This summer the first phase of the Synod on synodality ends. Bishops, diocesan staff and synod coordinators are now synthesizing the hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, pains and graces that have been heard, spoken and shared by Catholics and people of goodwill everywhere. of the world. They will soon add their reports to a growing body of contributions that, taken together, are the product of the largest consultative process in human history. At the end of this unique worldwide listening experience, there is a great opportunity to consider what graces have been poured, what we have learned, and how we can continue the momentum we have created.
When Pope Francis opened the synod, he sought to include everyone, reminding us that we are “all protagonists”. We were not invited as passive recipients but as active participants attached to the Holy Spirit working in each of our lives. Sharing our deepest hopes and disappointments with each other and with the whole Church has often required courage and honesty. Listening to the experiences and opinions of others different from us was an opportunity to show compassion and empathy, to reconsider our certain conclusions, and to practice inclusion and reconciliation. Great graces have already emerged simply by creating a space where we could hear ourselves and be heard.
When Pope Francis opened the synod, we were not invited as passive recipients, but as active participants attached to the Holy Spirit working in each of our lives.
Together we have learned to recognize and articulate the movements of the Spirit in our lives, in the church and in the world. Many parishioners have met in new ways through honest dialogue about our shared faith community. Still others have engaged the marginalized, the poor, prisoners, the homeless, and those who no longer practice their faith with us. These conversations often provided perspective, insight, and an opening for a later relationship.
When the synod process began, I assembled a group of over 100 lay volunteers from Jesuit universities and parishes who offered their time and experience to train over 2,000 parish leaders across the country in the spiritual conversation process. , the method of consultation recommended in the preparatory documents for the synod. The spirit of honest commitment, the tenderness of sharing and the commitment to service were a great inspiration.
The trainings themselves were moments of grace, as the trainees discussed their church experiences together. Many exchanged contact details, prayers of support and encouragement for the journey ahead. Thousands of listeners, facilitators, note-takers and synod coordinators threw themselves into this new task with enthusiasm, sincerity and zeal. Now they have an abundance of experience to reflect on.
Over the past month, I have spoken with people around the world about their experience of synodal consultation. While the content of their conversations was fascinating, I was also amazed by the shared universal experience and sense of communion they revealed. I spoke with people from Minnesota and Micronesia, from California and Cameroon, from Indiana and India, from Australia and Austria, and all of them talked about the gifts they received thanks to the listening experience that we now share.
This synodal experience now functions as a point of universality similar to the Mass.
This synodal experience now functions as a point of universality similar to the Mass. Wherever you go in the world, you can share the same Eucharistic feast with a Catholic community. It is a powerful witness to our Catholic communion. Now we have another church experience in common. You can go anywhere in the world and discuss the experience of synodal listening. This shared practice has strengthened our communion and our experience of universal Church.
In these ways and more, grace has already been poured out. But like an effective exercise program, empathic listening should become a routine practice, not a singular activity. As Bishop Robert McElroy wrote in the July/August issue of America“Once the reports to Washington are sent, there will be a strong and natural institutional tendency in most dioceses to leave the process of synodality at the local level dormant until the pope’s apostolic exhortation on universal synod is published in 2024″.
Choosing such a course of action will certainly “frustrate and stall” the movement that has been achieved through the efforts of so many in this recent consultation process and the decades of progress made in the areas of collaboration, shared responsibility and the empowerment of the laity since the Second Vatican Council.
You can go anywhere in the world and discuss the experience of synodal listening.
Now, as the church is called into synod, there is a great opportunity to build on these graces and strengthen our practice of empathetic listening, communal discernment, and co-responsibility. One way for dioceses, parishes, universities and other Catholic organizations to continue to build on this good work is to become schools of listening and discernment.
Christian discipleship is life with the Spirit. Karl Rahner, SJ, one of the main architects of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church”, once described the human person as “God’s self-communication”. If we believe this to be the foundation of our operational theological anthropology, then we must take seriously the fact that the Holy Spirit is in relationship with every human heart. A great task of the Church is not so much to provide the only correct answer to all possible theological questions, but to offer practices, methods and guidance for discerning the will of the Spirit in our lives of faith. individual and community.
The Synod demonstrates a participatory process of communal discernment for the universal Church. It is also an opportunity to further establish discernment as the cornerstone of the life and teaching of the Church. This can begin today by continuing the honest and courageous conversations begun during the synod consultations. Parishes, campuses, religious congregations, dioceses, and other Catholic organizations could immediately convene online and in-person sessions to report on emerging themes from the consultations and explore together how the Holy Spirit might prompt them to respond in this moment.
Parish and diocesan pastoral councils are organs of synodality encouraged by Vatican II to consider the call of the Gospel in the light of the “signs of the times” in their locality. Councils can pursue inclusive and empathetic listening sessions as a concrete way to practice and teach communal discernment. In this way, council members and clergy can deepen their own skills in listening and practicing theological reflection and can train the muscles of synodality.
In addition to community discernment, clergy and lay leaders can support individual discernment through the practice of spiritual direction.
Communal discernment can also develop in simple, creative and inclusive ways. When the pandemic started in early 2020, I started a weekly virtual group meeting with a few other parishioners called “Breaking Open the Word.” Every Saturday morning we log on, share our prayers for the world, read the Sunday Gospel, and engage in spiritual conversation around the readings. We listen to each other and learn to articulate what moved us in the readings. We offer feedback on what struck us as we listened to one another, and wonder how the Holy Spirit is calling us to further our discipleship. We’ve been going strong every Saturday for over two years. It is a new and important practice of faith that has strengthened our community and helped us learn to listen with curiosity and above all to trust that the Holy Spirit is with us.
In addition to community discernment, clergy and lay leaders can support individual discernment through the practice of spiritual direction. My parish is fortunate to have a group of trained lay spiritual directors and a parish spiritual director training program. Spiritual direction is a precious and powerful ministry of listening and encounter. Through this individual encounter with a spiritual guide, people learn to give language to their spiritual experience and to discern the movement of the Spirit in their lives.
Spiritual direction and other forms of individual spiritual encounter, such as retreat ministry, pastoral conversations and mutual dialogue, demonstrate the potential of a synodal church that recognizes the Holy Spirit as a creative, engaged and dynamic presence. among us, calling us to the fullness of life and trusting abandonment to the will of God. In this way and more, Catholics can flex their synod muscles and continue their common pilgrimage of discovery and renewal. If we make the effort, we can increasingly become a vibrant and healthy church, empathetic and responsive, focused yet flexible, rooted in tradition, attached to the Spirit and ready to respond with creativity, commitment and curiosity to the myriad challenges we face.
Over the next two years we can continue to become a synodal church, but only if we choose to practice and build on the grace that has already been poured out on us in our journey together.
[Read this next: Father Louis Cameli on what is missing in synod reports.]