ROME – Before sending participants in this weekend’s opening of a two-year consultation process back home, Pope Francis issued a strong reminder that the Synod of Bishops, which they’ll help guide, isn’t a church convention or a political congress.
A synod, is a journey of spiritual discernment that “takes place in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the word of God,” the pontiff said, or otherwise it becomes “a church convention, a study group or a political congress,” instead of being “a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Holy Spirit.”
For that, it must be guided by the Holy Spirit and rooted in prayer, particularly Eucharistic adoration, a practice which, Francis said Saturday, is almost lost today.
Though known in shorthand as the “Synod on Synodality,” the formal theme of the 2023 summit, which will have a diocesan, national and continental process before the actual gathering in Rome, is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”
Next Sunday, every diocese in the world is set to open their own Synod process, holding listening sessions in every parish guided by a series of questions released by the Vatican’s Synod office last month.
“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People,” a preparatory document for the synod says.
On Sunday, some 3,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica for the papal Mass, arguably the largest crowd in the basilica since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his homily, Francis didn’t focus on the three ideas that serve as sub-headers for the Synod’s theme, but instead spoke about encounter, listening and discernment.
“Today, as we begin this synodal process, let us begin by asking ourselves,” the pope said, if we’re ready to begin “the adventure of this journey? Or are we fearful of the unknown, preferring to take refuge in the usual excuses: ‘It’s useless’ or ‘We’ve always done it this way’?”
“Celebrating a Synod means walking on the same road, together,” Francis said. “Let us look at Jesus. First, he encounters the rich man on the road; he then listens to his questions, and finally he helps him discern what he must do to inherit eternal life. Encounter, listen and discern.”
Encountering faces, meeting eyes, sharing each individual’s history, the pontiff argued, represents the closeness that Jesus embodies, and no question annoys or disturbs him, because he’s “open to encounter.”
“He knows that someone’s life can be changed by a single encounter,” he said. “As we initiate this process, we too are called to become experts in the art of encounter. Not so much by organizing events or theorizing about problems, but by taking time to encounter the Lord and one another – time to devote to prayer and adoration, listening to what the Spirit wants to say to the church.”
True encounter, Francis continued, comes only from listening, and the response to someone sharing their lives cannot be a non-committal reply or a prepackaged solution, and when a person feels they’re being heard and not judged, they feel free to share their own experiences and their spiritual journey.
“Let us ask: in the church, are we good at listening?” he asked. “Do we allow people to express themselves, to walk in faith even though they have had difficulties in life, and to be part of the life of the community without being hindered, rejected or judged?”
For bishops, priests, religious and laity to actually listen to one another, avoiding artificial and shallow responses, can be a slow and tiring experience, but it’s important to “not soundproof our hearts” nor “remain barricaded in our certainties.”
During his homily, Francis revealed that later on Sunday, he was set to meet a group of homeless people, who he said, were only ready to meet with him because a group of people had gone and encountered them earlier, listened to what they had to say, and tried to understand what had led them to their current situation.
Encounter and listening are not ends in themselves, leaving everything just as it was before,” Francis said. “On the contrary, whenever we enter into dialogue, we allow ourselves to be challenged, to advance on a journey. And in the end, we are no longer the same; we are changed.”
This synod, which could change the way decisions are made at every level within the church, is a response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Francis has noted several times that clericalism was one of the pillars that cemented a culture of abuse, and this synod has been launched in an attempt to address it.
Announced in 2019, the process follows scandals in Chile, where 30 percent of the bishops had their resignation accepted, all under the cloud of allegations of either having sexually abused minors or having covered up for others; a Pennsylvania grand jury report that found thousands of cases of abuse; the removal from the priesthood of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; and an abuse prevention summit that Francis hosted in Rome in February 2019.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma