By George Wilson | United States, May Commonweal and LaCroix
Recent commentary on the subject of Pope Francis’ support for synodality has moved me to rummage around among memories of my years as a consultant/facilitator for many dioceses and religious congregations to see what ideas I might contribute to the discussion.Let me begin by noting that the term “synodality” itself is of recent origin. It is an abstraction.
Back in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), we spoke of the organizational structures that were being instituted to promote shared responsibility in the Church: synods, councils, boards, and the like.
By contrast to those flesh-and-blood institutions, the word “synodality” seems to be an attempt to name an attitude or orientation of openness toward the adoption of such structures.
The pope wants to see a Church in which a broader spectrum of the faithful have a voice and a share in responsibility for the life of our Church.
What is a “synod”?
In popular usage the noun “synod” refers to an assembly of the clergy and perhaps laity of a diocese or, more rarely, whole nation. But the pope is surely referring to a broader reality by creating the neologism. A diocesan presbyteral assembly is synodal in nature, as is a parish council or the board of a Catholic university or hospital. In essence synodality involves the coming together of human peers to achieve some religious purpose that could not be achieved in the same way absent in such a gathering. It remains a human enterprise even as it is guided by the Holy Spirit.
That might appear to be almost self-explanatory. But experience shows that all too often the reality of human interaction is simply taken for granted in conversations on the subject.
Say “synod” and people usually jump immediately to structural questions: Who is going to be invited? What power will the body have? Who will set the agenda? Who will be allowed to speak — or vote?
Such questions will have to be resolved if the event is to be successful, of course. But focusing all attention on such organizational or operational matters can be a way of avoiding the human realities—and pitfalls—involved in bringing together a body of humans with all sorts of theological and cultural world-views (not to speak of personalities, biases and tics of every kind).I will therefore leave to others the discussion of structural and operating norms. Front and center here are human interpersonal dynamics. Organizational structures may change; human nature doesn’t.
The role of expectations
The announcement of a synodal structure such as a council, board or actual synod means, first, raising expectations. Proclaim the creation of such a body and inevitably the collective psyche of the respective community is changed.
How is this going to affect our lives? What can we anticipate? What can we hope for?
The kind of expectations generated will depend on the immediate context. That includes still active memories of previous attempts at shared responsibility. If they were successful the new effort will be building on a bank account of earned trust.
Past efforts may, in the other hand, have proven to be fruitless. Perhaps the bishop or pastor or CEO controlled the agenda in such a way as to ensure that the voices of the body would go unheard. Perhaps the leader failed to follow through on the conclusions reached. In either case, the prevailing response to the new call will be distrust or even outright sarcasm. If leaders haven’t earned trust by demonstrating genuine listening and follow-through in the past, the present effort may be all but doomed from the start.
Expectations are a form of human power.
If they are clear and met, the corresponding community will experience greater satisfaction and self-esteem.
If they are unclear or even conflicting from the outset, the result will be community fragmentation or even outright polarization. And if they were clearly stated but unmet, the community’s hope of broadly shared responsibility will be severely diminished. A peer effort or informal “ins” and “outs”? A synodal body will ordinarily be composed of people from different strata in the organization: various office holders, past officers, significant community members, people with demonstrated talents in other organizations. All well and good. But once in operation, each member should, in theory, be accorded the same hearing as every other. That principle holds true no matter the criteria by which members were originally selected. That reasonable expectation of synodal equality is destroyed when the process of decision-making reveals that some participants are listened to while the voice of others is muted. Sad experience may reveal that an informal coterie has ensured the outcomes before any competing voice gets a hearing. The highest ecclesial body is not immune from rigging.
Agendas, open and closed
Synodal bodies are presumably created to deal with issues of genuine concern for their respective community: clarification of vision and mission; setting of goals; assignment of priorities; development and allocation of resources both human and financial.
Free and open consideration of such matters is the hallmark of a successful synod.
And that, in turn, requires leaders who are internally free to allow the body as a whole to find its way to conclusions that might challenge the leaders of the institution.
Stories of human realities that affect synodal bodies
One of our clients was a religious congregation that prided itself on its democratic ethos. The community took very seriously the value of each individual’s contribution to corporate decision-making.
My interaction with the community’s contact with our group led to interesting sharing. For many years their provincial chapters had been made up of older members selected year after year for decades.
My contact told me that as a young priest he was finally elected to the chapter. At their sessions, members were assigned seats for the duration of their service. He found himself seated next to one of the old bulls, who became a mentor showing him the ropes.
One morning the body was to vote on some matter (the exact issue is of no significance to the story). The older fellow leaned over to him and said, “We’re free on this one.”
He asked what that meant and was told, “We can vote whatever we want.”
Naturally the young priest was confused—until he learned that one of the old pros had been giving hand signals from up front, showing the members how they were to vote on issue after issue.
He was like a baseball coach telling players whether to steal a base or stand pat. The whole thing was rigged from start to finish.
“Synodality” in action. . . .Another world
A far different orientation was shown by a newly installed bishop. His predecessor had been a top-down administrator who controlled every aspect of his diocese’s life in minute detail. The clergy of the diocese wondered how their new ordinary would govern. What was his vision? One of the bishop’s first acts was to convene a five-day priests’ convocation. His “vision” involved beginning his service by asking his priests what was theirs! We were asked to design and facilitate the sessions.
We discovered that after being totally subservient for so many years, the priests were at a loss. They had to learn how to use their new empowerment. It took us several days to get them to name their experience.
At the end of the meeting they voted unanimously for the creation of a diocesan pastoral council that would empower the laity to share responsibility for their Church. The bishop immediately set in motion the steps needed to create the council.
After helping him devise a method that produce a body that was broadly representative of the diocese’s clergy and laity, we were charged to provide the training that would weld this group of strangers into a cohesive, trusting body.
After several sessions the trust level had built considerably and one of the lay members asked, “Bishop, we appreciate your trust in creating this body—but are you going to retain veto power over our decisions?”
The answer would, of course, affect substantially the members’ sense of empowerment. The bishop was ready.
With no hesitation he answered, “Of course if Rome were to ask, I would answer that I retain that power. But I believe that we will always be able to find answers that we can all support. I don’t want to ever hear the word ‘veto’ again.”
He grasped the fact that clarity about operating structures and expectations is indeed important. But, ultimately, what counts is the level of humanity and respect that characterizes the decision-making of the body.
That first council operated successfully for four years without a single parliamentary motion, negotiating different points of view through free-flowing dialogue based in trust.
The internal freedom that was generated revealed itself when it came time to continue the work when the present members’ terms were due to end. Who will follow us? How will the good work we have built be maintained when we’re gone?
The normal American method for continuing such bodies is some form of rotation; some members stay on while replacements are chosen for those retiring. In the middle of an extended discussion of various numerical options, one member mused out loud, “What would it be like if we were to just all retire and let the bishop pick a whole new body?” The response in the body was immediate and resounding: “Waste all that has been accomplished? Risk all that work? Absurd!” But the body had grown in trust, even to the extent of resisting premature closure. Over a period of weeks the options were allowed to simmer.
At one point someone said, “You know, at the beginning we were a totally unknown quantity and the bishop placed his trust in us and our facilitators. Why should we deny that opportunity to others? Are we all that special?” After building in some minor safeguards into the transfer process, the body and the bishop took the leap. All of the members retired and new members were selected. We set up an initial shared weekend of the incoming and outgoing groups. At the close of the weekend of sharing, one of the outgoing members said, “I was totally opposed to such a dramatic turnover. But having met these wonderful, highly committed people, I am convinced that our decision was an inspiration from the Holy Spirit.”
Forms of resistance to synodality
If synodality is so attractive, why haven’t we had it before? It is quite common for progressive laity to blame power-clinging clerics for blocking the movement toward genuine synodality. And there is surely enough evidence to ground that assessment. Experience shows, however, that to accept that answer without qualification is an over-simplification. The laity are not all that ready to embrace the full sense of agency–and responsibility–that will be needed if a synod is to be successful. An example makes the point. Our group helped a bishop to form and train a new diocesan council, using the best methods for discovering members who could do the job. After some time together the bishop asked them to tackle a delicate issue: the provision of alcohol at parish festivals. After over a year debating the pros and cons, and refining different options, they were ready to make the decision. I asked each member in turn how the person was leaning. Everything was going well until I reached a nice gentleman who said, “I just want to do what the bishop wants. . . .” The disappointment of his fellow members was palpable: “Is this what we signed up for? Where has he been?” In fairness to the poor fellow, it must be said that he was only acting out of a mind-set that had been bred into generations of his ancestors for decades.
A cultural transformation
The illustration is admittedly on the extreme side, but the pattern of subservience appears often enough to be seriously pondered.
What Pope Francis is really doing with his call for synodality is a radical rejection of a whole culture in which the clergy know what’s best and the role of the laity is simply to “pray, pay and obey”. The roles and scripts of that culture have been in force for a long, long time. They live in the collective psyche, and the creation of structures alone will not overcome their power. Clerics are not the only ones being called to give up behaviors that benefitted them; the laity are called to embrace an empowerment conferred on them by Baptism.
The issue comes to this: will the distinctions created by differing vocational status be allowed to shout down the basic equality that comes from Baptism? A synodal body, by whatever name, is a gathering of enfleshed pilgrims—equals all—linked together in mutual trust and respect, searching for the Lord’s will for His Church at this moment in light of the signs of this time. The methods a synodal body employs to organize its operations have value only to the extent they enhance the solidarity of its participants. George Wilson is a Jesuit priest and retired ecclesiologist who lives in Baltimore. He is the author of Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2008).