity and, sometimes, with great passion, their way of speaking gave me pause. At a certain point, I realized that so many of the respondents were speaking more to the church rather than from the church. In other words, they commented on the church as if it were an object outside of them.
This is in sharp contrast to what Pope Francis has in mind. We are the subjects, the actors and—in his words—the protagonists in this process. In other words, we are the church. And in a synodal context, then, we speak from the church. All this means much more than quibbling over prepositions. From a formational perspective, it involves carefully cultivating an internalized sense of identity with the church.
After studying the synod responses and reflecting on them, I can more clearly see the need the people of God have for synodal formation.
The third and final deficit that I found in the responses was something that Pope Francis has called “ecclesial introversion;” a sticky attachment to the internal life of the church and its structural-institutional organization. The whole point of synodality is to be “on the road together” in mission, going outside of ourselves. So many comments in the responses spoke to recommended changes in church life or, even more accurately, within church life. The sense of outward mission was generally faint. Formation for mission, an ever-expansive sense of our purpose in the world, needs to take hold of our communities of faith.
After considering these three directions for synodal formation—retrieving the true dynamics of synodality, reclaiming our agency in the church and revitalizing a sense of outward mission—I also realized that these very same directions apply in their own way to the eucharistic revival that we hope to foster in our nation. The movement of prayer-encounter-listening-discernment happens when we meet the Lord and each other in Word and Sacrament. That sense of being subjects and active agents of the church is the key to full and active participation in the sacramental mysteries. The awareness of mission in the context of liturgy is the perennial call to integrate worship and life beyond the temple. Synodal formation, then, is eucharistic formation; although it will take more reflection to work out this integrated approach.
So where does all this lead us? After studying the synod responses and reflecting on them, I can more clearly see the need the people of God have for synodal formation. I recognize that synodal formation can also rebound in a much-anticipated Eucharistic revival. All this is clear. What is not so clear is how exactly to foster synodal formation.
Clearly, it cannot be reduced to exhortations from the pulpit, prepackaged programs or a slew of written materials. If this kind of formation is to happen, I suspect it will be by way of a Gospel-inspired leavening. Some people will grasp the point of synodality and how it authentically unfolds. They may be few, but they are already among us. They need encouragement to support each other and deepen their sense of church. At a certain point, they will reach a critical mass and then be able to extend their energy and conviction to others.
In fact, this growing and unfolding formation replicates the beginnings of the church as chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles. That holy book of Sacred Scripture tells us that it can happen today, because it has happened before. That is, indeed, good news. It also hints that the promise of the Second Vatican Council for a new Pentecost could be within reach.