VATICAN CITY — While a Synod of Bishops is not a parliament and its preparatory process is not “an opinion poll,” Pope Francis insisted that involving as many people as possible in the process and prayerfully listening to all of them is the only way to recognize the call of the Holy Spirit.
“I underline this because sometimes there is an elitism” among priests and bishops “that causes them to separate themselves from the laity,” the pope said Oct. 9 as he opened a day of reflection at the Vatican as part of the official launch of the process that will lead up to the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2023.
Widespread involvement “is not a matter of form, but of faith. Participation is a requirement of the faith received in baptism,” Pope Francis insisted during his talk to cardinals, bishops, priests, religious and laypeople meeting in the Vatican Synod Hall.
“Without real participation by the people of God, talk about communion risks remaining a devout wish,” he said. “In this regard, we have taken some steps forward, but a certain difficulty remains, and we must acknowledge the frustration and impatience felt by many pastoral workers, members of diocesan and parish consultative bodies and women, who frequently remain on the fringes.”
The attempt to create a new synod process, one that involves everyone and attempts to give the entire Church a “synodal” character of widespread consultation and group discernment, he said, carries “certain risks.”
The first, the pope said, is that of making the whole process a show that is only apparently one of all participants praying and listening for the Holy Spirit’s message by listening to each other.
Without attention to the Holy Spirit, he said, the process is simply a formality, it “would be like admiring the magnificent facade of a Church without ever actually stepping inside.”
Other risks, he said, include turning the synod into an intellectual exercise where no one listens and everyone sticks to their opinions, “ending up along familiar and unfruitful ideological and partisan divides” that do not respond to the Holy Spirit and people’s needs and concerns and “paralysis, the attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’ — this is poison in the life of the Church.”
If done prayerfully, openly and with widespread involvement, Pope Francis said, the process could help build “a synodal Church, an open square where all can feel at home and participate,” a Church that listens to the Holy Spirit and one another.
Welcoming participants, including those following on Zoom because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, Cardinal Mario Grech, synod secretary-general, said his office has seen great enthusiasm for the synod process.
Christina Inogés-Sanz, a theologian from Spain, told the gathering that the entire synod process is meant to be a spiritual exercise, with prayer imbuing every moment from listening sessions on the diocesan level to the gathering of bishops in 2023 and the implementation of decisions they and the pope make.
“All the people of God are summoned, for the first time, to participate in a Synod of Bishops,” Inogés-Sanz said. “All those to whom we did not know how to listen, who left us without us even missing them; they also are invited to make their voices heard, to send us their reflections, their concerns and their pain.”
She prayed that God would “teach us to be better Christians. Teach us to recover the essence of Christian community, which is communion, not exclusion.”
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, named by the pope to be the relator general of the synod, encouraged his fellow bishops to be open to listening to everyone and to hearing the Holy Spirit speaking through them.
“We are not the masters of the Gospel; we are its servants,” he told his fellow bishops. “Our listening must always include our conversion to the Gospel, the Gospel that is, at the same time, both the living word of Christ and the word of the Church. The bishop proclaims the Word of God in his homily only after having listened to Christ and the Church. It is this same attitude of listening that characterizes our role in the synodal journey.”
Synod can be
process of healing
A synod calls on everyone to become experts in “the art of encounter” in a way that is uplifting and transformative, Pope Francis said, formally opening the process leading up to the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2023.
“Celebrating a synod means walking on the same road, together” just like Jesus did — encountering, listening and discerning with all who one meets, the pope said in his homily at the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 10.
“Are we prepared for 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?’” he asked.
Some 3,000 people attended the Mass, including the 270 people — cardinals, bishops, priests, religious and laypeople — invited to the day of reflection in the Vatican Synod Hall Oct. 9.
Celebrating a synod, he said, means walking on the same road as others and living out the “three verbs” that characterize a synod: to encounter, listen and discern.
Sincere listening involves the heart, not just the ears, Pope Francis said. The aim is not to be able to answer people’s questions, especially with pre-packaged or “artificial and shallow responses,” but to provide an opportunity to tell one’s story and speak freely.
Encountering and listening “are not ends in themselves” where everything stays the same, but must lead to discernment, he said.
Discernment is what lights the way and guides the synod, “preventing it from becoming a Church convention, a study group or a political congress, but rather a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Holy Spirit,” Pope Francis said.
Like he asked the rich man in the Gospel reading, Jesus is asking everyone “to empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, including our inward-looking and outworn pastoral models, and to ask ourselves what it is that God wants to say to us in this time and the direction in which He wants to lead us,” he said.