Guess who else is attending the synod? The devil.
The other day, I realized something: The devil will no doubt be a participant in the Synod on Synodality, even if as a non-voting member.
That should come as no surprise. Whenever something holy and important happens, the adversary tries to subvert it by attempting to invade human freedom, twist it, engage it, and achieve a perverse result. Let me explain.
A few years ago, I wrote a book titled The Devil You Don’t Know: Recognizing and Resisting Evil in Everyday Life. My experience as a struggling disciple, a teacher of spirituality and a spiritual director prompted me to share what I had come to know about the ordinary work of the devil as we make our individual and collective journeys through life. My conclusion was simple. There are four principal works of the devil (who, as Legion, goes by the pronouns they/them/their): deception, division, diversion and discouragement. The synod presents a ripe field for the devil’s mischief.
Why? Because the stakes are so high.
The synod presents a ripe field for the devil’s mischief. Why? Because the stakes are so high.
As I understand the synod, its origins lie in the Second Vatican Council. More particularly, the words of Pope Saint Paul VI at the opening of the second session of the council, on Sept. 29, 1963, in which he laid out the vision of the council that continues to unfold and be fully realized, and now is taken up in the Synod on Synodality. Paul VI said:
The Church’s awareness of herself will gain clarity as she stays ever more faithfully attached to the words and teaching of Christ, as she embraces with holy memory the proven decrees of Holy Tradition, and as she submits to the interior light of the Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit, it seems, wants the Church in our time to strive with all her energies to make herself clearly recognized by humanity for what she truly is.
In the vision of Paul VI, Vatican II was about the church claiming a deeper sense of herself as she truly is. And that consciousness would allow her to be recognized by the world as the instrument of God’s salvation. The Synod on Synodality carries on this vision. The stakes are high. Indeed, they are of the highest spiritual order with multiple implications for the church’s mission to a troubled and deeply wounded world.
Because the work of the Synod on Synodality is indeed a holy work and destined to advance the sacred mission that the Lord has entrusted to his church, there is no doubt that temptations will inevitably be part of the process. The evil one will have designs to derail the synod. At the risk of appearing to have a special Mephistophelian inside track, I will suggest some of the potential areas for mischief using the framework I noted earlier: deception, division, diversion and discouragement.
The temptation to diversion holds the promise of an easier way, more tangible results and a more satisfying sense of control.
The father of lies is adept at framing good things in misleading ways. Notice how we have regularly heard Pope Francis say that the synod is not about this or not about that. For example, it is not about changing doctrine or structures. When the Holy Father tries to correct distortions of the real meaning of the synod, he is addressing the temptation to veer from the true sense of the synod; he is naming both the outright and subtle deceptions that can easily take hold of us.
However, that deception does not only work at the macro level of a generalized theory of what the synod should be. Deception can take hold of us at the personal level as well. That can be detected in statements such as, “It’s about (finally) having and raising my voice in the church” or “It’s about sharing my experience, pure and simple.” There is some truth here but, even more, there is deceptive distortion.
The only response to deception—as Pope Francis seems to know so well—is the truth. Go back to God’s word, go back to the wisdom of the tradition and go back to the voices of the women and men of faith who have gone before us. In these sources, we will find a sure compass to stay on course with the truth.
The response to diversion is to stay focused, as Jesus stayed focused in the desert. He kept returning to the word of God.
The diabolos, by definition (from the Greek dia-ballein), splits and divides. Whenever and wherever people are set against each other, it is the result of diabolic efforts to which they offer their free cooperation and collaboration. The synod can be a ripe field for the devil’s work of division because the synod assembly is so varied and different. And differences, as we know, can easily morph into divisions with a little prompting.
Think about the synod participants—clerical and lay, male and female, from different cultures and geographies, speaking various languages and having diverse histories. The tempter will want them to feel more apart than together because of their differences and perhaps, with a few deft moves, will try to make them feel excluded, resentful and even superior to others—anything to drive a wedge and divide people from each other.
The response to the great temptation to division can, of course, be found in our faith in the Lord. Beyond and within all our differences, we are one in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. More specifically, the synodal assembly needs to have a deep and shared experience of that union in the Lord. That can happen through a synodal experience of centering on the Eucharist, one that will pivot participants away from dangerous divisions and into an intimate sense of union in the one bread and the one cup.
When the tempter approaches Jesus in the desert as Jesus is about to embark on his public ministry, Satan’s strategy is not deception or division but rather diversion. Satan tries to dissuade Jesus from following the Messianic path of the suffering servant and obedient son of the Father. This is a diversion from the true mission of Jesus.
The temptation to diversion holds the promise of an easier way, more tangible results and a more satisfying sense of control. That same kind of temptation to diversion can easily invade the synod. Rather than holding fast to a surrendering and risky process of listening to the Holy Spirit, participants can be drawn to more manageable and controllable directions. They might borrow, for example, from secular endeavors and—instead of spiritual discernment—engage in planning, problem solving and crisis management. All this will appear to be so much more concrete and controllable than attending to the Spirit who moves among the members of the synod. It will also lead away from the holy purpose and mission of the synod.
The response to diversion is to stay focused, as Jesus stayed focused in the desert. He kept returning to the word of God. He clung tightly to his identity as the beloved son of the loving father. Similarly, the synod assembly will need to return regularly to the holy purpose and mission of the gathering. Participants can remind each other of that purpose. These same participants need to stay grounded in what I would call the democracy of the Holy Spirit. I mean that they are all equally open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and that they ought to expect that the Spirit will indeed prompt them. This awareness is another way of avoiding diversion.
If news stories about the synod are accurate, signs of subversion are already present even before the formal assembly.
The temptation to discouragement comes from the noonday devil, and it is particularly fraught with peril. Discouragement is linked to acedia, a tired and listless spirit that can take hold of us after we have been on the journey for a while. The special danger of discouragement is that, if we give in, everything goes, and we are left without hope. The synodal assembly would be well advised to be on the lookout for discouragement. Of course, it will not be manifest at the spirited beginnings of the assembly. After a while, however, a kind of emotional heaviness can take hold, along with a sense of futility. Questions will follow, like: Does this really make a difference? Why the glacial pace? How do our efforts address the sorry state of our world?
There are no simple formulas to address the temptation to discouragement. One truly important remedy that the synod would do well to apply is a steady invocation of the Holy Spirit, that is, calling on the Spirit’s help and guidance. It represents far more than a plea for help. It is an acknowledgment that we do not accomplish what we need to accomplish by the dint of our own efforts and cleverness. To call on the Spirit reminds us that the entire enterprise is in God’s hands, not ours. In the context of the synod, if we rely on our ability to accomplish things, we will be profoundly discouraged. If we allow ourselves to surrender that mindset and rely on the Spirit, we will grow in hope.
A trustworthy guide
If news stories about the synod are accurate, signs of subversion are already present even before the formal assembly. At the same time, I am even more confident that the devil will be unable to undo the synod. We have in Pope Francis a holy father, a spiritual father, who knows the workings of the adversary. He will guide and direct the assembly with well-practiced skills of spiritual discernment.
For the rest of us, it is a matter of prayer and fasting—the fervent petition to be delivered from evil. In the end, we have the Lord’s very own words: “Take courage. I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)