The Catholic Church is on the “synodal path,” which is a churchy way of saying it is time for us to listen to the Holy Spirit and to one another.
In the diocesan phase for the next Synod of Bishops launched worldwide this fall, all Catholics are being asked to discern how the Spirit is moving in the world and in our own lives, and what is the experience of people on the edge – as Pope Francis says, on the margins — of the church or society.
This current Synod of Bishops appears to be something new but it isn’t. Historically there have been significant synods, from the Christian Church’s beginning in the Holy Land then across Christendom and even to our own time, all over the world. The Second Vatican Council called for a more synodal church, as has Pope Francis.
Already this year synods under various names have been underway in Ireland (Synodal Pathway), Australia (Plenary Council), Germany (Synodal Way) and Latin America (Ecclesial Assembly). Similar gatherings have been happening all along, and before the current process, in dioceses throughout the United States.
Almost 20 years ago the Archdiocese of Philadelphia completed an archdiocesan synod, in 2002.
That particular process involved hundreds of Catholics well organized in committees with meetings, moderated discussions, statistical information and theological guidance, dedicated staff and finally, a report with recommended action steps going forward.
It all took nine years. The current synod is compacted into less than one year, wrapping up with a local report by August 2022. It will join other reports from North America and finally be among those from all other continents that the prelates at the worldwide Synod of Bishops will study in 2023 in Rome.
Some local people will see the current process as a waste of time because, they believe, the 2002 synod led to little of lasting value and the report itself was soon forgotten. They see a similar flaw in recent Vatican synods on the family and on the Amazon region: No perceived immediate results, so no value in the process.
But action plans and eloquent, glossy-covered reports are beside the point of a synod. The journey is the point, not the destination.
A synod should lead a church community to learn how to listen – to one another, and to the voice of the Holy Spirit moving in our lives. And listening should become a permanent feature of the church.
That is the meaning of synodality, a Greek tongue twister that basically means journeying together on our earthly pilgrimage with open ears to one another and the action of the Spirit.
In our culture of busyness and noise everyone seems to say a lot, and often, on a profusion of websites, podcasts and especially social media, not to mention casual conversation.
Through this synod process, Catholics are being asked to become countercultural in a radical way: to listen more than we speak. When we speak, we should share our experience more than our opinion. When we listen, we should do so with an open mind, not to reload for our rebuttal.
This synod is a seat at the kitchen table, set with fresh bread and hot coffee. It’s a shady path down which we walk with a friend, sharing back and forth as we go.
Like Jesus’ encounter with disciples on the road to Emmaus that ended in an evening meal and a revelation, our synod begins with a question that we might consider thus:
“What are you discussing?” the unrecognized Jesus says.
“All the things that happened” in our relationship with Jesus, the disciples reply.
They add, “We were hoping…” suggesting they don’t have hope in the coming of Christ anymore. But he is closer than they realize.
Many today have surrendered hope to cynicism, but Christ in this time and place is closer than we think. The synod invites us to follow the Father’s identification of Christ as his beloved Son, and his call: “Listen to him.”
Soon the archdiocese will present opportunities and tools for everyone to pull up a chair at that kitchen table and share “all the things” of God’s movement in our hearts, in his church and in the world.
What do you have to say? Will you listen?
Matthew Gambino is the editor of CatholicPhilly.com.
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