Reading many, many posts on social media concerning the forthcoming Synod this October, one of the facets I notice is the reluctance to embrace the Synod. Most frequently, I notice that this reluctance seems to come from those who would consider themselves – in fact, proclaim themselves to be – more ‘traditionalist’ in their approach to the practice of their faith. For these, the distancing from the Synod appears to come along with something else – a partial or full rejection of the papacy of Pope Francis. Ironically, it is these same people who profess most loudly that they are Catholic – not seeming to notice the irony between what they say and what they do.
I cannot help but think that for this group, the practice of faith has been reduced to how they choose to express a purely personal devotion – and while private devotion is the choice of the individual, the Church is something far greater; it is the communal coming together to the People of God united with the Pope. In separating ourselves from one, we likewise separate ourselves from the other.
Of course, such reluctance does not exist only at one end of the spectrum – it is just as apparent at the other end, although there it takes a different form. Here, it seems to be expressed in the views of those who have already decided what the Synod “should” decide and what aspects of the Catholic faith it “should” change.
But the Synod is not about coming with ready-made thoughts which we simply want to propose for their acceptance by others. That is speaking – it is not listening. And it is definitely not ‘active listening’.
And so there are these two polar opposites; and somewhere between them, there are most of the other people who profess the same Catholic faith.
For those within this broader group, there does not seem to be the same strength of vision regarding the Synod – I hasten to add that I don’t mean this as a criticism; on the contrary, I think that is the more prudent route to take. If we look at the Synod, which has not yet taken place, and we already have a clear and decisive view of what we think the outcome ought to be, then it seems to me that we have not really understood what ‘Synod’ is all about.
Pope Francis has always been clear that the Synod is not like a Parliament, where votes are counted on a particular issue and the one with the greatest number wins. Rather, the Synod is supposed to be more like a journey, where we are led in docility by the Holy Spirit, Who is the true leading force behind whatever takes place. And in this sense, it is perhaps more about the journey – and the way we make that journey – than about the end result.
My sense is that if the Church opens itself to the grace of the Holy Spirit, if it allows itself to be led in humility by that same Spirit, then the outcomes will be more authentic because the ‘voice of the Church’ will be clearer and discernment similarly easier. I think it is this ‘voice of the Church’ which the Holy Father is listening for, and which he keenly desire that we listen for, too – after all, to hear that voice is the whole point of the Church coming together as one in Synod.
If we manage to do this, I think the graces of the Synod could be extraordinary, on a par with those of the Great Council of the 1960s. A Synod of this sort, where the Church is truly open to active listening, is not only a great grace in and of itself, but also something we desperately need if the Church is to be faithful to her mission of evangelisation.
The Church does not – and cannot – exist separately from the world around her; and so, like the Council Fathers, we need to find effective ways of engaging with this world of which we are all a part. In saying this, I am thinking not only of those outwith the Church but also those who are on the inside – we, too, need to engage with the world. If our experience of the world and our experience of faith as part of the Church are divisively at odds with one another, then we have a real problem; cognitive dissonance will result within the person, as we cannot proclaim two opposing realities at the same time. Further, the ability of the Church to evangelise will fail – because the world at large will simply stop listening to the Church, even more than it has already. And so in this way, the Church will no longer have an relevance for the greater part of humanity.
I suspect that this last point plays a pivotal role in successfully understanding why so very many people no longer consider themselves to be Catholic, no longer take part in the sacramental and communal life of the Church and have just stepped away from it all without even so much as looking back over their metaphorical shoulders.
The Lord promised the gates of Hell would never prevail over the Church – He did not promise that she would always be effective or successful in her endeavours in the world; perhaps whatever happens in that respect – at least for this moment of human and Church history – depends on us and on how well we embrace that ‘active listening’, if the Synod is to be and to do as the Holy Spirit intends.