Pope Francis formally opened “the synodal path” during the Eucharistic celebration in St. Peter’s on October 10. His homily that day is a treasure, inspiring and challenging all of us in the Catholic Church. I believe that his method in the homily models the process he is proposing for the synod.
He uses Mark 10:17 as a starting point—A certain rich man came up to Jesus “as he was setting out on the journey.” Francis meditates on the Gospel story (always his starting point), and notices that Jesus is on a journey when he has this unexpected encounter with a rich man (who is also on a journey, albeit a spiritual one). Francis speaks to us, as he so often does, of encounter with the other, the stranger, the seeker, the person on the margins. He notices how Jesus listens to the man, hears and receives his heartfelt desire “to inherit eternal life.” Jesus gives that man the dignity of being heard and welcomed; he values the person, his experience, and what he has to say.
In the Gospel account, Jesus then discerns what the rich man needs for his journey of faith. Francis says “Jesus encourages him to look within, in the light of the love that the Lord himself had shown by his gaze (cf. v.21), and to discern in that light what his heart truly treasures.”
If we truly believe that the Spirit of God dwells in each and every one of us, we can believe that our (and their) deepest desires lead us to fullness of life, life with God. And so he asks the rich man to “look within . . .and to discern . . .what his heart truly treasures.”
Clearly this way of proceeding is not our usual American way. This is not the process we use in our legislatures and in our political life. There is an old quip that God asks us to solve problems by praying, then considering the issues, and then acting, in that order; but we are often more inclined to act quickly and instinctively, then to think about what we have done, and then to pray that we were right! However, many religious congregations, including us RSHM, have used this type of process for General Chapters since Vatican II. We can attest that while it isn’t the most efficient way, it is very effective and life-giving.
For many, the very term “synod” is new, even though it has ancient roots in the history of the church. Traditionally it refers to a meeting of bishops to discern and decide ecclesial questions. Francis, however, has coined a new word, “synodality,” that escapes easy definition and pushes the whole church to ponder anew what he means and what he is about as he leads the church of today and as he opens the “synodal path” to the future.
I find it somewhat humorous that the International Theological Commission was asked to define synodality in 2018. They offered: Synodality is “the action of the Spirit in the communion of the Body of Christ and in the missionary journey of the People of God.” I suspect that Pope Francis does not care a great deal about defining the term. He is interested in getting us moving, together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in discovering together what God is asking of us today. Francis is asking us to enter into the challenge of really encountering one another, especially those most often unseen and unheard. He is proposing an adventure, a movement into the unknown and seemingly mysterious future, secure in the promise of Jesus — “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (MT 28:20).” He invites us to Encounter, to Listen, and to Discern.