The goal of a synod is wisdom. It is to discover, in equality, the way the Lord is calling the church, not merely to think or talk, but to choose to act.
By George Wilson | La Croix, from the United States, June 2021
In the large body of literature on the theme of leadership it has become almost trite to say that a good leader’s first task is not to teach but to listen.
That same wisdom applies to synods and synod-like projects. In Church language it is called “consulting the faithful”. So it is encouraging to read that those designing this preliminary stage of the coming assembly of the Synod of Bishops have determined that “listening to the people of God” is the synod’s first objective.
Much depends, however, on (1) what such listening is designed to discover; (2) who is to be listened to; and (3) what processes are employed in that discovery. And the answers to those questions depends, first, on being clear just what a synod is.
What is a synod? Pope Francis offers the mantra: “A body walking together.”
That is an attractive metaphor, to be sure. But if the three questions above are not carefully weighed before designing the first listening stage, “walking together” can be reduced to a warm fuzzy feeling, open to much mischief.
How this first step is designed and executed can determine the success or failure of the whole venture.
The fundamental issue
Long years as a consultant/facilitator for several diocesan synods and many synod-like projects have led me to view a synod as a wisdom-seeking effort undertaken by the people of God under the guidance of the Spirit of Jesus at a particular era in its engagement with surrounding society.
A synod is an assembly of the Church — the People of God. That embraces persons who happened to be called to differing states of life within the community—ordained, lay or vowed religious. But they are all there by virtue of their baptism, in solidarity.
Baptism is the only ticket of admission. The Spirit is poured out upon the entire baptized community. Any structuring of the synod that diminishes the sense of equal agency of all its participants will insure the failure of the enterprise.
But following the practice of synods from quite different historical eras, today’s ordained participants will continue to be tempted to treat this synod as one more way of educating the laity.
The goal of a synod is wisdom. It is to discover the way the Lord is calling the church, not merely to think or talk, but to choose to act.
A synod is not a class in religious education, much less a graduate seminar in theology or canon law. True, experts in a variety of fields may be called upon as resources to the collective body. But their voice must not be allowed to diminish, much less replace the voices of the non-ordained members.
Wisdom emerges out of the interplay between what the community has been going through (past) and the energies at work within it, today, to find better ways of following Jesus in coming years in his mission to reveal the loving mercy of the One he called Father.
Wisdom results from corporate reflection on collective experience. Good; bad; painful; joyful; successes; failures; sin, individual and collective. Nothing that happens in the life of the community is without the potential for meaning. To avoid or exclude any of it because it is too confusing or painful or shameful or disturbing is to insure misguided decisions. It guarantees the dashing of expectations generated by the announcement of such a significant effort. Experience includes conceptual knowledge, of course. But concepts are found embedded within a slurry of emotions, intuitions, hunches, hopes, unexamined assumptions, and self-interest—some of it acknowledged, much hidden even from the consciousness of the members.
In short, the stuff of daily human life.
Prior to conscious reflection under the guidance of the Spirit the whole is unthematized; pre-rational; perhaps even irrational.
The risk consists in conceptualizing before the raw experience is named and owned on its own terms, diminishing the energies it might contain for facing the future with hope.
When we humans are asked to name our experience we turn first to simile and metaphor. We say, “It was like . . .” “I can’t explain it but I sensed. . .” Image comes first; definition and conceptualization follow.
Most importantly, we turn to narrative. To story. That is why Jesus the Master Teacher spoke in parables.
The first thing a synod needs to ask of its participants, then, is not to ask, “what do you think about abc?” But “What is it like for you to be a member of today’s Church? Tell me your story.”
To ask about “abc” is to assume at the outset that abc is the issue people need or want to discuss when, in fact, deeper realties may be at stake.
Opening the synod by exploring experience establishes the foundation of equality for all that follows.
Everyone — ordained or lay; male or female; PHD or illiterate — has a story about the effort to live out their baptism in an ever-shifting context. And only the individual person can name it and put it to the service of the whole body. To use my intellectual accomplishments to denigrate another’s feeble attempt to narrate what they are experiencing is to deny their very personhood.
Choice of process tools: some history
What I have said thus far has important implications for the very first step in listening to the faithful. What might seem to be innocuous choices could imperil the success of the whole effort.
Consider the traditional method, and what happened when it was adopted at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). A small, well-intentioned (but closely held) body used its best wits to produce the lineamenta, a list of categories that set the parameters for discussion and discernment at the sessions of the synod.
And what happened? When the delegates, all bishops, arrived in Rome they learned what they were to discuss.
To name just one item on the list is enough to reveal the world-view from which the organizers were proceeding: they determined that one issue the delegates were to discuss was the weighty matter of the powers of auxiliary or coadjutor bishops. . . .Had not the four cardinal managers quietly organized an opposition, the proposed schema would have been adopted pro forma and 2500 bishops from every corner of the world would have been compelled to count the angels on that pinhead.
It took a revolution for the council body to discover its agenda: what the Spirit was challenging them to confront.
If the process of gathering up the experience of such a vast body of participants is to produce an agenda that reflects their joys, anxieties, hopes and aspirations, it has to be pre-categoricalin nature. To present the participants with a list of themes into which they must squeeze what the Spirit is challenging them to name is to reduce what could be an earthquake to birthing a mouse.
To concretize the insight further, the initial announcement of the synod’s first stage refers to the use of survey instruments for gathering data.
Such tools may be useful for testing the level of consensus after well-crafted proposals have been discerned and debated. To use them at the initial stage, however, when the body is still probing its experience to discover the areas that offer the best hope for new life, ensures that the process will be skewed. Any quantified survey, no matter how sophisticated its composition, reflects the issues of those who design it. The very framing of the survey items to be tested determines those that will be passed over.
A famous study brings the issue home.
In the 1970s a group of futurists called The Club of Rome used computer simulations to project probable scenarios for what would happen in the following span of years. Some years later, to assess their success, they studied what had actually happened in the intervening time. They had actually been quite prescient. Much of what they had predicted had indeed come true. There was just one small discrepancy: they had missed the import of one of the most powerful movements transforming our world: the feminist awakening. The participants had all been males . . . .
Collective wisdom—and prophetic voice
Another characteristic of the search for wisdom is the fact that the gift of wisdom is not usually scattered evenly across the individuals in a large body.
An essential component of the search for wisdom is to be open to prophecy: not the ability to predict the future, but to name reality.
A single individual or small group may sense powerful currents at work far below the “mainstream”. Realities so painful that they have been buried within the collective psyche, perhaps for centuries; emperors dressed in imaginary clothes; resurrection hopes that transcend the humdrum perspectives of the crowd.
It took the Church centuries to acknowledge that its laudable evangelizing work, while building impressive local churches, occasioned the devaluation of native cultures that had sustained people for centuries. To attend to the story of a world community composed of a great variety of cultures, facing different perils and aspiring to unimaginably diverse outcomes, is to undertake mammoth task. It is only the Holy Spirit that can make it happen. But that same Spirit works through human choices. Choices of the right goals to aim for, to be sure, but equally significant, the choice of seemingly innocuous first steps. My hope is that my experience and reflections might forestall a disaster.
George Wilson is a Jesuit priest and retired ecclesiologist who lives in Baltimore (USA). He is the author of Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2008).