I confess to having felt some ambivalence when I was asked to join the Synod Task Force for our Area. I have not been that engaged by recent synods, their topics or the results. I suspect that many of you for one reason or another are similarly detached. What has drawn and sustained my interest in this synod, however, is a sense of how profoundly Pope Francis understands our world when he calls for all of us to march collectively toward the future. In an address in 2013 to the city and world, delivered at a time when immigrants were perishing in the waters near Lampedusa, he lamented their suffering and the indifference of a passive world. He has returned frequently to the image of desperate people trying to survive and has likened it to the situation of fear-filled disciples crying out in a sinking boat.
“The pandemic has reminded us that we are all in the same boat.”Pope Francis
“We are all in the same boat,” he pleads, not only the victims but the detached onlookers on shore who remain blind to their own vulnerability. We must move forward in a new way, or we will all sink in these storm-tossed waters. He drew on a similar image of our being in the same boat when he prayed alone in St. Peter’s Square at the height of the pandemic, March 27, 2020. He said then, “The pandemic has reminded us that we are all in the same boat.” He then added, “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules . . . . And now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: wake up, Lord!” He calls on the church to realize in faith that we are all in this together.
Today the Pope has chosen this profoundly traditional vehicle of a synod for a collective journey of a church and a world in crisis.
The word synod means journeying together and it can be traced in Acts 15 to the meeting of leaders who were sharply divided over their relation to Jewish law. Must they continue strict observance of Jewish laws, such as the circumcision of their male converts? Peter and Paul faced up to an intense conflict with transparency and inclusiveness. They shared their experience of what the Spirit had done through them among the Gentiles. Trough a process of speaking, listening, and prayer, finally the community came to a liberating decision. James, their leader, announced it with words that exemplify synodality: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us that . . . .” The decision discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit impelled the community outward to a wider world.
Pope Francis is calling us to restore that centrality of mission in communion and full participation, of being sent to a suffering world.
Vatican II restored the long dormant synod of bishops, but most participants and observers believe that it has not been fully effective. Francis does not change the structure of the synod as envisioned by Vatican II. He adopts it but also adapts it. Synods begin with a Papal invitation through a Secretariat that reaches out for input from all dioceses, ecclesial bodies, and worldwide churches. For this synod Francis has called for an expansion of the consultation whose information will affect the agenda itself.
Of note for us is that although women (such as our Sr. Maureen Kelleher) have been invited to synods before, he has formalized the role of the leaders of Religious Congregations of Women who may gather input from their congregations. Listen to the people at the edges, Francis insists. Enable them to share their experiences of how the church has nourished them and sometimes forgotten them. Tis is the mission of the church: to reach out to each and every person from the perspective of God who lovingly created us and this world we have so polluted and destroyed.
If synods seemed to have lost their relevance, it is not because the Spirit has departed or Jesus stayed asleep in the boat. Some of us remember the transformative impact of the document from a Synod of Bishops that changed our lives, “Call to Justice” in 1971.
In the fifty years since then we have all been changed by the central insight that work for justice is a constitutive part of the Gospel. Francis builds upon that tradition to deepen awareness of the need to both listen to and give voice to all members of the church. Te participants on this journey must include and sometimes even be led by the marginalized, expanding the reach of constitutive justice in this new millennium. Synods may become a way of being church, stumbling but moving forward along a path of that is ultimately joyous.
The Pope who grieved over Lampedusa also wrote “The Joy of the Gospel.” For RSHM it may become a loving journey, helping us to recall our broad experiences, on many continents and through different ministries. We have developed processes that seek greater and more prayerful input into the decisions that affect all our lives. A colleague of mine from Marymount University, Brian Flanagan, expressed well the joyful possibilities of synodality as a new way of being: “Rather than just holding synods, the church celebrates them. A synod is not a meeting at which there happens to be some prayer, but instead is a liturgy, a collective act of prayer and discernment.”
As a community, we can find joy in such a journey that will also be a sharing in the renewal of the church. As RSHM we can resonate with the dream of our founders that “all ALL may have life and have it to the full.”
- Visit to Lampedusa of Holy Father Francis, “Arena Sports Camp,” Salina Quarter, July, 2013.
- Prayer of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, March 27, 2020.
- “Justice in the World” by the 1971 Synod of Catholic Bishops.