Due to the drama following Bishop Joseph Strickland’s removal last weekend, I haven’t had much time to cover the Fall General Assembly of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops this week in Baltimore, but there were a few highlights that merit discussion.

As always, Cardinal Christophe Pierre gave a strong address, encouraging the US bishops to better embrace the message of Pope Francis and to reflect upon the connection between synodality and the Eucharist, drawing upon the image of the two disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35):

What Jesus does with the disciples on the way to Emmaus is precisely the synodal path in its essential elements: encountering, accompanying, listening, discerning, and rejoicing at what the Holy Spirit reveals. As a result of this process, the disciples’ minds were enlightened, their hearts were set on fire, and then, through the breaking of the bread they were able to see what they had missed: Jesus was alive and he was with them!

This Eucharistic encounter with Christ changed the direction of their lives. It was a mystery intended not only for their contemplation, but it moved them into mission. Filled with joy, they hurried back to join the other disciples. For the first time they were able to proclaim the Gospel: Jesus is alive! They were bringing others to faith, just as the risen Christ had done for them.

This is what I said on another occasion when I was asked to reflect on the Eucharist and ecclesial discernment: I am convinced that we need to have an eye-opening experience of the Eucharist. We need this, even as bishops, leaders in the Church. We need our perception of the Eucharist to be re-awakened to its incarnational dynamism. The Eucharist is encounter. It is movement. It is the power helping us to give new life. It makes us the living presence of Jesus to others.

In addition to the nuncio’s address, I was particularly impressed by the words of those who spoke about their experiences during the October Synod in Rome. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville was the lead presenter, and he was joined by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns (a lay ministry leader in Minnesota), and Fr. Ivan Montelongo of the Diocese of El Paso.

Dr. Bailey Manns delivered a short video statement, in which she spoke of the life-changing experience she had at the Synod. She explained, “During my time with the bishops, I felt welcome listened to and accepted. The life experiences I shared — others and mine — were received with genuine curiosity and respect. We came together, individually and in community to listen to the Holy Spirit through prayer and encounters of dialogue, deep listening, opening our hearts together, and discernment.”

Fr. Montelongo, who was present in Baltimore, described his experience of the Synod as a “deep moment of grace” and “a lived experience of koinonia with the whole Church.” He offered his own experiences of prayer, conversion, and community with the other participants. He chose to highlight three of the lessons he learned during his experience:

First, the invitation to replicate the Synod experience of koinonia in our own dioceses and parishes. The method of the conversation and the spirit can bring our clergy, our leaders, and our and all the people of God into a deeper communion.

Second, the importance of circularity. We sometimes describe the Synod as a bottom up approach, but I would say that is not quite precise. It is more accurate to describe it as a constant conversation between particular churches and the Universal Church. During these eleven months before the next Synod assembly, the document is being circulated back to us so that our churches can engage the process again. Practicing circularity in our dioceses will bring our communities closer together.

Third, synodality is about forming missionary disciples. The need for formation resounded throughout the Synod Assembly, as well as a desire to foster a spirituality of servanthood. As the Gospel reminded us today, we are unprofitable servants. Formation and not delegation. We priests and you bishops [should] not necessarily delegate tasks to the laity, but in a synodal church the People of God is empowered to take up the baptismal responsibilities which are properly theirs. This is the path that God expects of his Church in the in this millennium.

I was particularly struck by the reflection of Bishop Rhoades, who is perhaps not seen as an outspoken bishop in the “Pope Francis mold.” His words to his fellow bishops on his synodal experience are a beautiful account of prayerful and humble participation in the gathering. Excerpt:

On a personal level, the Synod was a positive and enriching experience for me, especially getting to know bishops and other delegates from around the world. It was an experience of the beautiful universality of the Church and of our communion in faith and love for the Lord and the Church in our amazing diversity of cultures, languages, and circumstances.

I was a member of three Spanish-speaking working groups and two English-speaking working groups, so it was great to have pretty wide experience in the working groups. There was a strong sense of solidarity, especially with our brothers and sisters from areas of war and conflict, religious persecution, extreme poverty, and other immense challenges.

One of the most moving experiences for me was when we gathered one night in prayer at the “Angels Unawares” bronze sculpture in Saint Peter’s Square. It was a simple yet profound prayer service for migrants and refugees. The Holy Father gave a beautiful reflection as he so often has. On the parable of the Good Samaritan, how easy it is to look the other way, like the priest and Levite in the parable. There are so many refugees and migrants and others wounded on the side of the road in the world today. The Good Samaritan is a prototype, I think, for the Church and our synodal journey called to walk along the path of the Good Samaritan with love and compassion towards all who are wounded and suffering in the world today. This truly makes the perspective of the Synodal Church concrete. There was great consensus that evangelical solidarity with the poor and the suffering is an essential part of the synodal journey.

Personally, I also found that the prominence of prayer throughout the Synod from the very beginning with the three-day retreat in Sacrofano made it clear that the synodal journey must be centered in Christ: walking together along the way, which is Jesus himself. Guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth and love. We began every day with morning prayer together and we began every module with Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Silent prayer was an integral part of the sessions of the working groups. It was clear that our task was to listen deeply to each other and then to seek to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Our task was spiritual discernment, not political or ideological debate. The method and the atmosphere were conducive to deepening our communion. Even if and when we had may have had some theological disagreements.

Thirdly and finally, as we try to understand synodality more deeply and to live it, I found that Pope Francis provided a very helpful description of a synodal church at the beginning of one of our general sessions. The Holy Father shared that he likes to think of the church as God’s faithful people, saints and sinners. The simple and humble people who walk in the presence of the Lord. He shared the story. Were legend of the people gathered at the entrance of the cathedral at the Council of Ephesus as the bishops processed in. The people calling out Theotokos, Mother of God. Asking the hierarchy to declare the dogma. To be true. The Holy Father said, and I quote, “When you want to know what Holy Mother Church believes, go to the Magisterium because it is in charge of teaching it to you. But when you want to know how the Church believes, go to the faithful people.”

I found this intervention of the Holy Father helpful as we went on to discuss the role of bishops in the synodal Church in discerning, for example, the sensus fidelium, roadblocks to synodality like clericalism and authoritarianism, the importance of co-responsibility of all the faithful in the Church’s mission, the formation of priests and laity in synodality, etc. A synodal Church listens to the living voice of the people of God. Recognizing its instinct for the truth of the gospel, it is not a political parliament, as Pope Francis has continually reminded us. So we bishops, as servants of the faith of the church, have a special responsibility for discernment, deeply and attentively listening to the word of God together with our people, so as to distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit from the spirit of the age and its ideologies. This is what I experienced at the Synod Assembly in Rome.

Bishop Flores spoke about the principle of conversatio in his address to the bishops, suggesting the types of conversations that need to take place in the Church in order to make next year’s assembly fruitful.

He said:

We are now in the “between time” — when we can reflect on the synthesis of the first session, and prepare ourselves for the second session. I anticipate that the Secretariate for the Synod, and the Synod Office of the USCCB, will be sending some resource material for us to use with our people during this interim. When you read the interim document, you will find it raises thoughtful questions of pastoral and theological import. Some might say that contentious questions are raised. I can say that many difficult issues were raised, but they were not discussed in a contentious way. This in itself is remarkable.

I have noticed that many of the participants emerged from the synod with a newfound respect for those in the Church with different perspectives and backgrounds. In today’s polarized society, sometimes the first step is simply being able to talk to one another civilly. The synodal assembly’s focus on prayer and contemplation seems to have opened hearts as well.

A challenge is finding ways to foster such conversation (and conversion) in the local Church, and to connect the mission of the Church to our communion and worship. Flores discussed this in his speech:

Communio lived in the conversatio is already an expression of the Mission of the Church since we are called to be an anticipatory sign of the tribes, nations and tongues gathered around the heavenly throne of the Lamb who was slain.

During the gathering in Rome, great attention was given to how our sense of mission can flow more cohesively from the communion that baptism generates. For example, many local churches seem at times to experience a disconnect between the Church as communion and the Church as evangelizing mission; and between the evangelizing mission and our public witness of Charity and social justice; and between the public witness of Charity and justice, and the eschatological horizon that the redemption anticipates. How can we better manifest the cohesiveness of the Mystery we live?

Thus, the third section of the interim report asks about synodal approaches to formation, and about the Church’s pastoral structures governing participation in various aspects of ecclesial life. All of this leads to reflection, and will ultimately lead to decisions, about how the conversatio can be promoted within the structures of the Church’s life to encourage a more conscious engagement in the mission, in all its variously related aspects. The whole Body has many gifts to put to the service of the mission.

That the laity by virtue of Baptism have an indispensable role in the mission of the Church is not in doubt. The questions are about how co-responsibility can be encouraged and facilitated in a way that respects the doctrinal principles that undergird ecclesial life and sound pastoral practice. Structure alone, of course, cannot ensure a Christian way of life and mission shared and promoted in common; for without the Spirit, the letter is dead.

Overall, I found these statements and speeches to be quite encouraging. The challenge, of course, is in delivering the message to the wider Church.

Image: ““Angels Unawares” Sculpture commemor” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Catholic Church (England and Wales)

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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