Last night I had the pleasure of watching a live webinar organised by Liturgical Press, which featured Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP as one of the featured speakers. The webinar was about the experience of the Synod on Synodality and what has come from it so far, and thoughts on where it might lead to.
The final Synthesis Report of the Synod was released last Saturday night in Italian, although the English-language translation took several more days to appear. The general reception to the Reports seems to have been broadly cool – for some, perhaps because it did not go far enough in what it offered or suggested; and for others, perhaps because to went too far it what it described.
From a personal perspective, I felt a degree of disappointment, as I wrote about in a post over on Substack called Silence Becomes Absence, with a follow-up in a further post called Silence Becomes Absence II. As you can read there, my disappointment was not for either of the reasons mentioned in the paragraph above, but simply because I thought the Report lacked the courage of its convictions and did not fully record the conversations which actually took place at the Synod, since it focussed on the areas of convergence to the exclusion of those areas of divergence.
In the days since then, I have been trying to find a balance between what I know took place in those conversations in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, and what was ultimately documented in the Report.
And that has not been as easy as you might imagine it ought to have been.
And so I was delighted to listen to Fr Radcliffe on the webinar last night. Throughout the Synod itself, Fr Radcliffe had offered spiritual reflections to the participants; these were broadcast on Vatican Media and I found them to be incredibly insightful and beneficial. He also introduced each of the sections of the Working Document as they arose for discussion and discernment amongst the participants and it was clear he had a deep understanding of the whole intended process of synodality. The end result of all this was that I placed trust in what this good man says and listened very carefully to him – I have little doubt that the Holy Spirit is speaking through his words.
Speaking last night, Fr Radcliffe commented on the cool reception toward the Final Report and touched on some of the reasons for this. Later on, he echoed back to a motif he had used during the discussions – that of the Synod being like a tree that is planted, rather than a race that is being run.
In other words, the Synod itself is the beginning of something more, something greater, not a four week event which is now ended. He said something which struck a chord with me, and which I cannot stop thinking about; he said – “cherish in hope what has begun”.
It was such a simple thing to say, just a few words. Yet, in a strange sense, it said everything – and it helped with the dilemma I had been experiencing within myself over that Report and what I felt was missing from it; and the consternation this had produced within me these past days.
Those words were significant enough, I felt, that I wrote them on the front cover of my copy of the Final Report; now, when I take this up to read from it, I will always see these words first – and this was contextualise what I go on to read within.
Fr Radcliffe’s motif of the tree being planted also reminded me of something else, something which has previously struck me as being a powerful image. It is found in the Divine Office – it is the hymn for Morning Prayer on Friday of Week 2. This hymn describes the motif of the vine planted by God and carefully tended by Him, pruning it to make it fruitful and cutting away whatever is not fruitful – “each fruitful branch He prunes with care, to make it yield abundant fruit” the hymn recounts, later reminding us again that “I am the fruitful vine, and you My branches are..” – for the vine is the Lord Himself.
This image of the vine being planted and tended is found in Scripture. Psalm 80 uses the same motif –
“You brought a vine out of Egypt, you drive out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches..
Turn again O God of hosts, look down from Heaven and see;
have regard for this vine, the stock that Your right hand has planted..”
And in case there is any doubt about what – Who – we are referring to in this image of the Vine, Saint John’s Gospel tells us very clearly in these words of the Lord:
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes that it may bear more fruit.” (Jn.15: 1-2)
Reflecting, then, on the words of Fr Radcliffe, they seem to suggest that we are now entering into that time of ‘pruning’ as far as the Synod is concerned – in fact, he had earlier spoken of this, telling us that what might initially seem like the ‘quiet moment’ is in fact the ‘moment of germination’, when what has been learned and experienced in the grand hall of the Synod is taken back out to the local Churches, to the parishes and dioceses across the world.
This applies to me personally, I think, as much as it applies to the Church more broadly; I, too, now need to think and to prune and to allow what has been planted to properly germinate so the it might become fruitful within me.
My earlier sense of disappointment had prevented me from actually picking up and reading the Final Report at all, even though it is sitting here on the desk right in front of me. Today, however, I will finally do so.
And I am grateful to Fr Radcliffe for making that possible for me.