By Fran Lavelle
If you have followed the pontificate of Pope Francis, you know that he is deeply rooted in his Jesuit formation. Foundational to a Jesuit’s formation is understanding the role of discernment in the life of the church and of all of God’s people. In the past few years, he has written three timely documents that invite the faithful to reflect on the role of the church in the world today. Christus Vivit is an Apostolic Exhortation “to young people and to the people of God” written in summation of the Synod on Young People. Fratelli Tutti, an encyclical letter, is written on fraternity and social friendship. And Let Us Dream, an inspired blueprint for a better future for all especially considering the devastating impact of the pandemic on the poor.
In all three documents he builds on the foundation of his deep appreciation for discernment, accompaniment and authentic listening. His current call for a Synod on Synodality: Communion, Participation and Mission finds kinship in the Jesuit practice of See, Act, Judge. This process is a method of intentionally seeing an issue and stopping to reflect on it before acting. It is a different way of articulating Thomas Aquinas’ description of prudence.
So, what’s a Synod you ask? Vatican II established a Synod of Bishops, described in the 1983 Code of Canon Law as a group of bishops selected from different regions of the world who are called to address a particular issue. For example, a synod may be called to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the church in the world. Since the mid-1960s when the Synod of Bishops was established, there have been invoked some thirty synods. Many have gone unnoticed. Pope Francis has, however, given new life to the Synod of Bishops by considering questions pertaining to the young church, families, the Amazon and other timely issues.
Pope Francis will begin the Synod the weekend of Oct. 9-10 with an opening session and a Mass. Bishop Kopacz will open the Synod in the diocese of Jackson with a Mass on Sunday, Oct. 24. Phase one of the synod on synodality is the diocesan phase that begins this month and will conclude in April 2022. In the diocesan phase we will collect input from local parishes, lay movements, religious institutions, schools, universities, ecumenical communities and other groups. The bishop then must synthesize that data into a 10-page report by April 2022 for submission to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The diocese will publish the document that is sent to the USCCB in early May to help form and inform parish leaders as they plan for the future. The USCCBs summary of the country’s work will be sent to the Vatican. Those summaries will be used to help create a working document that will be the start of discussions during continental synod meetings that will run from September 2022-March 2023.
Central to understanding what the Synod is, is recognizing what it is not. It is not a pastoral planning process, nor is it a free for all gripe session. It is an opportunity for the people of God to pray together and ask of ourselves as individuals and within our church community where we are being called in our journey together. It provides a moment in time for the universal church to look at the greatest issues facing God’s holy people and asking how are we to respond as we embody the Gospel.
The USCCBs handbook in preparation for the synod describes the synodal journey as an experience of “authentic listening and discernment on the path of becoming the church that God calls us to be.” It goes on to state that, “The Synodal Process is first and foremost a spiritual process. It is not a mechanical data-gathering exercise or a series of meetings and debates. Synodal listening is oriented towards discernment.” It is our role as diocesan leaders to call forth through prayer and discernment where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
The Pope’s desire to graciously hear from all demographics, all ages, all people is indicative of his belief that the workings of the church is not a clandestine process that happens behind closed doors. Pope Francis is asking for church leaders to open wide their arms, ears and the hearts to hear the prophetic voice of God’s people. Cardinal Mario Grech said it so well, “The Second Vatican Council teaches that the People of God participate in the prophetic office of Christ. Therefore, we must listen to the People of God, and this means going out to the local churches.”
Begin praying now for wisdom and understanding. Begin praying now for a renewed fervor for the hearts and minds of people everywhere to be led back to the heart and mission of Christ. When your parish gathers to listen to one another, may you be fortified with the knowledge that your voice matters.
(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)