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Jim McDermottMay 10, 2023
Pope Francis leads a meeting with the presidents and coordinators of the regional assemblies of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Nov. 28, 2022. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, attended the meeting. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

When I first heard about the Synod on Synodality, I had two reactions. First: What does that term mean? But then, thinking about the Synod on the Family and the Synod on the Amazon: Who cares what it means? Really interesting things happen when Pope Francis does synods. Let’s do this!

But over the last 18 months, I’m surprised to find that it’s my confusion about the synodal process that has grown more than my enthusiasm for what is being discussed.

Part of this is a matter of the time this project is taking. Three years is a long time to be in an ongoing international process of conversation and prayer. (And adding a year to the process after it was already underway was definitely not a confidence builder.) But more than that, I’ve found the language of the synod increasingly frustrating.

I’m surprised to find that it’s my confusion about the synodal process that has grown more than my enthusiasm for what is being discussed.

We’re about halfway through the process at this point. It’s a good moment to step back and make some adjustments. As a friend and supporter of what the synod is trying to accomplish, I have a few communications suggestions.

1. Simplify your language. I know how hilarious it is to have a Jesuit saying to anyone, “Could you please stop using language that no one else understands?” I mean, does anyone really know what the magis is at this point?

Still, when people connected to the synod start talking about it, I feel like I’ve stumbled into a forgotten chapter of the Gospel of John about meetings, the same words and phrases repeated over and over in endless combinations. A synod is just a meeting. Usually it’s a meeting of bishops to advise the pope. This time it’s going to involve a lot more people than that (which is great), but still, what we’re talking about is just an international meeting. So can we say that, at least now and then?

The bigger issue regards the topic of this gathering. If a synod is a meeting, then this appears to be a meeting about meetings. What exactly does that mean? As a priest I have always found presiding at Masses for children really helpful. Talking to children forces you to speak in simpler terms. And often my homilies end up being better as a result: clearer and also more engaging.

If synod conveners had to explain to 10-year-olds this coming meeting, what would they say?

If a synod is a meeting, then this appears to be a meeting about meetings. What exactly does that mean?

Here’s an attempt from me: What we’re talking about is being better at being church, or being a church that is more of a home for everybody. A church is like a family; we have to pay attention to what’s going on with one another, not only because we want to be loving and open in the way Jesus was, but because we know that the other people in our family have their own needs and experiences that God gave them. Just as in a family, if we’re going to be a church that we can all call home, we have to make sure that we hear and learn from those needs and experiences.

Is that oversimplified? Sure. The point is to talk about these upcoming meetings in ways that are concrete and relatable.

2. Claim your successes. Clearly one of the biggest challenges in this process is the Catholics, both lay and ordained, who are so vocally opposing it. They went to the Synod on the Family, or read about it, they saw that Francis was willing to consider such things as giving Communion to people who are divorced, and it has them anxious about what else the pope might be willing to consider.

And what they’ve seen in the last year and a half has only made them more concerned. The German Synodal Path, which has been the subject of some strong critiques by Francis, suggested some provocative reforms regarding blessings for gay couples. The Australian Plenary Council saw lay attendees temporarily shut down the proceedings over a decision by the bishops not to support proposals on the place of women in the church, including one to support the inclusion of female deacons, if Pope Francis were to approve such a course of action. The results from the North American continental meetings showed strong calls to welcome women, L.G.B.T. Catholics and young people. And now we have the announcement that women and other non-clerics are going to be able to vote at the coming synod.

From the point of view of the work of the synod, such frank discussions are major successes.

But from the point of view of the work of the synod, such frank discussions are major successes. People are honestly expressing their experiences and desires regarding life in the church. The fact that some of those expressions reflect struggles with Catholic moral teaching and don’t line up with the way we’ve always done things is not a bad thing or evidence of an anti-Catholic mentality, but rather a sign of people’s willingness to really give themselves to this process and believe in the church.

This is what those connected to the synod need to be saying in clear and unambiguous terms. To stay silent or waffle on the significance of these developments is to let the synod’s opponents define the terms of failure and success.

3. Consider your style of presentation. It’s very clear that many of the people involved with the synod are creative people invested in a process-based approach. Theirs is “the journey is the destination” school of thought. But many people (especially Americans) are not like that. They think in terms of clear steps with measurable outcomes. And after 18 months many of those people still can’t figure out what outcomes the synod is aiming for.

To some extent, the synod can’t avoid that critique. You can’t say what you’re going to hear until you’ve taken the time to listen. And as those connected to the synod have tried to explain, this process is not meant to produce a package of reforms, but to enable the church to have a deeper freedom and openness to discuss challenging issues.

But a goal like that, which is inherently hard to measure, may make it more difficult for more results- or business-minded people to immediately understand or feel comfortable with the process. That’s why it’s important that other elements of the synod’s self-presentation don’t suggest other reasons for doubt.

A small example: If I go to the synod’s homepage, I can find links to a clear and simple set of steps that the synod is following—the Opening Celebration, Local/National Stage, Continental Stage and the Universal Stage. Behind each of these links is a mostly visual representation of what’s going on. The Opening Celebration page has photos from the event, along with links to texts in various languages; the Local/National Stage has a flow chart of the stages that were followed, with explanations of each. The Continental Stage offers a map of the world with the sites of different continental assemblies. Clicking on the map, you can go to the home pages of those assemblies and see what’s going on (which is very cool).

A good corrective for some of these communication issues is to keep looking back to Pope Francis.

But alongside all of that very useful and accessible information is a design style that at times seems almost child-like. The logo and some areas of the home page use a shaky Comic Sans-style font, which doesn’t match the rest of the site. Some of the artwork, which appears to have been done in an oil pastel, has a certain Crayola-like aesthetic. Some of these choices may simply indicate styles different than those common in the United States. I’d certainly argue that the overall design idea is to offer a less packaged, more accessible and perhaps more youthful approach to church. But I think at first glance it could also be read by some as slightly unserious.

Dig in a little bit and you realize that a lot of thought has gone into making this site user-friendly. (I was particularly impressed by how succinctly the Local/National page explained the many steps involved in that process.) But it’s that first impression that may be reason for concern—and may stop many people from investing the effort to dig in.

A good corrective for some of these communication issues is to keep looking back to Pope Francis. One of the things that has made him so effective as pope is that he speaks in ways that ordinary Catholics understand. Rarely do we get some puzzling theological allusion or doctrinaire argument (other than sometimes when he starts talking about women). Instead he talks like normal people do.

The “language” of his actions, the gestures he makes in public, whether that means washing the feet of a prisoner, blessing someone who is ill or delighting in the meanderings of a rambunctious child, is once again entirely comprehensible—and often viscerally moving.

As the work of the synod goes forward, perhaps the question for those involved with promoting it should be: How would Francis communicate this? Because sometimes our enthusiasm throws up blinders that prevent us from seeing the fullness of reality. And instead of starting with where people are, we ask them to do things on our terms.

It’s not the craziest of ideas. A leap of faith is baked into the project of church. I’m pretty sure somebody important once said, “Come, follow me.” But it’s also true that first he went down to the Jordan and stepped into the water and was baptized by the people he wanted to serve.

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