Singing a new song together


17 Sep 2023

Conflict is not the enemy of synodality, but a way of bringing about togetherness.

Imagine a world functioning without conflict, tension or miscommunication. It’s an efficient and disinterested life, where we stay in our own lane and mind our own business. In the book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better FuturePope Francis and his biographer Austen Ivereigh argue that this utopic vision of life lacks the creative tension that is fruitful, life giving and dynamic.

Synodality on the other hand, invites us to go beyond ourselves and be prepared to be dislodged from our well-worn tracks. Far beyond a simple plot twist of conflict between two characters, synodality invites us to drift outside of our own lane, with a spirit of curiosity, freedom and humility. Such a process may produce collisions, but if we are prepared to slow down long enough to listen and encounter, then we may endure some of the inevitable bumps that come from dancing to new music.

Parish life in Australia continues demonstrate a variety of willingness and ability to adopt new music. Pipe organs, guitars, tambourines, keyboards, drums and flutes accompany our Eucharistic praise and worship with varying harmony and creativity. Far from a solo performance, synodality is the conductor of both the choir and the instruments. It’s the interplay between the spirit at work in the people and equally active in the Church.

Lumen gentium declared ‘not only through the hierarchy who teach in his name and with his authority, but also through the laity whom he made his witnesses and to whom he gave understanding of the faith [sensus fidei] and an attractiveness in speech so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life’ (LG#35).

In his commentary about the careful choreography of the First Assembly of the Fifth Plenary Council in Australia, Francis Sullivan observed that ‘building trust is a two-way street’. In this way, the role of each participant moves beyond a sympathetic and patronising ear, to allow everyone to speak freely and to be heard.

What is the purpose of synodality? Is it a decision, a resolution, a change? One might ask at the end of the process, why did we do all of that? Pope Francis reminds us that synodality is not meant to be a democratic parliamentary experience; it’s about the journey together, because the destination itself may not necessarily be the intended end point. It’s about transformation of mind and yet, conflict is inevitable.

One of the intriguing outcomes of the recent Plenary Council of Australia was the result of a specific conflict involving a fifth of participants removing themselves from the process until a resolution was found. This protest could have been seen as contradictory to the process. Fortunately, the facilitators understood that these participants were demonstrating contraposition, rather than contradiction. Pope Francis defines a contraposition as two poles in tension, pulling away from each other, such as the local/global and whole/part. To confuse contradictions and contrapositions reduces reality to simple binaries and takes us away from dialogue and fraternity. He says, ‘when we run up against a contradiction that does not allow us to advance to a real solution, we know we are faced with a reductive, partial mental scheme that we must try to move beyond’.

It takes courage to face and endure conflict head-on, but this is the call of the Gospel. We are called to turn our cheek 70 times seven, limitlessly. When we continue to walk alongside people, we can begin to see beyond our superficial arguments and the possibilities of new perspectives begin to emerge. Mainstream ‘cancel culture’ lacks the courage and fortitude required to journey with opposing views long enough for new synergies to arise.  

Synodality demands the participation of each aspect of our multifaceted Church. In icons of the Ascension of Christ, Mary stands centrally between Peter and Paul and in this relationship ‘we don’t see two poles in tension, two aspects to balance, or two dialectical realities. No, they are two concrete faces which seek each other, serve each other, need each other, and contemplate each other. The Marian profile is lived by all the faithful, all the charisms, all the prophets, all the love poured out on the world when the Word is lived without reserve or compromise, and when it is left to the Spirit to move the hearts of the faithful’ (Mary Model of Faith).

The process of the Third National Assembly of the Marist Association of St Marcellin Champagnat adopted a synodal pathway and was guided by two preliminary listening forums. This route had its challenges. Some felt the grassroots approach lacked purpose and required facilitators and participants to enter into the unknown with trust. The outcome was a truly spirit-led process, devoid of backroom manipulation, with the parking of both hidden and explicit agendas. The result was a diffusion of politics and domineering, and the creation of a space for transparent and authentic dialogue.

The reality of true dialogue requires people to humbly seek the good together, and as trust is built, they begin to learn from each other and share their gifts. The hidden and surprising gift of dialogue is the creative movement of the Holy Spirit who helps produce answers that were previously unknown. The Gospel shows Jesus doing this time and again with political and religious leaders, outcasts, those in need of healing and with his closest companions.

A sense of surrender is a fundamental aspect of the synodal process. Far from leaving our convictions at the door or becoming a monotone protest, we are called to bring a polyphony of perspectives to the table. We begin to recognise the uniqueness and value of the other and instead of defending our position, we celebrate our commonality.

Synodality requires a deep humility, vulnerability and openness to the Holy Spirit and lays the foundation for respectful dialogue.

In the spirit of Fr James Martin’s prayer, may we continue to have the serenity to accept the people we cannot change, the courage to change what we need to change about ourselves and the wisdom to listen, together.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Madonna magazine.

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