Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The Synod: Learning to “Walk Together”

The XVI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has gathered in Rome after a long process of preparation that entailed meetings of dialogue among bishops, priests, and lay people in dioceses all over the world. It would be too much to generalize and simply say that it was a fruitful experience for the younger churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but a complicated, perplexing, over-structured, and sometimes agenda-driven process for the wealthy churches of Europe and North America. It’s not surprising that some of us in “the West” can be anxious about a process that appears to be intent on “listening to everyone.” We have had over a century of experiences (and reinforcing media narratives) that might well incline us to view all human interaction as a struggle of hyper-partisan power politics. This is not without reason, and indeed points to a potential human dynamic wherein ideologies can “hijack” a well-intentioned dialogue and turn it into an opportunity to sow dissent and confusion while increasing their own power in society.

Thus, the fears or the expectations of our peoples might easily stand in the way of our perceiving what the event and the grace of this “Synod on Synodality” really is for the whole Church. Pope Francis is pursuing “the synodal path” for reasons entirely different from the preoccupations of the Western media. He believes that this difficult effort is necessary because it is God’s will for the whole Church today, and for the Church’s evangelizing mission in the world. So often we fail to recognize that the Synod is an ecclesial event whose value cannot be measured by this-worldly criteria. Even if it yields nothing that gains our excitement, or appears to be “a failure” in earthly terms, we must not ignore what the Holy Spirit is trying to accomplish—where the Spirit is leading the Church—in these initial and vulnerable steps toward a more profound mutual understanding and compassion among the members of Christ’s Body, a fuller involvement of ourselves in the real possibilities for living in the world today (amidst epochal changes) as brothers and sisters of Christ, and as servants of everyone.

We have too little faith in the fact that Jesus Christ really is the Head of the Church, that He directs the Church in the ways of His redeeming love, and has promised to be with us always in our journey through this present life. But if we listen to Pope Francis with the expectation of recognizing the grace of God at work in him to lead the Church, we would recognize the supernatural value of this Synod with patience and confidence that it will bear fruit. Indeed, the fruits of the Synod are ripening even now.

Pope Francis knows this, and he is dedicated—as “Vicar of Christ” at the present moment in history—to lead the Church’s first new steps in “walking together” and being the light of the world.

We should listen to the Pope’s words (below, in bold type), as he preached in the October 4 opening Mass, in which he reminds us of the gaze of Jesus that defines us, communicates Divine love to us, and challenges us “to be a Church that, with a glad heart, contemplates God's action and discerns the present. And which, amid the sometimes agitated waves of our time, does not lose heart, does not seek ideological loopholes, does not barricade itself behind preconceived notions, does not give in to convenient solutions, does not let the world dictate its agenda. This is the spiritual wisdom of the Church, summarized with serenity by Saint John XXIII: ‘It is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate’ (Address for the Solemn Opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, October 11, 1962).

“Jesus’ gaze that blesses invites us to be a Church that does not face today’s challenges and problems with a divisive and contentious spirit but, on the contrary, turns its eyes to God who is communion and, with awe and humility, blesses and adores him, recognizing him as its only Lord. We belong to him and — let us remember — we exist only to bring him to the world. As the Apostle Paul told us, we have no other ‘glory except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14). This is enough for us; he is enough for us. We do not want earthly glory; we do not want to make ourselves attractive in the eyes of the world, but to reach out to it with the consolation of the Gospel, to bear witness to God’s infinite love, in a better way and to everyone. Indeed, as Benedict XVI said, precisely when speaking to a synod assembly, ‘the question for us is this: God has spoken, he has truly broken the great silence, he has shown himself, but how can we communicate this reality to the people of today, so that it becomes salvation?’ (XIII General Assembly, October 8, 2012). This is the fundamental question. And this is the primary task of the Synod: to refocus our gaze on God, to be a Church that looks mercifully at humanity. A Church that is united and fraternal — or at least seeks to be united and fraternal — , that listens and dialogues; a Church that blesses and encourages, that helps those who seek the Lord, that lovingly stirs up the indifferent, that opens paths in order to draw people into the beauty of faith. A Church that has God at its center and, therefore, is not divided internally and is never harsh externally. A Church that takes a risk in following Jesus. This is how Jesus wants the Church, his Bride, to be.”