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Ashley McKinlessOctober 05, 2023
A stained-glass window illustrating the Holy Spirit is seen in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington, Del., May 27, 2021. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Yesterday, the opening day of the Synod on Synodality, I woke up early to get ready for Mass with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square. I had high expectations for the event: It was a beautiful, sunny morning in Rome, and as a newly minted member of the Vatican press corps, I’d have an exquisite, birds eye view of the synod’s opening liturgy.

Well, Pope Francis has warned against coming to the synod with fixed plans or agendas, and my morning certainly did not go according to plan. As Zac, Sebastian and I made the short walk from our Airbnb to the basilica, my stomach began to turn, maybe from something I ate or just the stress of traveling. Outside the final security check, I turned to a gentleman who lives in Rome I had met just minutes before to ask where the nearest restroom was. I had barely finished my question when, to my horror, I found myself throwing up all over the uneven square stones of St. Peter’s Square surrounded by hundreds of expectant pilgrims.

Not an auspicious start to my synodal journey.

But maybe it was also a chance for me to let go of other expectations and preconceptions I had brought to the synod. Because as excited as I was to attend the opening Mass, I also came to Rome with some uneasiness about the synod as a whole. I like structure and clarity, and the synod has been nothing but messy and hard to pin down. I worried that Catholics who are more skeptical of Pope Francis’ vision would either be absent or afraid to speak up and that the synod discussions would not reflect the full diversity of views in the church. I feared that Catholics who expected this synod to lead to major changes to church teaching and practice, whether around women or L.G.B.T. people, would come away disappointed and deflated.

In his opening address to synod participants later in the day, Pope Francis said that this gathering is an opportunity for the church to press pause. “The Church has paused, just as the Apostles paused after Good Friday, on that Holy Saturday, locked away: but they did it out of fear, we do not.” Now, I’m not saying my sudden sickness was caused by the Holy Spirit, but it was a chance for me to hit pause and try to shed some of my own fears.

Sitting alone back in the apartment, I livestreamed the Mass and tried to let Pope Francis’ words sink in: “The Holy Spirit often shatters our expectations to create something new that surpasses our predictions and negativity. Let us open ourselves to him and call upon him, the protagonist, the Holy Spirit.” As hard as it is for me to give up my expectations and desire for control, I have found it becomes a lot easier when I ask: Who do I trust more, myself or the Holy Spirit?

(Oh, and don’t worry, I am feeling much better now.)

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