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James Martin, S.J.November 03, 2023
James Martin, SJ, with members of one of his tables at the Synod of Bishops, in the Paul VI Aula in Vatican City (photo courtesy of author).

I never got over the excitement of walking into the Paul VI Aula every morning during the four weeks of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, which concluded on Oct. 29. Frankly, it was hard to believe that I was spending every day among some of the most influential and interesting people in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis himself was frequently in the hall as well, taking his place at a round table (albeit the head one) like the rest of us. I had met with the Holy Father before the synod meetings began and greeted him a few times in the aula. Still, I never got over the thrill of seeing the “papal gentlemen” in their elegant morning suits standing at the entrance to the hall, a sign that the Holy Father was in the room.

But my experience of the synod was far more than the thrill of sitting with church leaders from around the world. It was also a spiritual journey, some of which I’d like to share—without breaking confidence. I’ve already written about what happened exteriorly, but I thought I might share what it was like from an interior point of view and how I experienced the “good spirits” and the “evil spirits,” to use some Jesuit terminology (or “counterspirits,” a phrase I heard last month) at work. I offer this not because I’m any holier than any of the other members—in fact, I’m sure I’m not—but to bring you into the spirit of the month. So here are eight words that I feel best evoke the spiritual movements that I felt during the Synod of Bishops.

My experience of the synod was far more than the thrill of sitting with church leaders from around the world. It was also a spiritual journey.

Freedom.To be honest, I was excited but also nervous about going to the synod. That was not because I worried about anything bad happening. Rather, I wasn’t sure how it would all work, despite the years of planning. How, for example, would the synod coordinate discussions among roughly 350 people, from various language groups, on so many important topics, without it breaking down? Would there be so much division that it would somehow fail or be seen as a failure? Would negative voices turn the media coverage sour? More basically, how would it function logistically: Would we even be able to hear one another over the din of so many people in the aula?

I also wondered whether there would be much antipathy to me personally, because of the opposition my L.G.B.T.Q ministry has garnered in some places. I surmised that one reason that Pope Francis invited me was because of this ministry so, to that end, I wanted to try to bring the voices of that community into the meeting when appropriate. But I also knew that I wasn’t there to lobby for anything, much less focus solely on one issue. It is a critical topic but there are many critical topics in our church.

So my spiritual preparation before flying to Rome, besides getting the new Covid vaccine and asking for everyone’s prayers, was to try, as far as possible, to free myself from any fears or expectations. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola speaks about being “indifferent,” which in English has the unfortunate connotation of “Who cares?” but, in an Ignatian context, means a kind of interior freedom. So before I left, I prayed to be as “indifferent” as possible. I would just try to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit as best I could.

My spiritual preparation before flying to Rome was to try, as far as possible, to free myself from any fears or expectations.

Friendship. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the words from Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., one of our retreat directors, inviting us to see the coming month as one of “friendships” framed the entire month for me. I wasn’t sure what I would do at the synod, but I could certainly be friendly with people.

Much of this involved trying to be friendly with people with whom I disagreed. This invited me to more inner freedom, as I listened carefully to people who had said things about L.G.B.T.Q. people or about women, to take just two topics, that I strongly disagreed with. Remembering St. Ignatius Loyola’s “Presupposition,” which translates into giving people the benefit of the doubt (even if they don’t give it to you) was helpful. All but a very few members were kind, friendly and generous, but two or three times people said and did things that not only made my eyebrows rise, but that were personally hurtful. Still, I always wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt and tried to be kind, mild and charitable. Decades ago, an old Jesuit priest once said to me about a Jesuit who refused to speak with me, “You can always be cordial.”

Some people in the aula were adamantly opposed to a more welcoming approach to L.G.B.T.Q. people, but that didn’t mean that they were any less my brothers and sisters in Christ. “Patience,” one cardinal said to me when I shared a conversation that I found difficult. So it was a kind of asceticism, though they probably felt the same when they were talking with me! Friendship was always foremost in my mind.

Some people in the aula were adamantly opposed to a more welcoming approach to L.G.B.T.Q. people, but that didn’t mean that they were any less my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Counterspirits. In any church setting there are “counterspirits” at work. I could feel them within me, for sure. So I found a good spiritual director at the Jesuit Curia and saw him a few times during the month. “Be careful of the evil spirit,” he said, wisely. “The last thing the evil spirit wants is for the synod to succeed.” Sometimes I think that the evil spirit is present in direct proportion to the good that can be done.

How did these counterspirits work? Well, I can start by saying how I saw them in me. To begin with, there was occasionally a temptation to despair, as I heard uncharitable comments about L.G.B.T.Q. people and thought, “Will we ever be able to make progress on this?” But despair is never coming from God

There was some anxiety in me about another area as well. All the tables were filled with cardinals and bishops. In fact, roughly 75 percent of the delegates were bishops. (It was a Synod of Bishops, after all.) And no matter how friendly they were (and most were very friendly) and told me to call them by their first names, and shared confidences with me, I was always aware that they were still cardinals, archbishops and bishops. Not to mention primates and patriarchs.

As a Jesuit priest, beyond trying to be kind to everyone, I am especially attentive to the way that I interact with members of the church hierarchy. I’m not in any way an “official” of the Society of Jesus, but every Jesuit knows that his actions can indirectly affect other Jesuits. We are part of a whole.

But this sometimes prevented me from being as straightforward as I would have liked, especially on matters concerning the bishops—that is, on topics regarding episcopal authority, which was a frequent topic of conversation. And if I felt that fear, I’m sure that others, including the many lay people there, may have as well.

I sensed “counterspirits” elsewhere too. A few comments bespoke not only an opposition to the inclusion of L.G.B.T.Q. people because of certain church teachings on homosexuality, but also an outright fear of this group, who were sometimes seen as not only the result of an ideology or colonialism but as an “other.” That was sad to hear. Because if, as 1 Jn 4:18 says, perfect love casts out fear, then perfect fear casts out love.

I’m not in any way an “official” of the Society of Jesus, but every Jesuit knows that his actions can indirectly affect other Jesuits. We are part of a whole.

Humor. Most of the table and plenary interventions were achingly serious. It’s not surprising. We had members from Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar, Syria, the Holy Land and other war-torn regions, who spoke of violence and death, as well as other members who worked in countries where Catholics (and Christians) were in the minority, and also those who worked with refugees and the Dalit community in India, to name just two marginalized communities. In general, delegates pushed the “Request to Speak” button only if they felt strongly about a matter, so the interventions were almost always forthright, blunt and serious. And since everyone only had three minutes, they were usually rushed—and occasionally loud, owing to the speaker’s passion.

The month was, I found, also rather stressful (in addition to being enthralling, exciting and encouraging). Because of my L.G.B.T.Q. ministry, I never knew if the question, “Father James, may I speak with you?” would lead to encouragement for my ministry, a question about L.G.B.T.Q. ministry in a country I knew little about, or a pointed challenge about the ministry overall. So I felt I was always, in a way, on guard. On the way home one day to pranzo, or lunch, at the Jesuit Curia, I was stopped by an American passerby who spent about 15 minutes attacking me verbally, shaking with rage, while other synod delegates passed by, giving me looks as if to say, “Is everything okay?”

“I thought he was going to punch you,” said a Jesuit friend.

So in the midst of my own stress, and after long days and weeks for everyone (we worked half-days on Saturdays), flashes of humor were welcome. When someone made a rare joke in the plenary sessions, the laughter was disproportionate, since people were so grateful. At one point, as has been shared elsewhere, the presider for the day introduced the next speaker as “Sua Eccellenza, Monsignore Robert Barron,” and onscreen came the bemused face of Sister Mary Barron, O.L.A., president of the International Union of Superiors General. After much laughter from the floor, she handled the mis-introduction with grace and humor, even as the Sua Eccellenza remained onscreen.

When someone made a rare joke in the plenary sessions, the laughter was disproportionate, since people were so grateful.

It also amused me that during our formal sessions, the phrase “Extra Omnes,” in capital letters appeared on the upper right hand of our screens. This phrase, which is also said before a papal conclave begins, means “Everyone out!” In this case, it indicated that only delegates, not journalists and others, should be present at the confidential sessions. But it appeared directly next to the logo for “Sinodo 2021-2024,” making it seem that the motto of the synod was “Everyone out!” “Probably not what was intended,” said one cardinal dryly.

At the individual tables, humor was far more common. A discussion among bishops about how they kept their zucchettos on their bald heads was lively, and I picked up a few great Catholic jokes along the way. I tried to add some lightheartedness, though I was careful about cultural differences. What’s funny in New York may not be funny in Nairobi. When I met a friendly French bishop, I asked him, en français, where he was from. He said, “Je suis l’évêque de Troyes.” (I am the Bishop of Troyes.) Of course it sounded, to me, exactly like “Je suis l’évêque de trois.” (I am the Bishop of Three.) I suppressed the urge to ask, “Were you the Bishop of Two before this?”

During one module I was appointed secretary for my table and was editing our report “live” on screen, so that all could see what I was typing. “Anything else we’ve missed?” asked our facilitator. I typed out slowly, “This table…recommends… that the entire church… purchase James Martin’s new book Come Forth.” Everyone laughed. “You won’t be the first person to advertise their ministry here!” said one bishop.

Consolation. The most consoling moments were small incidents that, to quote Timothy Radcliffe again, would not make headlines: A cardinal passing me a funny note that made me laugh out loud during a seemingly endless stretch of interventions. A Catholic sister who just had hip surgery, but who still showed up, slowly pushing her walker into the aula every morning in obvious discomfort. The absolute glee on the face of an Ethiopian bishop when I greeted him in Amharic (to be clear: I know only a few words from my time in East Africa). He stopped in his tracks and spun around: “What did you say, Father?!” The concern that dozens of people expressed for my mother, after Cardinal Mario Grech, during his morning greetings, when we would congratulate people on birthdays or anniversaries, said that my mom was having some minor surgery. For the next few days I heard repeatedly, “Father James, how is your mother?” A bishop from a country where L.G.B.T.Q. issues are hotly debated asking for advice on a complex L.G.B.T.Q. situation facing him in his diocese. Another bishop bringing to our table some very welcome chocolates. Another bringing cookies. In other words, I found consolation mainly in the community,

But I found consolation in more traditional settings, too. Most mornings I attended Mass at the Jesuit Curia at 7 a.m. As we began each new module, though, all the synod members were invited to Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica. These were celebrated at the “Altar of the Chair,” behind Bernini’s great, twisting baldachino, so called because it includes a bronze image of the Chair of St. Peter. The space is surmounted by my favorite image of the Holy Spirit, in stained glass, as a dove. It’s my favorite because the Holy Spirit is the centerpiece of the artwork, not subordinate to the Father or Son.

The most consoling moments were small incidents that would not make headlines.

After Mass, one bishop looked around at Michelangelo’s masterpiece and said, “Father James, do you think all of our group Masses should be at St. Peter’s?” He was hoping for something simpler.

One day, as we were sitting under the image of the Holy Spirit, the organ started to play “Sing a New Song,” a St. Louis Jesuits hymn. Instantly I was brought back to the tiny, plain, spare chapel in our Jesuit novitiate in Boston, where I first heard that song in 1988, and I thought about my journey here. Then, for our Communion meditation came another St. Louis Jesuit song, “One Bread, One Body,” sung often at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, next door to my Jesuit residence in New York City. This connected me to the church back home. So in that one Mass I felt the past and present connect, and the near and far connect. “From the rising of the sun to its setting.”

Disappointment. Toward the end of this first session of the synod, we began to turn our attention to the final synthesis. Early one morning, a delegate said to me, “It’s out.” “What is?” I said. “Any mention of L.G.B.T.Q. people.”

Sure enough, the term, whose appearance in the working document had proven such a boost to that community, had been excised from the summary document. In order to have a paragraph about reaching out to those on the margins retained, the wording that had specifically mentioned L.G.B.T.Q Catholics, too controversial for some delegates, was removed. It wasn’t surprising, given the fierce opposition, but it was still disappointing, especially given the long conversations we had about it. That night we approved the synthesis sans the term (though the final Italian version speaks of “gender identity and homosexual orientation) and sans mention of our lively and sometimes uncomfortable discussions. I certainly didn’t expect any change in church practice (the synod cannot do that), but I had hoped that our discussions might be reflected in the final synthesis, as discussions on almost every other topic had been.

Early one morning, a delegate said to me, “It’s out.” “What is?” I said. “Any mention of L.G.B.T.Q. people.”

Hope. But the next morning in prayer, a few hours before our closing Mass, I realized a few things: First, there is much in the document about reaching out to that group of people, even if we didn’t use the name that many L.G.B.T.Q Catholics would prefer. Second, what happened at the synod is far larger than the synthesis document. The real message of the synod is the synod itself: how we came together to discuss difficult topics. And I was amazed that the topic was discussed so openly and so extensively in the synod, surely a major step forward in the church, along with the strong recommendations to listening and accompaniment in the final synthesis.

Most of all, I thought, despair gets us nowhere. “Corraggio!” a cardinal said to me as we walked toward St. Peter’s Basilica. He grabbed my forearm tightly. “Non dimenticare!” Don’t forget!

In a great hallway before Mass, there we were, after our month-long journey: clergy, religious and lay from all around the world, squeezed into a tight space, at the foot of the Scala Regia, the grand staircase near the basilica. There were a lot of miters. “Make way for the Swiss Guards!” shouted someone. We laughed and squeezed even more tightly together against the walls as they marched by with their halberds and almost absurdly colorful uniforms. “Lay people up front,” someone shouted. And I thought that was a good idea.

We had our differences, and maybe some of the delegates would never agree with me on LGBTQ issues, if they even used that term. That’s okay. As we were told often about the Council of Jerusalem, in the Acts of the Apostles, there was a lot of disagreement then, too. And we were only halfway through the synod.

I was filled with consolation as I saw everyone talking, smiling, gesturing, hugging, nodding, kissing (those European two-cheeked kisses) and laughing. “See you next year!” was a joyful refrain. So we made friends after all, it seemed.

Gratitude.I found the synod an experience almost too powerful, too expansive and too complex to put into words. On the plane ride home I took a few hours to do a kind of “examen” of the days and found that every day was filled with enough experiences for an eight-day retreat. I suppose it will take some time to unpack, as spiritual directors are fond of saying, but I was filled with joy, hope and especially gratitude, because even in the midst of some counterspirits, the Holy Spirit, under whose image we celebrated our final Mass, was firmly in charge.

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