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Edward J. WeisenburgerOctober 05, 2023
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, pose for a photo during a pre-synod gathering of youth delegates in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

To come to a richer understanding of the upcoming Synod on Synodality, it is helpful to recall that the tenure of Pope Francis is deeply rooted in his formation and experience as a member of the Society of Jesus. While now serving as bishop of Rome and universal shepherd, Pope Francis remains a faithful confrere of the Jesuit community whose mission is captured in the belief of its founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, that it is possible “to find God in all things.”

This belief is a reflection of the model of spirituality developed by St. Ignatius that is grounded in the ability to listen attentively to our experience as disciples of the Lord. Within that listening experience, one then “discerns the promptings of grace” brought about by the presence of the Holy Spirit, who helps us to discover the mysterious ways of the Lord amid the joys, blessings, sorrows and tragedies of life.

It is not insignificant that the verb “to discern” comes from the Latin word discernere, which carries the connotation of “to listen,” and more profoundly, to listen deeply and with care. In this profound and careful listening, we can distinguish the authentic call of divine grace from the distortions of our selfish egos and desires. Mary, the mother of God, is the lasting and finest model of this pattern of discernment—this deep listening to God’s call. At the Annunciation, she listens attentively as she attends to the angel’s invitation.

St. Luke captures the spirit of Mary’s discernment in his beautiful phrase: “She kept these things in her heart.” St. Thomas Aquinas notes that Mary demonstrates the true spirit of faith in her “pondering with assent.” Surely we exercise this holy discernment when we too enter into this “pondering with assent,” not only in our personal response but in our communal response to the Lord’s call as well.

Within this rich theological heritage, it is clear that in the present moment, Pope Francis is calling us to be a truly listening church—a church of discernment. He invites all of the baptized, the entire Body of Christ, to engage in an ongoing process of discernment which he describes as the “synodal path.” The key to understanding what Pope Francis means by the term “synodal path,” is rooted in the Greek word synodos, defined by the pope as “traveling together on a common journey.”

Synodality does not mean an erosion of the authority of the Holy Father—who retains the authority to maintain the unity of the church—or the college of bishops in union with him.

A community of discernment

The story of how the church in its earliest days addressed the challenge of welcoming new members into the company of disciples is richly instructive. The 15th chapter of Acts of the Apostles describes how the disciples, including Sts. Peter and Paul, wrestled with the issue of new, non-Jewish converts to the faith. Were these new members bound by the strictures of the Mosaic covenant, including the practice of circumcision? Or, was there a path, informed by grace, whereby the criteria for welcome and membership could be appropriately modified without compromising commitment to the authentic demands of the Gospel? After much deliberation and “deep listening,” accommodation was granted to our gentile ancestors in the faith.

We should be careful to note that the result of this deep discernment was not to overturn or depart from ancient tradition. Rather, it flowed from the Spirit-filled insight that rules and practices—essential for maintaining order and communion—must not be seen as ends in themselves but in service to the greater good of the whole. The results of this discernment also reveal how our ancestors in the church viewed the early Christian community: as incarnate, like its savior. The community dwells in time and space, and therefore it must confront the challenges of new realities while maintaining continuity with the authentic wisdom of its tradition.

For an incarnate church, this kind of careful and critical discernment is always necessary, as echoed in the writings of St. John Henry Newman. It was Newman who famously wrote about authentic development in doctrine, leaving us with that oft-quoted dictum: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Cardinal John Henry Newman: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Church teaching and synodality

Almost 11 years into the papacy of Pope Francis, certain signature themes have become clear. He has written powerfully of the importance of the grace of baptism for all Catholics. In doing so, he reminds us of the ecclesial vision of the Second Vatican Council, and specifically of its magnificent document on the church, “Lumen Gentium,”that we are a pilgrim people on a long journey together. The goal of our journey is to continue the work of Christ in building the kingdom of God.

Pope Francis has further stressed the magnanimous and merciful love of God that reaches out to those who are on the margins—the poor, the anguished, the distressed. In “Amoris Laetitia,” his beautiful meditation on marriage and family life, he emphasized that “no one can be lost forever.” He teaches us that the healing power of God’s mercy is extended to the “care for our common home,” the earth and all of creation that God has entrusted to us.

In his powerful encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis notes that everything is connected. “Fratelli Tutti” centers on the theme that we are all “brothers and sisters,” and that this solidarity unites us in the search for truth and fidelity to the Gospel. Finally, he teaches that in embracing our solidarity in Christ we can experience the deep gladness of God’s love, a joy expounded in his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium.” To the observant eye, the attributes of synodality are present throughout each of these documents. Together, they point to an ancient path of communal discernment for the church to adopt once again in this critical age.

It is also worth noting that the Holy Father’s current call to synodality is in clear continuity with previous synods of the church. It was in 1965 that Pope St. Paul VI requested the establishment of a regular Synod of Bishops to keep alive the positive spirit of Vatican II. He viewed this approach as a perpetual means to serve the communion and collegiality of the world’s bishops with the Holy Father.

It is critical to recognize that synodality is not some novel idea, but rather, one that is deeply rooted in our Catholic tradition—witnessed as far back as those synods associated with St. Augustine, the Synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).

It is critical to recognize that synodality is not some novel idea, but rather, one that is deeply rooted in our Catholic tradition.

What synodality is not

While I have stressed above the blessings of synodality—a spiritual practice of authentic discernment—it is perhaps helpful also to note what synodality is not. It is not a political process in which there are winners and losers. We must not think of synodality as a power game whereby those with differing theological visions of the church and its mission contend for control and dominance. It is not a plebiscite whereby the doctrines and authentic Gospel teachings of the church are subjected to parliamentary debate for approval or disapproval.

Sadly, some in the church—bishops and prominent Catholic writers among them—have sowed seeds of dissension about the synodal path. Some contend that synodality is a strategy to undermine the unity of the church in her teaching and worship. I find that to be an ahistorical caricature of synodality.

Pope Francis is not taking a wrecking ball to the church we love. Rather, he is acting as a universal pastor in calling upon each of the baptized to take responsibility for the mission of the church. He is urging us to go out to what he calls the “peripheries”—those places of material and spiritual brokenness that wound not only our brothers and sisters but the planet itself. The true goal of the synodal path today, as evidenced equally at the origins of the church, is greater discipleship and fidelity to Christ.

Perhaps such an approach requires each of us to move beyond our personal “comfort zones,” just as Acts of the Apostles records how St. Peter himself was challenged in his day. Indeed, the Gospel is a constant summons to ongoing conversion in our own lives, but it is also a summons to conversion in our collective lives as men and women of the church. In short, authentic discernment is critically necessary if we are to hear and respond to the Spirit speaking to us today, and the spiritual fruits of such discernment are nothing less than an asceticism of humble openness to the truth we might hear.

The Gospel is a constant summons to ongoing conversion in our own lives, but it is also a summons to conversion in our collective lives as men and women of the church.

Anchored in prayer and truth

Among the most important issues taken up by the bishops at Vatican II was one that is often overlooked today. That critical issue is the importance of governance, especially that governance of the church that flows from the relationship between the pope and the bishops of the church. The pope and the bishops together form a “college,” so that the wholeness or “catholicity” of the church in her faith, life, teaching and witness is preserved and celebrated in each local church.

In solidarity with the pope, each local bishop makes present the universal mission of the Gospel as it is lived in each local church. Dialogue and communication are essential for bishops to exercise their servant-leadership role on behalf of God’s people, always in communion with the pope, as reflected in the ancient and venerable principle, “Ubi Petrus est, ibi est Ecclesia,” “Where Peter is, there is the church.”

This principle of collegiality and dialogue is once again being extended in our time via the “synodal path.” Through the practice of synodality, the full membership of the baptized is allowed to exercise its baptismal calling by participating in a holy discernment. Synodality does not mean an erosion of the authority of the Holy Father—who retains the authority to maintain the unity of the church—or the college of bishops in union with him. However, relying on the wisdom that emerges from the practice of discernment by the entire people of God in union with our Holy Father, that spiritual endeavor of deep listening found at the heart of the synodal path will ensure that decisions in the church are anchored in prayer and truth.

As we enter into this synodal journey, I suggest that we remember the “Adsumus, Sancte Spiritus” prayer (Latin for “We stand before you, Holy Spirit”). It is the prayer that began every session of Vatican II, and it was this prayer that was prayed before each of the listening sessions throughout the worldwide church in preparation for the upcoming synod. It is a prayer that implores the guidance of the Holy Spirit—calling upon the Holy Spirit to be at work in us so that we might be a community and a people of grace.

We stand before you, Holy Spirit,
As we gather together in your name.
With you alone to guide us,
Make Yourself at home in our hearts;
Teach us the way we must go
And how we are to pursue it.
We are weak and sinful;
Do not let us promote disorder.
Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path
Nor partiality influence our actions.
Let us find in You our unity
So that we may journey together to eternal life
And not stray from the way of truth
And what is right.
All this we ask of You,
Who are at work in every place and time,
In the communion of the Father and the Son,
Forever and ever. Amen.

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