ROME – Since the beginning of Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality in 2021, the concept has been notoriously abstract and difficult to define. This week, however, rank-and-file pastors from all over the world have gathered in Rome with what they said are success stories about putting it into practice.

Speaking to journalists after a global meeting of pastors, American Father Clinton Ressler from the parish of St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, who also serves as chaplain to the NFL’s Houston Texans, stressed the importance of discernment.

“My whole life as a priest, in one sense, has been trying to share this gift and help people enter the dynamics of discernment in a communal way,” Ressler said, saying he wrote a thesis on communitarian discernment 25 years ago, and sees its value in parish life and in the global synodal process currently unfolding.

Discernment, he said, is “not just follow this step, do this. There’s something that has to happen among the people there. They have to be open to the Spirit, they have to be willing almost to die to themselves in order to really receive the gift of the other. Then they have to be willing to die in giving away the gift that they have, what’s speaking in their heart.”

In terms of putting synodality into practice at home, Ressler said he has established a “tactical discernment team” in his parish in addition to his pastoral council.

While the pastoral council meets regularly to pray and discern what the parish’s vision and goals are, the tactical discernment team meets every three weeks for three hours “in the context of prayer, to understand how to implement the vision in the concrete things of daily life.”

“It’s been two years of struggle, but of deepening relationships, deepening trust, deepening vulnerability, learning how to be honest in the presence of the pastor,” Ressler said, adding, “I love it.”

Ressler said the experience of synodality in his parish has been both “familiar and unfamiliar,” and that on one hand, parishioners can tend to focus solely on the needs of their specific parish, rather than thinking on a diocesan, national or global level.

To help broaden this perspective, he said his parish established a “leadership synod” including voices from outside the pastoral council a year and a half ago that meets every two months to share ideas and experiences.

“People get around a table and they speak to one another, and then they share that with the pastoral council, and then that gets shared with me,” he said, saying that as a pastor, it has been a great tool.

“What we’re really trying to do is not to listen to the voice of the people, but the voice of God in the voice of the people…This isn’t just about your voice and your opinions, although we want to hear them, but we all have to be willing to then go deeper, beneath those voices, to hear what the Spirit is saying to us,” he said.

Ressler was among the 200 pastors who came to Rome for an April 29-May 2 meeting titled, “Parish priests for the Synod: How to be a local church on mission?” organized by the Vatican office for the Synod of Bishops as part of the Synod on Synodality.

Launched in 2021 as a multi-year process unfolding at the national, continental and universal levels, the Synod on Synodality is set to close this October with a second Rome-based discussion, following a similar gathering last year.

As part of their official program, the pastors heard from various Vatican and synod officials, and they had a private, closed-door audience with Pope Francis, where they were able to ask questions and hear his responses.

Speakers for the event included Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops; South Korean Cardinal Lazarus You Heung-Sik, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy; Filippino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Pro-Prefect of the Section for First Evangelization and the New Particular Churches of the Dicastery for Evangelization; and Italian Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches.

Other speakers included Bishop Luis Marín de San Martín, Under-Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, and French Sister Nathalie Becquart, Under-Secretary of the Synod of Bishops.

Discussion topics included concrete experiences in synodality, how to practice synodality in diversity, and how to practice discernment in a spirit of synodality in local communities.

In a letter to pastors published on the final day of the event, Pope Francis reflected on how they can be builders of “a synodal and missionary” church in their own local contexts, offering three suggestions he said could help, the first of which was to “live out your specific ministerial charism in ever greater service to the varied gifts that the Spirit sows in the People of God.”

He also urged the pastors to learn “learn to practice the art of communal discernment,” using the so-called “conversation in the spirit” method practiced during last October’s synod gathering, pausing for periodic moments of silent prayer and discernment as the discussion unfolds.

Francis also told the pastors to “base everything you do in a spirit of sharing and fraternity among yourselves and with your bishops,” saying they cannot be fathers to their communities “unless we are first sons and brothers,” and they cannot foster union and participation unless they live it out themselves.

He closed his letter urging pastors to be “missionaries of synodality” among themselves and fellow pastors, as well as in their local communities.

Ressler pointed to difficulties in understanding synodality, which for many, despite four years of conversation, remains an abstract concept.

“When it’s presented in the media, sometimes the focus is on the issues that are controversial in the church, and whether or not this is some new instrument to foment change in doctrine or church teaching,” he said, saying this presentation is “scary, it’s disturbing, it’s unsettling.”

Calling it an “unfair presentation of what the synodal path is,” Ressler said synodality in reality is “much more practical, down on the grassroots level, of teaching people communitarian discernment, and to take responsibility for their parish, for their community. They need to be a participant.”

He also referred to the perception of a “great divide” between American Catholics and Pope Francis, saying that’s not been his personal experience.

“It depends on how much a particular person listens to certain news channels and news sources,” he said, saying, “sometimes I think fear drives a little bit of a reaction, but where there’s a more fair presentation I don’t think there’s that strong of a response.”

“My parish, I think, hasn’t been resistant at all to what the pope has been saying to us,” he said.

Speaking of his own pastoral experience, Father Harry Quaedvlieg from the Diocese of Roermond in the Netherlands told journalists that as pastors, “We can trust this synodality.”

“It would be very adequate when you are in crisis or when you have great challenges as a church, to come together in this synodal system” where everyone is heard, and where there is also time for silent reflection, he said, saying, “then you really start to listen before making the solution.”

Quaedvlieg said the process of synodality was especially helpful when, a few years ago, his diocese had to merge five parishes, and they had to figure out the logistics of which parish to keep and where the parishioners would go.

“It took some time,” he said, saying they went through several rounds of listening to the parishioners involved, including their complaints, “we stayed together” and reached a solution based on everyone’s input.

Visibly moved, Quaedvlieg said it brought the community together and that “in a certain moment also, parishioners had more faith, more hope in what we were doing than many parishes around us.”

Stressing the importance of being connected to one’s community as a pastor, Quaedvlieg said many priests can get lonely and feel burdened by the responsibilities they carry, but “if in the process you are becoming ‘we,’ we don’t feel that lonely.”

Father Stefan Ulz from the Diocese of Graz-Seckau in Austria also shared his personal experience of synodality as a pastor, saying that for him, synodality first of all means “God is with us, he goes with us, and then we have to go with him, (and) because we go with him, we have to go together, and to go together as one people where everyone has the same importance.”

We are brothers and sisters, and the Holy Spirit is speaking through everybody, not only the pope or the bishop, but everyone is important,” he said, saying he as a parish priest does not have a monopoly on good ideas, but is often inspired by his parishioners, “because they have ideas that I won’t have.”

Ulz said he comes from a large area and is pastor to a community of seven parishes with 51,000 people, “So we have many meetings with different groups, pastoral groups, etc., and I sometimes used the method of conversation in the spirit, and it helps us.”

“I try to get more and more people to participate, and also to hear people who are not in a pastoral team, because sometimes God speaks through people who are not in the inner circle,” he said.

He also touched on the importance of unity in diversity as an important aspect of synodality, saying this was a personal takeaway from meeting fellow pastors from around the world.

“Diversity is not a problem that divides us, but it’s an enrichment if we meet in the spirit of love, if we meet in the openness of seeing the richness of one another, it becomes an enrichment and not something to divide us,” he said.

Ulz underlined the importance of parish priests practicing synodality at the local level, because “if the parish priests don’t live in a synodal way, it’s difficult to be a synodal church, because the parish priests are with the people.”

“So, I will try to do my part to convince more and more parish priests to live in this way, the synodal way,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen