The first phase of the global synod has come to a close. What have we learned?
This summer the first phase of the Synod on Synodality comes to a close. Bishops, diocesan staff and synod coordinators are now synthesizing the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the pains and the graces that have been heard, spoken and shared by Catholics and people of good will from every corner of the world. They will soon add their reports to a growing body of input that, taken together, is the fruit of the largest consultative process in human history. As this unique global experience of listening concludes, there is great opportunity to consider what graces have been poured out, what we have learned and how we can continue the momentum we have created.
When Pope Francis opened the synod, he sought to include everyone, reminding us that we are “all protagonists.” We were invited not as passive recipients but as active participants tethered to the Holy Spirit working in each of our lives. Sharing our deepest hopes and disappointments with one another and with the wider church has often required courage and honesty. Listening to the experiences and opinions of others different from us has been an opportunity to exercise compassion and empathy, to reconsider our sure conclusions and to practice inclusion and reconciliation. Great graces have already emerged simply from creating a space where we could hear one another and be heard.
When Pope Francis opened the synod, we were invited not as passive recipients but as active participants tethered to the Holy Spirit working in each of our lives.
Together, we learned to recognize and articulate the Spirit’s movements in our lives, in the church and in the world. Many parishioners met one another in a new way through honest dialogue about our shared faith community. Still others engaged the marginalized, the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless and those who no longer practice their faith with us. These conversations have often provided perspective, insight and an opening for a further relationship.
When the synod process began, I gathered a group of over 100 lay volunteers from Jesuit universities and parishes who offered their time and experience to train more than 2,000 parish leaders across the country in the process of spiritual conversation, the method for consultation recommended in the synod preparatory documents. The spirit of honest engagement, the tenderness of the sharing and the commitment to service were a great inspiration.
The trainings themselves were moments of grace, as the facilitators-in-training discussed together their experiences of church. Many exchanged contact information, prayers of support and encouragement for the journey ahead of them. Thousands of listeners, facilitators, notetakers and synod coordinators dove into this new task with enthusiasm, sincerity and zeal. Now they have an abundance of experience to reflect upon.
Over the past month I have spoken with people all over the world about their synodal consultation experience. While the content of their conversations is fascinating, I have also marveled at the shared universal experience and the sense of communion they revealed. I have talked with people from Minnesota and Micronesia, California and Cameroon, Indiana and India, Australia and Austria, and all spoke of the gifts they received through the listening experience that we now share.
This synodal experience now functions as a point of universality similar to the Mass.
This synodal experience now functions as a point of universality similar to the Mass. Anywhere you go in the world you can share in the same eucharistic feast with a Catholic community. This is a powerful witness to our Catholic communion. Now we have another experience of church in common. You can go anywhere in the world and discuss the experience of synodal listening. This shared practice has strengthened our communion and experience of being a universal church.
In these ways and more, grace has already been poured out. But like an effective exercise program, empathetic listening must become a routine practice, not a singular activity. As then Bishop Robert McElroy wrote in the July/August issue of America, "Once the reports to Washington have been sent, there will be a strong and natural institutional tendency in most dioceses to let the process of synodality at local levels go dormant until after the pope’s apostolic exhortation on the universal synod is released in 2024.”
Choosing such a course of inaction will certainly “frustrate and stunt” the movement that has been made through the efforts of so many in this recent consultation process as well as the decades of progress made in the areas of collaboration, shared responsibility and lay empowerment since the Second Vatican Council.
You can go anywhere in the world and discuss the experience of synodal listening.
Now, while the church is convoked in synod, there is a great opportunity to build upon these graces and strengthen our practice of empathetic listening, communal discernment and co-responsibility. One way that dioceses, parishes, universities and other Catholic organizations might continue to build upon this good work is by becoming schools of listening and discernment.
Christian discipleship is life with the Spirit. Karl Rahner, S.J., a primary architect of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church,” once described the human person as “the self-communication of God.” If we believe that this is the foundation of our operative theological anthropology, then we must take seriously that the Holy Spirit is in relationship with every human heart. A great task of the church is not so much to provide the one correct answer to every possible theological question, but to offer practices, methods and mentoring for discerning the will of the Spirit in our individual and communal lives of faith.
The synod is demonstrating a participatory process of communal discernment for the universal church. This is also an opportunity to further establish discernment as a cornerstone of the church’s life and teaching. This can begin today by continuing the honest and courageous conversations begun in the synod consultations. Parishes, campuses, religious congregations, dioceses and other Catholic organizations could immediately convene sessions online and in person to report on the emerging themes of the consultations and consider together how the Holy Spirit might be prompting them to respond right now.
Parish and diocesan pastoral councils are organs of synodality encouraged by Vatican II to consider the call of the Gospel in light of the “signs of the times” in their local place. Councils can continue inclusive, empathetic listening sessions as a concrete way to practice and teach communal discernment. In this way council members and clergy can deepen their own listening skills and practice of theological reflection and can train the muscles of synodality.
In addition to communal discernment, clergy and lay leaders can support individual discernment through the practice of spiritual direction.
Communal discernment can also develop in simple, creative, inclusive ways. When the pandemic began in early 2020, I started a weekly virtual group meeting with some fellow parishioners called “Breaking Open the Word.” Each Saturday morning, we log on, share our prayers for the world, read the Sunday Gospel and engage in a spiritual conversation around the readings. We listen to one another and learn how to articulate what moved us in the readings. We offer comments on what struck us as we listened to one another, and we ask how the Holy Spirit is calling us to further our discipleship. We have been going strong every Saturday for over two years. It is a new and important practice of faith that has strengthened our community and helped us learn how to listen with curiosity and above all, how to trust that the Holy Spirit is with us.
In addition to communal discernment, clergy and lay leaders can support individual discernment through the practice of spiritual direction. My parish is blessed to have a pool of trained lay spiritual directors and a parish-based spiritual director formation program. Spiritual direction is a valuable and potent ministry of listening and encounter. Through this individual encounter with a spiritual guide, people learn to give language to their spiritual experience and to discern the movement of the Spirit in their lives.
Spiritual direction and other forms of individual spiritual encounter, such as retreat ministry, pastoral conversations and mutual dialogue, demonstrate the potential of a synodal church that recognizes the Holy Spirit as a creative, engaged and dynamic presence in our midst calling us to the fullness of life and trustful surrender to the will of God. In these ways and more, Catholics can work out our synodal muscles and continue our shared pilgrimage of discovery and renewal. If we put in the effort, we can become more and more a vibrant and healthy church that is empathetic and responsive, focused and yet flexible, rooted in tradition, tethered to the Spirit and ready to respond with creativity, engagement and curiosity to the myriad challenges we face.
Over the next two years we can continue to become a synodal church, but only if we choose to practice and build upon the grace that is already being poured out on us in our journey together.