Visuals have always been important in the Catholic world, and the visual that has been most striking to me from this past month’s synod is of the Paul VI Audience Hall, set up with round tables where all of the delegates face each other as equals. While this doesn’t look all that unusual to us who have been involved in any kind of gathering that involves small group breakout and discussion, it’s far from the usual configuration of any kind of gathering of catholic bishops. As this session of the synod draws to a close this week, it has issued a “Letter to the People of God” which draws attention to the value of listening, and the need for further listening, especially to people on the margins of society and of the church. The kind of listening that can only happen when people have the opportunity to look each other in the eye. When they have the opportunity to sit together in silent prayer for the guidance of the Spirit.
And in unofficial reports from the synod, it seems that the people having the hardest time dealing with that kind of format are the bishops. It seems that for many of them, listening is just not something they usually do. They’re much more comfortable with the usual synod hall, where bishops are seated in rows looking at the backs of the heads in front of them and listening to a bishop speak on a more or less pre-determined topic. Looking across a table at a woman religious sharing her experience with authority in the church hasn’t been a usual part of their experience.
Perhaps that is why the topic of this synod is the process of how to be a synodal church. It’s been awhile since the church has operated this way and we (especially our leaders) need to learn how to do it. One of my favorite descriptions of the synod process recently is from Jesuit Fr Thomas Reese. He said that the difference between what we are used to doing and synodality is like the difference between talking about spirituality and going on a retreat to pray. It’s like the difference between talking about love and being in love. He said this in an article about how to implement synodality in our parishes, which is something that Pope Francis is looking for. I was pleased that a lot of what he was writing about is what we have been attempting to be about in the last couple of years with listening sessions being the place we start with making parish decisions.
He concluded that the way Pope Francis is offering is very different in what we are used to encountering in parish decision-making gatherings, “Such a process is a far cry from a parish meeting presided over by the pastor who announces and defends his preordained decisions. It is also different from a meeting where people loudly argue with each other over what is going on in the parish or debate other church topics. Such meetings often lead to more polarization, not less.”
As the church continues its gatherings and seeks to be more nearly a synodal church, may we pray and work with the Spirit that we may more nearly become a synodal parish.
Rev Louis Meiman
Pastor, St Frances of Rome/St Leonard