In a synodal style, we make decisions through discernment of what the Holy Spirit is saying through our whole community. This is a slow process requiring patience and deep listening guided by the Holy Spirit. This is a challenge for those of us who are used to a more structured leadership style, especially in our culture, which values efficiency and seeks immediate results.
The synodal style invites us to set aside preconceptions about what needs to be done and take time to listen more broadly, aware that the Holy Spirit “blows where He wills” and often speaks to us from unexpected quarters and in unexpected ways.
One of the strengths of the Church in the United States is that given our general culture, we are quite accustomed to lay participation on parish pastoral councils and finance boards, as well as school boards. On the diocesan level, there are the presbyteral council, the diocesan pastoral council, the diocesan finance council and numerous boards.
These are almost entirely comprised of the most active Catholics in the parish and the diocese, and some of their membership is hand-picked by the established leadership, be it the pastor or the bishop or department heads of the diocese. The result is that divergent voices are less likely to be heard, especially when these entities adopt a businesslike approach and focus mainly on the practical matters on the prepared agenda.
Thus, it often happens that we decide without first taking the time to discern. How can we then broaden our approach to decision-making, such that the concerns and perspective and contribution of the larger community are included? And how can we make sure that what we are hearing is in fact the voice of the Holy Spirit?
Each parish and diocese is different, but what we all have in common is that we have people who “fall through the cracks,” perhaps because they don’t feel fed spiritually. Maybe the Church was not there for them at a time when they needed it, or they don’t feel like they really belong, perhaps due to some specific circumstance. Most of these people are not on any of our existing councils or boards, so how do we hear their voice — especially if they have an experience to share that is painful to hear?
Here we need to be creative. Some places have groups that meet special needs, for instance grief groups and Alzheimer support groups. They have something to contribute and will do so if invited.
But how about establishing an outreach to those who for whatever reason feel marginalized in the life of the Church? For instance, divorcees and people experiencing same-sex attraction, undocumented immigrants and inmates in our prison system. We may need to hear their voices one on one, especially when dealing with sensitive matters, but they too have experiences to share.
And then we need to take everything we are hearing to prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to help us discern well what He wishes to reveal to us. In this respect, the National Eucharistic Revival that we will be undertaking the next three years is providential, especially its promotion of eucharistic adoration, because that time of patient, silent listening in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is an especially fruitful time for discernment. Thoughts come together and “gel,” often in unexpected ways.
And sometimes pastoral situations sort themselves out in the presence of the Lord in ways that would not have been possible if we had not first spent time listening patiently to what the Holy Spirit is saying across a broader range of voices than those who are customarily at the table in our decision-making process.
Bishop Taylor heads the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. This column is one of a series of reflections on the preparations now underway for the 2023 world Synod of Bishops on synodality.