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Zac DavisOctober 19, 2023
Left: James Harden plays for the Philadelphia 76ers (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) Right: Members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops start a working session in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall Oct. 18, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

I have been thinking about the Philadelphia 76ers during the Synod on Synodality. Not because the N.B.A. season returns next week (I’ve been thinking about my Cleveland Cavaliers for that reason) but because of the number of times I’ve heard the word “process” since arriving in Rome.

As an American, as a young person and as someone who never showed their work during math class, I am naturally inclined to care more about results than the process that produces them. I have been advised to disabuse myself of that notion while covering this synod. In nearly every public speech and press conference, any time that someone brings up what actual change might come out of this synod gathering, we have been told that the meeting is not about “solving particular issues” but about the church learning how to develop a more “synodal” way of being. Perhaps there will be change down the road, but for now, we have been urged to trust the Holy Spirit, and to trust the process.

That brings me back to the 76ers. After a terrible season in 2012-13, Sam Hinkie took over as the team’s general manager. He wanted to embrace a strategy that would set up the team for success over a long period of time. Winning one championship is difficult enough—winning several is reserved for the pantheon of truly dynastic teams. To do that, Hinkie not-so-subtly encouraged losing a lot more basketball games in order to improve the team’s draft capital. Fans were encouraged to be patient and to #TrustTheProcess. All of this suffering will soon lead to glory, they were told. “We talk a lot about process—not outcome—and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions,” Hinkie said in 2013. “Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but you reevaluate them all.”

Then, in 2015, the team drafted the seven-foot phenom Joel Embiid: the player that was promised. This was a star they could build around with all the spoils they received from losing so much (known in the sports world as “tanking”).

Fast forward to 2023: The 76ers have won exactly zero N.B.A. championships since The Process began. They have not even made it to the finals. Things happen: injuries, fired coaches, disgruntled superstars. Many observers believe that the 76ers missed their window to win, and “the process” will in the end have yielded nothing.

There is a risk of the church falling so in love with its own process of synodality that it forgets it is a means to the end.

Which brings me back to the synod. I really do believe that the process (the methodology, in Vatican speak) is revolutionary. The round tables, the silence, the deep listening are all creating radically different spaces for honest conversations about the future of the church. And yet there is a risk of the church falling so in love with its own process of synodality that it forgets it is a means to the end. What is that end? A church that is better able to announce to the world, as Pope Francis said in “Evangelii Gaudium,” the first proclamation: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”

To do that, we will need real change. Maybe not this month, but soon. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod’s relator general, hinted at this while introducing the synod’s current module this week:

We are well aware that this synod will be evaluated on the basis of the perceivable changes that will result from it. The big media, especially those furthest away from the church, are interested in possible changes on a very limited number of subjects. I am not going to list them because we all know them. But even the people closest to us, our collaborators, members of pastoral councils, people who are involved in parishes are wondering what will change for them, how they will be able to concretely experience in their lives that missionary discipleship and co-responsibility on which we have reflected in our work.

He is right. It will be a great thing, a miracle even, if the outcome of the synod is that people from all over the world and from different points of view were able to sit around a table and truly listen to one another for a month. But it will not be close to enough for the people of God.

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