The Synodal Path

Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis announced a process of consultation and discussion for the worldwide Catholic church to culminate in the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2023. He calls it the synodal path. I had to look it up. From an online article by Fr. William Clark, “the term ‘synod’ is an ancient Greek term that means ‘coming together’ or ‘traveling together.’ Early Christians developed a custom of local leaders coming together to pray and make decisions about matters affecting Christian communities in a specific region. They gathered believing that their prayers and discussions would reveal God’s will and the way to achieve it.[1]

“These gatherings came to be called ‘synods’ and the custom began of gathering bishops of smaller regions, and then of larger ones called ecumenical councils, which were for all bishops to discuss issues that affected the whole church. Over time, as the power of the papacy grew, ecumenical councils were still called, but rarely regional synods. After the Reformation in the 16th century, Catholic bishops gathered even less frequently, and only when the pope invited them. Meanwhile, even ecumenical councils became rare, with only two in 400 years. The most recent, Vatican Council II, met from 1962 to 1965 and launched significant changes in church law and structure.

“One of the goals of Vatican II was to revitalize the role of bishops as heads of their local churches and emphasize the need for them to cooperate and work together. As a ‘college’ under the leadership of the pope, the bishops were mutually responsible for the governance of the whole church. So, Pope Paul VI created a permanent structure for a Synod of Bishops, with a secretariat in Rome and a General Assembly called by the pope to gather regularly. Since 1967, this assembly came together 18 times: 15 ‘ordinary’ and 3 ‘extraordinary,’ and a number of ‘special assemblies’ focused on particular regions of the world.

In 2014 a year after his election, Pope Francis called an extraordinary assembly on the vocation and mission of the family in the church and in the world and invited input from ordinary Catholics through a process of consultation that involved every diocese and culminated in the 14th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2015. Probably because it was the first such attempt, I think many of us hesitated and did not take the invitation seriously. Also, we are more familiar with the ways of democracy and prefer our elected representatives do the tedious work on our behalf and leave us be to go about our lives until the next election cycle. But since we don’t elect our bishops and pastors, that sent us even farther down the ladder of personal engagement, distancing the sheep of God’s flock and their shepherds from each other even more. And it doesn’t help that for many years church leadership seemed to go light when holding each other to account, and pastors didn’t often smell like their sheep, and there’s always a second collection next week. Ironically next week is World Mission Sunday, so there’s a second collection, but we are all free to be as generous as we choose. No pressure.

I hope to learn what this journey asks of us because it is meant to change how we listen to the Holy Spirit and how we listen to one another. In his homily last Sunday, Pope Francis expressed a hope that taking this journey seriously, we might “become experts in the art of encounter. Not so much by organizing events or theorizing about problems, as in taking time to encounter the Lord and one another … listening to what the Spirit wants to say to the Church … taking time to look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say, to build rapport, to be sensitive to the questions of our sisters and brothers, to let ourselves be enriched by the variety of charisms, vocations, and ministries.”[2]

In the gospel passage we read today, Jesus is approached by James and John who seemed less concerned about the needs of those they were sent to serve than they were about the seats of honor they would occupy alongside Jesus in his kingdom. “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you.” I will admit going to the priest convocation this past week I stood taller knowing our new church is the envy of the whole diocese. But it appears that is yesterday’s news. An even greater achievement is that we walked a very challenging journey together. In any number of ways, we could have done better; I could have done better. You may not have noticed, but I am aware that some people have walked away. Some don’t talk to me anymore. Some go to other churches now. I know listening is hard work and I could do better in the art of encounter, as Pope Francis puts it. But we all know listening goes both ways. If I’m formulating a response while someone is speaking, I can’t really be listening. And as we listen to one another, we also need to listen to the Holy Spirit.

“It is a slow and perhaps tiring exercise, this learning to listen to one another,” says Pope Francis. “Let us not soundproof our hearts; let us not remain barricaded in our certainties. Let us listen to one another.” He continues, “encounter and listening are not ends in themselves, leaving everything just as it was before. 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.” He tells us we also need to believe that those before us are good and religious people, obedient to the commandments. And we will need to look within and discern what our hearts truly treasure, to discover that we cannot attain happiness by filling our lives with more clutter, but by emptying ourselves to make room for God.

In this hyper divisive climate, it is easier to get defensive and pick fights and vilify and dismiss those with whom we disagree. It might be the way of the world, the way of partisan politics, but Jesus reminds us “it shall not be so among you.” If we recognize the Holy Spirit in our midst, how can we justify inflicting harm or alienating one another? Instead, “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” If only we listened to the Holy Spirit when facing the challenges we have with our fellow Americans, our fellow Catholics, our fellow human beings, we probably would make greater progress. If only.

As for the parish pastoral council that is currently undergoing restructuring, this synodal path might be just what I’ve been looking for. I’m still working the details, so it will take time. But the process will involve encountering, listening, and discerning. The Holy Father and the worldwide church face greater challenges than you and me here in Waynesboro. But if we make it work here, we might just be the wave of the future.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021

[1] William Clark.


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