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America StaffDecember 22, 2023
Photo Courtesy of iStock

The Synod on Synodality has a lofty goal: bringing together the perspectives of Catholics from around the world to listen, pray, and discern a path forward for our church. But the lessons of the synod aren’t just for the institutional church; they can provide valuable insight about moving forward as Catholics. As many of us set resolutions for the new year, it may be wise to look to the synod for inspiration. America’s writers have a few suggestions.

Let go of rigid timelines.

In his column for Religion News Service, Thomas Reese, S.J., explained why the Synod on Synodality has consistently puzzled U.S. Catholics, calling Pope Francis’ approach to synodality and listening “absolute nonsense to results-oriented Americans.” I admit that I have found Father Reese’s assessment to be true in my life these past few years, both as a Catholic in the pews and also in my work at America, trying to contextualize this major church event for a largely American audience.

Americans tend to be uncomfortable with such an open approach, one that is more focused on the process than the outcome. It’s often said that the church works slowly, over centuries, and the synod’s lack of a bulleted agenda seemed to suggest that church leaders were in no rush—and that perhaps nothing “real” would actually get done.

Results, policies and schedules are our ways of operating, but they are likely much too small for the Holy Spirit. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with small, human steps toward the changes we hope for. But we won’t give credit to the sheer scale of Pope Francis’ dreams for the church if we expect them to be achieved in one month of meetings in Rome.

In this new year, may we give God’s dreams for our lives plenty of time to unfold. The Holy Spirit isn’t in a rush.

Molly Cahill is an associate editor at America. She was a 2020-2021 O’Hare Fellow.

Results, policies and schedules are our ways of operating, but they are likely much too small for the Holy Spirit.

Ask for feedback.

So much attention has been focused on the discussions that took place at the Vatican during the synod that it is easy to forget how the whole thing began: Leaders in the church asked for the input of people in the pews. Has the process been messy, at times? Yes. Is it necessary for the church? Also yes.

In our daily lives, it is easy to get caught up in just moving forward, simply looking ahead to what's next without really taking the time to stop and think about how we got where we are or what direction is best. The new year is a good time to stop and reflect deliberately on our path and to ask for advice, help or feedback from those who know us well. Could the process be scary or messy? Sure, but it might also be just what’s needed to help us discern the next steps in our lives, or to figure out how to be more present to others, or maybe even to help us realize that all those things we are already doing are appreciated more than we realized.

The good thing is that we don’t need a global meeting to get this sort of personal feedback. A conversation over coffee might suffice. But being able to hear and respond to the needs of our loved ones, and to feel seen and known in these conversations, may be the inspiration we need to chart a move into the new year with a renewed sense of energy, direction and intention.

Kerry Weber is an executive editor for America.

Listen carefully.

One of the most important parts of the synod meeting in October, which I was privileged to participate in, was the way that we were all encouraged to listen—actually, forced to listen!

You may have heard about the practice known as “conversations in the Spirit,” which was used at the synod in October as a way of helping our discussions be truly participatory. Here’s how it worked (in brief): Groups of 12 delegates were seated around tables in the Paul VI Aula at the Vatican and each person was given four minutes to speak on a topic—and everyone had to listen, with no interruptions. In the next round, we were able to speak again on what moved us in the first round—again, with no interruptions. There was even a facilitator who would stop us if we interrupted! Finally, in the third round, we could have a free-flowing conversation.

It’s hard to listen attentively. So many of us are listening conditionally, you might say—just biding our time, waiting for the other person to finish so we can jump in and respond. But listening carefully sometimes means setting aside your need to respond, to correct, to be right. It’s also important to ask “What do you mean?” if a person’s message is unclear or, even more importantly, when someone disagrees with you. In many conversations with people who held opinions different than my own, I wanted to say, “Please explain!” It helps to build friendships and break down walls.

Listening is a gift we can give to one another. And ourselves.

The Rev. James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at America.

Listening is a gift we can give to one another. And ourselves.

Cultivate your friendships.

In a retreat for the participants of the Synod on Synodality, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., said, “We preach the gospel of friendships that reach across boundaries.” According to our editor at large, James Martin S.J., friendship was a consistent theme of this year’s synod, particularly friendships that bridge ideological divides and connect one another in a love for God and the church’s mission.

Human beings are created to be in community with one another. Maintaining friendships, especially with those with whom you disagree, is essential for cultivating that community. We can come to know ourselves, others and God more deeply through friendships that challenge us to see those with whom we disagree not as opponents or challengers but as people, with their own informed set of beliefs. That does not mean we have to change our minds to mirror the beliefs of our friends, nor do we have to cut ties with friends because they disagree with us, but maintaining an openness to change and a willingness to listen can cultivate mutual respect.

This year’s synod provided a glimpse at these types of friendships that bridge divides and, through conversation, can solidify convictions or open minds and hearts to new perspectives. When we engage with friendships that supersede the boundaries of our own beliefs we take an active part in the Gospel message, which, at its core, preaches kindness, empathy, and connection—values that find their truest form in friendships.

Christine Lenahan is a Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., Fellow at America.

Get comfortable with change.

When I told a few friends that I had mixed feelings about living with a couple of colleagues in Rome for a month to cover the Synod of Synodality for America, they were understandably a bit confused. Gelato, wine, espresso, warm weather. What’s not to love? In a word: change.

I have lived alone for several years and grown quite comfortable in my solitude and routines: a run in the park after work, a trip to the vegetable market, putting on a podcast while I cook dinner. I love going out with friends and meeting new people—as long as I have a quiet apartment to come home to. When and where would I be able to recharge?

While I did have very little alone time in Rome, my worries proved to be misplaced. I settled into new routines, and it turns out the Romans are on to something with their insistence that meals—whether it’s a caffè americano and croissant or a four-course dinner—are meant to be savored in the company of others, not scarfed down by yourself in front of a laptop or television.

In a rapidly changing and insecure world, the church can feel like my quiet apartment. It is a place of stability and predictability, a place where I can recharge after a hectic week. What if the synod changes that?

But my time in Rome gave me a better way to think about the change we fear: If it is drawing you into deeper relationships, it might be worth the risk. The same is true of the church. Are parishes becoming places of greater outreach and welcome, places of deep friendships and supportive community? Are we growing closer to God in prayer and closer to the poor in service? That, more than any change to doctrine or liturgical practice, will be the measure of the synod’s success—and is not a bad way to measure our own lives in 2024.

Ashley McKinless is an executive editor at America and co-host of “Jesuitical.”

If change is drawing you into deeper relationships, it might be worth the risk.

Trust that God is at work.

In 2007, I attended a Christmas gathering with young midwestern and Canadian Jesuits at Guelph Retreat House outside Toronto. There we had a workshop by a Canadian Jesuit priest teaching us a method for “communal discernment.”

The format consisted of small groups of us gathering around tables and going through three rounds of conversation about a topic. Let’s say, “Jesuits should wear their clerics in public more. Right?” (This was not, for what it is worth, one of the topics. Discussions about the wearing of clerics usually happen in small judgmental circles of Jesuit rec rooms.)

The first round was everyone sharing their prayerful thoughts on the topic. In the second round, each person has a chance to react to what they heard. The third round is a free discussion of the topic. All of this to eventually find a thread of God’s direction for us on the matter at hand.

I recall thinking this was a bit much. Too formal and canned. Jesuits making something more complicated than it needs to be. Why not just talk things out?

But this October, I saw that the entire universal church as represented by more than 400 people in the Paul VI Aula in Rome was using this “Canadian model” of group discernment. And it was then I realized that there really was something to this method; that it was better than “everyone just talking things out” because it mandated real listening.

This Spirit-illuminating method originated with Jesuits in Canada decades ago. It rose “from below” over the years and now into the highest reaches of the church. God works over time. Seeds planted decades ago will one day flourish. Trust, as Teilhard would say, trust in the slow work of God. This year I will choose to trust more.

Brother Joe Hoover, S.J., is America’s poetry editor and the author of O Death, Where is Thy Sting: A Meditation on Suffering.

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