There is no denying that “Synodality” is a new concept for the general Catholic populace, though Synods have been a common feature of the Church since ancient days. As “an assembly of the clergy and sometimes also the laity in a diocese or other division of a particular Church,” one can argue that the first Synod occurred in the New Testament, in Acts of the Apostles 15 to be precise, the “Council of Jerusalem.” It is worth reading this text as we begin our project of a modern Synod, for it was called to address a major question that might have crippled the Christian mission forever: must Gentiles become Jews before they are admitted to Christian Baptism? Put another way, was circumcision required of males as part of the initiation process?
Acts 15 records a meeting marked by sincerity, prayer, and personal witness of those who witnessed the working of the Holy Spirit. It was not a meeting without conflict. Recall Galatians 2:11 where Paul reports that “I withstood Peter to his face” on the matter of required circumcision. On the other hand, understandably, thoughtful Jewish converts worried about what they saw as a break in continuity from the faith of Abraham and Moses to faith in Jesus, the Risen one. They were right to be concerned, but other prudent heads in the meeting drew texts from the very Hebrew Scriptures themselves that brought comfort to the concerned and a measure of unity to the Church. “After much discussion,” Peter, preeminent among the apostles, and James, the bishop of Jerusalem, brought together the Spirit-filled wisdom in the gathering and summarized the future practice of Christian evangelization in the beautiful letter that was transmitted to all corners of the known Christian mission in 50 A.D.
Pope Francis has announced a Synod of Bishops to meet in 2023 and called on each Bishop around the world to listen to members of their flock – including those who are marginalized or who have fallen away from the Church — and get their feedback on issues important to the Catholic Church today. Bishop Alfred A. Schlert of the Allentown, PA, Diocese, explains the process well on his diocesan website: “The Holy Father wants to know how Catholics experience and express their faith in these challenging times, The goal is to listen to all Catholics, wherever they find themselves in their faith journey or relationship to the Church, so that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we may discern the best ways of addressing the challenges we face as a world and work together on a path of healing and unity through our Catholic faith.”
As it has become clearer that many dioceses and parishes have not engaged in the process, despite the call of the Holy Father, it will be left to dedicated laity—certainly in communion with priests, deacons, and religious in their parishes or regions who likewise wish to contribute, wherever possible —to lay out their local plans to engage in this collective listening and discerning process. [Perhaps anticipating a lack of participation from parishes and dioceses, the Vatican has provided a direct way to submit the product of lay synodal participation. Consequently, no one need fear being shut out.]
If you or your parish has not had its “bite at the synodal apple,” here are some theoretical and practical points on getting started.
First, approach the Synod as a spiritual event. The last thing I want to do is go into a synodal sharing with my “grievance list.” The better paradigm is a religious retreat, which allows for quiet reflection, faith-filled input, and a resolution/conversion for the future. Until the Covid cloud upset our apple carts, I tried to make an annual retreat with the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey, near Charleston, SC. On the last full day of the retreat, after several days of silence, reflection, reading, and the liturgical hours, I would make a general confession, perhaps an hour, with one of the wise spiritual directors. Inside of that hour I could bring my reflection to bear, including my relationship with the Church—my love for the tradition that formed my faith identity and my frustration with where I belong in my local assembly of the Body of Christ.
Obviously, this kind of experience would be extremely hard to replicate in local synodal sharing. But the sequential of prayer, reflection, and an honest “state of my union” in the Church is not a bad outline to keep in mind as we approach synodal communion, and these are parts of the process that anyone can begin now in preparation for synodal group sharing.
Synodality is autobiographical.
We all came from somewhere, and when we gather to share, it will be critical to understand that, like snowflakes, no two of us are alike. [Even among the evangelists, no two Gospels are alike, either; each sacred author writes from his own encounter with the risen Christ]. We are already in the “autobiographical stage;” hopefully, reflecting upon our religious histories and highlighting the Church moments [or years] of our agony, ecstasy, stasis, alienation, reconversion. It is true, too, that the Vatican II and “the changes” have challenged the structural Church itself. We and the universal Church have changed together. It is also true that we live in an era of ongoing struggles between looking too far forward and looking too far backward.
If we can articulate our “Church journey” well, we will be able to better understand both those whose lives in the Church have been nurtured and those in the Church who have been suffering. My own life in the Church has been something of a roller coaster, but the Eternal Ticket Taker keeps punching my ticket for another wild ride around the course. I would have hoped that in my 70’s all of that would be settled. I might add here that the official documentation for the Synod calls for every effort to invite into the process those who have left the Church—evangelization of the best sort. All the sadder that the process was neglected in so many places.
Synodality is an experience as much as an outcome.
What would happen, for example, if a synodal sharing group met for six evenings during the summer and decided that it was impossible to share on paper all the nuances expressed in those times together? What if you do not finish the worksheet of questions? Is that a failure?
Gracious, no! First, this initial foray into Synodality is just that—our first time around the track. Pope Francis intends this synodal model to be the permanent way we, as a Church, talk to each other. I am aware that some dioceses are using on-line questionnaires to elicit black-and-white data on several topics of Church life. I hope no one draws a conclusion that the Church is just looking for some one-time feedback on a deadline, and that will be the end of things. This is just the beginning.
There is nothing wrong, either, with writing a letter to the Vatican Office of the Synod [I have the address] and simply expressing gratitude for the opportunity and the spiritual mood of the group after coming together at the invitation of the Pope.
Our sympathetic ears will be more important than our dogmatic mouths.
I was a theology teacher for my diocese for forty years, and I am aware that where religion is concerned, things can get heated. I cannot recall a time in my life when I have heard as much outright verbal abuse hurled at a pope by Catholics as the present day. However, I remember a psychology professor at Rollins College explaining to us future counselors that “resistance is a gift.” Anger is honest and often a clear expression of the soul. As difficult as it may be to hear, it is a true act of charity to allow a troubled brother or sister to articulate frustration or pain. Anger is often a marker of fear and powerlessness, and there are Catholics at both ends of the spectrum who fear that the wheels are falling off the ecclesiastical wagon. This is part of the “culture war” stress across America, to be sure, but a good many of us are “walking wounded” from past religious experience or any of several kinds of traumas too numerous to list. And there is a built-in hubris in assuming that an angry or troubled individual is not on target, at least to a point, and I as a listener may be obtuse to a legitimate concern of a fellow believer that I am hesitant to confront due to my own prejudices.
At the Last Supper Jesus prayed that “all may be one,” and the opportunity to express one’s religious concerns in a gathering that is not judgmental but honestly open is a major step in that unity longed for by Jesus
Working out a structure.
I would not be posting this blog at all if every diocese and parish had developed a workable structure for the synodal process to implement the Pope’s call to participation. And one thing I am discovering is that the dioceses which did implement synodal programs are shutting their internet resources down, having passed the arbitrary deadline for closure of the listening phase. In scouring many dioceses around the country on the internet, I got the dreaded “404” alert—link no longer engaged. This is unfortunate for those of us who were waiting on our parishes and never got our bite at the apple.
How we organize ourselves to engage in the process will require us to be wise as serpents as well as simple as doves. I wrestled for a long time with what kind of advice to offer on how to organize. If there is a group or groups within the parish that plan to meet to participate in the synod, it is wise to inform the pastor of your intention and ask for his prayers and blessing. You can even invite him to participate. However, it is not necessary to ask permission to meet, and I recommend you do not ask, for the simple reason that Catholics are always free to gather for prayer and faith sharing.
That said, common sense and fidelity to the Church both dictate that it is wise to have a competent pastoral advisor for a free-standing synod group to consult between meetings. For example, the director of faith formation in a parish would seem like an excellent resource person on several levels—to provide theological information on questions that may arise, to assist a group that may wish to form a permanent faith community, and to assist in forwarding the results of the synodal discussions to the diocese, or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or even directly to the Vatican.
Things become more complicated when the question becomes where to meet. In the best of all worlds the locus would be the parish “plant” itself. Parishes are notoriously sleepy during the summer [except for Vacation Bible School] and one would think that requests for space to meet might be less a problem. Again, there is a delicate balancing act here—the pastor does have the right and responsibility to manage the parish grounds, and whether he is enthusiastic about the synod process or not, as the CEO of the parish operation he has legal liabilities for the safety of anyone using the property. I am going to cross my fingers and say that a good pastor will do whatever he can to facilitate a friendly request for help and support, at least in terms of providing hospitality.
There are other options for gatherings. My own parish has several small faith groups that meet monthly and rotate gatherings among the homes of the participants. [I presently belong to a Mepkin Abbey spirituality group which meets monthly over Zoom.] I have not talked to my better half yet, but if left to my own devices, I would invite Catholics in my development to my home during the summer for several evenings of good coffee, pastry, and synod sharing. [My development straddles two parishes.] Again, during my pastoring years, I offered Mass from time to time at the clubhouses of the various retirement communities in the parish and followed it up with lunch and long informal discussions about the Church. It may be useful to consider such sites for a series of synodal gatherings.
About four years ago my entire family of three generations rented a splendid vacation house on Lake George in the Adirondacks and we gathered every night around the fire pit. In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if I had produced a case of a fine Umbrian wine and asked the group, “OK, where is everybody with the Church?” I think we could have gone to sunrise. [Or, they could have kept the wine and set me adrift on the lake in our boat.] The Spirit works where it wills. Just remember to summarize the discussion on paper after breakfast.
Local leadership of the process.
No group will function well without a leader, but for the synod we may be able to cast the nets a little wider for competent personnel. The synod is a listening process, which is different from a focused Bible study or a religion instruction. The discussions may call for clarifications about the Church, but that is more a matter of individual/group follow-up with, say, a parish formation staffer. One need not be a certified catechist to lead.
The Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has an impressive synod listening program guide in place. From its website: “All parishes, organizations, and self-formed small groups are invited to participate in the Synodal Gatherings preceding the Synod of Bishops in 2023. The purpose is to listen together to what the Holy Spirit is saying as it guides the Church forward. Materials are now available for people to lead their own Gatherings. The written conclusions from those consultations should be sent to the Coordinating Team which will synthesize them into a final report.”
The Kalamazoo Diocese assumes that many of its groups will be preexisting—parish councils, school faculties, choirs, etc. but that many others will be independent initiative-takers—no doubt the geography of the north factors into this--and it provides volunteer leaders a rich array of resources and suggestions to borrow from—beginning with a legible overview of the process and proceeding to the details. From what I can see, the best synod group leaders are those with a level head who care enough about the Church to join such a group in the first place. Any Catholic adult with experience in group settings—classroom, administration, military, family, business, human relations—would be fine. I suggested to my pastor that mental health counselors are trained group facilitators, but my input was relegated to clerical limbo.
[I would advise the readers to make copies of the Kalamazoo process--or a similar one, such as the Allentown link above--soon, as I do not know how much longer these resources will remain posted. I will keep copies for anyone who needs one down the road.]
In reading the Kalamazoo documents, I got the sense that one of the most important tasks of a designated leader is inviting as many people as possible to the sessions and encouraging friends and family to invite as many people as they know. “[The group] does not limit itself to certain people or groups, but actively searches in order to hear people at the margins who are overlooked, ignored, or without a voice.” Moreover. if the sessions continue through the summer, there is no problem I can see with adding more people to the groups if the logistics permit.
Synodality cannot be achieved in an evening. But it can be sampled.
It may be the start of a new reality of togetherness in the name of Christ. Consequently, let the group evolve with its own sense of time. Kalamazoo recommends a two-hour max for each meeting, including prayer and a caffeine jolt. In fact, the group can ask the guidance of the Spirit for a sense of its direction in the future. Hopefully, many groups will build upon the experience as the building of “domestic churches” which offer the intimacy of Catholic community we do not experience in larger church assemblies. The term “domestic church” was a favorite of Pope Paul VI. Pope Francis envisions the synodal model as the normative way we Catholics contribute to the wisdom and holiness of the universal Church.
Synodality may be the start of something beautiful…and the embrace to a hungry and frightened world to find flesh-and-bones communion with those who wait for Jesus to come again while living in a Spirit-filled community of support. We need each other.
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