Talk, pray, love22 Oct 2023
At heart the Synod on Synodality is an invitation to trust and build a Church that is inclusive and mission focused.
If you are a writer and hope that people will listen to you, you should avoid some kinds of words. One sort is big words. Five syllables are two syllables too many. The other sort is in-group words that belong to particular social groups – Bell curves to economists and magisterium to theologians, for example. If you combine the long-words and the in-words, as in the heresy of antelapsarian double predestinationism, for example, you will certainly lose your audience.
That is the problem that faced me when I was asked to write about Synodality. It is a great idea and a better reality, no doubt, but as a word it is five syllables long and is familiar only to well-educated religious readers. The risk is that the Last Word will be like the television series the Last Detective, short for ‘You would be the last detective I would send on this case’. Synodality risks being the last word you will want to read in this Last Word.
So let me forget the word and tell you a story about a mind-blowing meeting I was part of. It was a session within a gathering of staff in an organisation working with disadvantaged young people in a variety of programs and projects across three states. The event involved a lot of meeting and greeting.
ENGAGED AND ENGAGING
The session that amazed me required us to break up into groups of 20 or so people to speak about the hopes and challenges they saw in our work. Normally in such large groups of relative strangers a few people dominate, most hesitate to contribute, and the conversation degenerates into theoretical argument. I was amazed that here people remained involved, spoke freely and honestly about their own hesitations and difficulties, listened intently to one another, expressed different views without giving or taking offence, and remained focused on the people whom ultimately they were serving.
Th quality of this conversation was built on a culture of mutual trust and on a shared mission for which all are responsible. The free and open conversation in the large group reflected similar conversations about mission at every level of the organisation.
The quality of that meeting and of all the relationships that made it possible is what synodality is about. It echoes Pope Francis’ focus on the mission of the Church, his reading of the obstacles that impede the mission, and of what we need to do to renew it. He believes that the mission of the Catholic Church is to proclaim the Good News of God’s love in Jesus to the world. We proclaim the Good News only secondarily in words. We do so most importantly through our life and our relationships as we engage those on the boundaries of Church.
Pope Francis has often spoken about the obstacles to that mission. They lie in focusing defensively on the internal relationships within the Catholic Church itself, its hierarchies, teaching and its internal relationships. We imagine the Church as a safe place, a fortress, that offers protection from a hostile world. Catholics must put on their armour before going through the portcullis and across the moat to engage with the world. In the internal relationships of the Church we emphasise authority and control to prevent corruption by the world.
Pope Francis’ response to this image of the Church is summed up in his image of the mission of the Church, not as a fort but as a hospital station on a battlefield. It is about going out to tend to people in need where they are. Synodality is his vision of such a Church and the way to build its focus on mission.
The process of the Synod on Synodality is a bottom-up vision of the Church, beginning with reflection on mission by local parishes where mission is carried out. This feeds into reflection in dioceses, in nations and internationally, and then back to the local churches. Clergy are the servants of the Church in this structure.
The Synod, however, is not simply about meetings. It also commends a form of conversation adapted to mission. The meetings, from parish to universal level, are built around prayer and reflection that build trust among the participants. They emphasise listening to each participant rather than arguing positions.
The value of this focus on mission and on building the trust and communication involved in it is huge, as I experienced in the meeting that I described. It also lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality. It may be a long and narrowly Catholic word. But when it is put into practice it is also a simple and life-giving sharing of what matters. It invites people in.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Madonna magazine.