This past Sunday, Pope Francis opened the Synod of Bishops in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica. This year and for the coming two years, the Synod will be reflecting on the role of synodality in the life of the Church, beginning at the level of the local Church. He called for all the baptized to envision “a different Church,” not a “museum Church,” and elaborated on his vision for engaging in a process that will remain faithful to God’s call and bear fruit.
From Pope Francis’s opening statements, both in his “Moment of reflection for the beginning of the synodal journey” on October 9th, and in his homily at the Mass formally opening the Synod on October 10th, the Holy Father has drawn attention to the necessary work of the Holy Spirit in the Synodal Journey that he is guiding the Church to undertake.
I am certain the Spirit will guide us and give us the grace to move forward together, to listen to one another and to embark on a discernment of the times in which we are living, in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of all humanity. I want to say again that the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit is not present, there will be no Synod.
Francis clearly hopes that the Synod will work for the unity of the Church, and reflected on Jesus’ words in John 17:21 “that they may all be one” in his opening message. The three themes he identified in this message–and which are also the themes of the Synodal Journey itself–are communion, participation, and mission. Citing Lumen Gentium and St. Paul VI on the theological terms of “communion and mission,” Francis identifies communion as expressing “the very nature of the Church” (Lumen Gentium 5), or “cohesion and interior fullness, in grace, truth and collaboration, and mission, that is, apostolic commitment to the world of today”.
But almost sixty years after the opening of the Council, Francis reveals the reason for the Synodal Journey today:
The words “communion” and “mission” can risk remaining somewhat abstract, unless we cultivate an ecclesial praxis that expresses the concreteness of synodality at every step of our journey and activity, encouraging real involvement on the part of each and all. I would say that celebrating a Synod is always a good and important thing, but it proves truly beneficial if it becomes a living expression of “being Church”, of a way of acting marked by true participation.
Furthermore, this participation of all the baptized in the life of the Church “is not a matter of form, but of faith…a requirement of the faith received in baptism.” Many “remain on the fringes” and must be enabled to participate. He highlighted women and lay pastoral workers in particular here.
Amid criticism and hesitation to the synodal process that has arisen in many quarters, Francis appears keenly aware of the challenges and pitfalls. He highlighted three risks to the process: formalism, intellectualism, and complacency.
Formalism encompasses the risk of a clerical elitism which must be set aside in order to truly act as the Church:
The Synod could be reduced to an extraordinary event, but only externally; that would be like admiring the magnificent facade of a church without ever actually stepping inside. The Synod, on the other hand, is a process of authentic spiritual discernment that we undertake, not to project a good image of ourselves, but to cooperate more effectively with the work of God in history. If we want to speak of a synodal Church, we cannot remain satisfied with appearances alone; we need content, means and structures that can facilitate dialogue and interaction within the People of God, especially between priests and laity.
Intellectualism involves theological abstraction that “would turn the Synod into a sort of study group”: “The usual people saying the usual things, without great depth or spiritual insight, and ending up along familiar and unfruitful ideological and partisan divides, far removed from the reality of the holy People of God and the concrete life of communities around the world.”
Finally, he addressed complacency, another theme of his personal teaching such as in Evangelii Gaudium and Let Us Dream, “the temptation to say ‘We have always done it this way.’” Calling this “poison for the life of the Church,” Francis identified this way of thinking as “not taking seriously the times in which we are living”.
Summarizing his vision of the journey he hopes will lead to a Church characterized more by “closeness, compassion, and tender love,” Francis called those gathered to recognize the Synod “as a season of grace”:
Let us keep going back to God’s own “style”, which is closeness, compassion and tender love. God has always operated that way. If we do not become this Church of closeness with attitudes of compassion and tender love, we will not be the Lord’s Church. Not only with words, but by a presence that can weave greater bonds of friendship with society and the world. A Church that does not stand aloof from life, but immerses herself in today’s problems and needs, bandaging wounds and healing broken hearts with the balm of God. Let us not forget God’s style, which must help us: closeness, compassion and tender love.
Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit! For we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and spreads joy. The Holy Spirit guides us where God wants us to be, not to where our own ideas and personal tastes would lead us.
On Sunday, in his homily to the bishops and others gathered for Mass, Francis reflected on some of the themes and new “buzzwords” of the Synod. He continued his focus on a “journeying” Church, highlighting the themes of encountering, listening, and discerning in his homily:
Celebrating a Synod means walking on the same road, walking together. Let us look at Jesus. First, he encounters the rich man on the road; he then listens to his questions, and finally he helps him discern what he must do to inherit eternal life. Encounter, listen and discern.
Insisting that the Synod is not merely a bureaucratic or clericalist endeavor, Francis pointed to the encounter with the Lord and one another. Those gathered for the Synod will allow the Holy Spirit to work only by remaining rooted in prayer, taking time to listen and learn:
Not so much by organizing events or theorizing about problems, as in taking time to encounter the Lord and one another. Time to devote to prayer and to adoration – that form of prayer that we so often neglect – devoting time to adoration, and to hearing what the Spirit wants to say to the Church. Time to look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say, to build rapport, to be sensitive to the questions of our sisters and brothers, to let ourselves be enriched by the variety of charisms, vocations and ministries.
He asked the bishops to wonder, “Are we good at listening? How good is the “hearing” of our heart? Do we allow people to express themselves, to walk in faith even though they have had difficulties in life, and to be part of the life of the community without being hindered, rejected or judged?”
And guided them in this reflection by pointing again to the direction of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, as well as the need to avoid “artificial and shallow responses” that fall into the intellectualism and complacency he spoke about the day before:
The Spirit asks us to listen to the questions, concerns and hopes of every Church, people and nation. And to listen to the world, to the challenges and changes that it sets before us. Let us not soundproof our hearts; let us not remain barricaded in our certainties. So often our certainties can make us closed. Let us listen to one another.
The pope who has always taught that it is more important to initiate the right processes than to rush them to completion has just begun what could be the most impactful process of his pontificate, and which could leave a lasting legacy for the future of the Church.
Image: Vatican Media