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The Church serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family. [ Gaudium et Soes #40]

The "Synod on Synodality" (Part Two)

As I mentioned in the previous blog, one of the best ways to grasp the concept of “Synodality” and the goal that Pope Francis has in mind with the Synod is to listen to or read the series of six meditations that the Pope asked Timothy Radcliffe (former Master General of the Dominican Order) to lead prior to the first phase of the Synod on Synodality, which ended this past October. It is important to remember that the Synod is not over. Pope Francis deliberately structured it into several phases so that participants—and the Church as a whole—could and would take time to reflect, to listen, to dialogue, and to let the Spirit of God open up new appreciation and insights. Only with the 2024 gathering in October will the Synod wrap up its work, followed most likely by a final Apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis.


The previous blog looked at Fr. Radcliffe’s first two meditations, which focused on how we have different experiences of what it means to be “at home” and welcome in the Church and differing understandings of what we hope the synod will accomplish. His last four meditations focus on “Friendship,” the “Art of Conversation,” “Authority,” and “Facing the Truth.” Here is a link to all Six Synodal Meditations by Timothy Radcliffe.


Fr. Radcliffe opens his meditation on Friendship with the quote “Orthodoxy is spacious, heresy is narrow and small-minded.” He then offers several Scriptural references: Jesus’ talking about how in the Father’s house there will be many dwelling places; the image of Jesus as the shepherd who leads his sheep out of the gate to the wide-open pasture; Jesus’ engagement with all walks of life from lawyers and rabbis to tax collectors and prostitutes. To embrace the “synodal path” is to embrace that same spaciousness of Jesus. To recognize that relationships of friendship are more important than communication of information. And not just any friendships. The ancient world understood friendship between those of equal status, but Jesus crosses boundaries to befriend those who were considered marginal. The good news of Jesus is that no boundary is too deep, high, or strong to prevent authentic friendship, rooted in the equal friendship of the Triune God. Such friendship takes effort; it needs intentionality. We talk about “falling in love,” Radcliffe says, but we “make friends.”


There are so many people who the world refuses to look at and see clearly. As a community rooted in the example of Jesus, we need to push ourselves to look beyond those worldly-imposed boundaries (for example ideological ones) and truly see and befriend others who are different than us. And the key: start by sharing one’s convictions and doubts and listening to the other’s own convictions and doubts. Common ground opens up, and with the Spirit’s help, even true friendship, that is stronger than anything that would divide us. This needs to happen in our Church today, and the synodal path is the way to experience that surprising grace of unexpected friendships. How often do we see in our Catholic media now a refusal to listen and respect the other’s views. Instead, there is immediately vitriol, condemnation, taking words out of context or only partial statements to make one’s own approach look more credible. This is the opposite of the synodal path.


In the fourth meditation Fr. Radcliffe focuses on the “Art of Conversation.” In the Church and world, we need healing words to cross those boundaries our world (we) creates, and the Scriptures show us a starting point. In the silence and shame, following the eating of the forbidden fruit, God reaches out to Adam and Eve and asks “Where are you?” The silence of the empty tomb is broken by questions such as “Why are you looking for the living One among the dead?” or “Why are you weeping.” And on the way to Emmaus, as Jesus begins to walk along with the two disciples who are in animated conversation, he asks them “What are you talking about?” The synodal way, if we have the courage, invites us to start with such questions, and truly listen to the other, even if they are angry or have vehement disagreements with us. It invites us to start with the question of what is going on with others and what is their view, rather than pointing out all the ways others are wrong and we are right. If we really listen to one another, Radcliffe suggests, then ready-made answers disappear and true conversation begins, whose end we cannot predict, other than that we shall be surprised at what opens up in each of us. We can incorporate this not just in large synodal gatherings but in our families, in our workplaces, in our parishes, in any group we are part of. It is clear to me that Pope Francis has brought this way of thinking and acting into the heart of his papal journey. He does not start with “Here is the doctrinal truth you must believe to be a good Catholic” but with “Where is the mercy of God at work in your life?” This causes some Catholics, including some priests, bishops, and even cardinals, to attack him. Such people simply do not trust in a Spirit-led synodal path. Out of fear of what “might happen” (viewed usually in the most negative terms), they want to simply re-assert and insist on all Catholics pronouncing faith in a certain wording of doctrine.


In the United States, for example, we are in the midst of a three year “Eucharistic Revival,” proclaimed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the motivation for this too often looks like it comes from a fear that Catholics no longer understand or think it is important to understand exactly what transubstantiation is or means. I will admit that in my over forty years of parish ministry many (most?) Catholics could not define what transubstantiation means theologically. Faced with the binary question of whether the Eucharist is a symbol or the real Body of Christ, many would answer “It is a symbol.” But they would go on to describe how important that Eucharistic encounter is for them and how the presence of the risen Jesus is experienced deep within them. In other words, getting the verbal definition “wrong” does not mean a lack of belief in the real presence of Jesus. On the flip side, getting the verbal definition “right” does not mean one truly understands what Jesus is doing in the Eucharist. Quite often the focus is so much on the transubstantiated bread and wine that many forget that neither the Consecration nor Communion is the culmination of the Eucharist. The climax of Eucharist is our transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ sent forth to be broken and poured out for the unity and salvation of the world. Belief in the “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity” of Christ in the Eucharist means little if we do not do our best to live out that Eucharistic identity in our daily lives.


Fr. Radcliffe’s fifth meditation reminds us that all in the Church have authority in their own way. An acceptance of synodality recognizes this reality and so does not equate authority simply with a hierarchical teaching authority, though that is one type of legitimate authority. The Pope’s insistence that a certain percentage of synod participants be lay people, that lay women are to be well-represented, and that all, not just bishops, have a vote on Synod resolutions, reflects that deeper understanding of authority. For Radcliffe, one way to understand the diverse authority within the Church is to see how the three great transcendentals of beauty, truth, and goodness each have their own type of authority, and that all three types are necessary for a healthy Church. Beauty has its own authority. Radcliffe suggests that all true reforms in the Church begin or include an appreciation for the beauty of God poured forth in our midst. Beauty points to the end, to the glory of God we are all called to share. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter beholds that beauty and wants to maintain it by building tents to dwell in. But that is also why we need other forms of authority, lest we stop along the journey, satisfied with the wonderous beauty we experience in God. Mystics always knew that their ecstatic experiences were not an end in themselves. They knew that they were called to live the “dark nights” and to embrace the cross in their lives as well. So, beauty needs goodness, the witness of the martyr, the witness of a life lived in faith, hope and love. That is why the Church’s honoring of saints is so authoritative. Such lives of holiness invite us to risk our lives on the adventure of faith. And, finally, both beauty and goodness need truth just as truth needs beauty and goodness. Beauty without truth deceives like the serpent in the garden deceiving the first parents. Truth without goodness at the extreme leads to the inquisition. The charism of protecting the truth is not an imposition of doctrine on people but a looking for and protecting that inner harmony of the long Tradition so that no authentic voice is drowned out.


The final meditation by Fr. Radcliffe focuses on allowing the Spirit of God to lead us into the future without fear. To do that we need to face reality as it truly is. There is always a tendency to hide from that reality when it is not pleasant (the abuse of minors by clergy and others, the true human cost of war, the global impact of the economy on the poor, and so forth). Facing reality as it is—facing the truth of the present—might open up seemingly incompatible visions of truth between peoples, nations, communities, even groups within the Church. But, says Radcliffe, remember that truth cannot endanger truth. God will reveal Godself in the empty space we experience between us. That is where the fullness of truth lies. This meeting of seemingly incompatible truths can be painful, he says, but let us learn to speak the truth to each other in ways that does not demolish. Peter’s post-resurrection encounter with Jesus in John’s gospel is the paradigm. Jesus opens space beyond Peter’s denial and shame, inviting him to the fullness of truth. Can we challenge each other forthrightly but gently, and with kind intention?


It just so happened we experienced an example of this openness to listening and respecting differing views and at the same time reaffirming the core Tradition of our Catholic faith shortly after the Synod concluded. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (no longer called a Congregation) addressed the question of whether there are limits to whom we can baptize based on how they were conceived (through surrogacy), who their parents are (for example, a same-sex couple) or their gender identification (such as transgender), in response to an inquiry from a bishop in Brazil. The full response was written in Italian and Portuguese but here is a link to an English-language analysis of what the Dicastery said. If you read the response carefully, it is clear that the Dicastery for the Faith is trying to properly thread that needle between being faithful to what the Tradition affirms Baptism and Marriage are (which in adults requires a renunciation of all grave sin) and what the experience is of some who are seeking Baptism (or desiring to witness a marriage). This willingness to be in dialogue opens a window for the Dicastery to carefully affirm that there are situations where such baptisms or witnessing of marriages can take place.


What would our Church look like if it were able to always respond with such attentiveness to both the merciful grace of God at work in ways we might not have thought possible in the past, while still maintaining the core truth and cohesiveness of our faith Tradition?

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