The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to better understand the vocation of Jesuit Brothers. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Jesuit Brothers.
Synodality: For many Catholics, this word has become a buzzword. Anyone who reads Pope Francis’ words regularly will have noticed his propensity to speak of synodality. I was not always clear what he meant when using this word in the past. I assumed that he was expressing a desire that people dialog better, but didn’t pursue a deeper understanding than that. In the last year or so, what he means by synodality has become abundantly clear to me: it’s an opportunity to “walk together and listen to one another but above all, to listen to the Holy Spirit.”
The first part of that sentiment (walking with others) was one factor that inspired my decision to join the Jesuits as a Brother. This is not to say that priests can’t walk with others. I know they do. But there is a radical freedom that comes in the vocation of a Brother where one can be present in a different way to the faithful. I’ve seen it more than once in a community of faith, when Father had to leave to take care of other parishes or ministries, it was Sister or Brother who stayed behind to be with the faithful. However, I’ve come to learn over time that this vocation is more than a ministry of presence.
There’s also an element of journeying with others in our own vulnerability. This is a big part of my vocation today. I’d prefer to be someone who shows others that they’re still trying to figure stuff out in their walk with Jesus. A priestly figure can’t always afford to show vulnerability in the same way as they might be expected to act with authority, as if they have all the answers. I get how valuable that kind of confident leadership is to the Church and the world, but it’s not always what people need. Sometimes, having someone that can journey at their level is what’s needed.
As a spiritual director, I am convinced that my vulnerability helps me to journey with others the most. When I share with directees how I struggle with this vocation sometimes, or with prayer, or with my faith life, it helps them see that they’re not alone. This can also console them in their own path and encourage them to persevere. That’s a small part of journeying with others, and I feel it’s what helps anyone who lives this well to practice some aspects of Synodality in their own unique way. That being said, I’m so grateful that Pope Francis has paved the way for us to improve how we think about journeying with others.
His recent publications ‘Let us Dream’ (an interview published in December 2020 where he describes his vision of a post pandemic world.) and his 3rd encyclical, Fratelli Tutti develop the idea of synodality magnificently. In both documents, the invitation is to cultivate a Christ-centered love for others. He encourages us to make a more sincere effort to understand the perspectives of others and to carry their struggles and realities as best we can. He believes that the best way to move beyond the pandemic is to cultivate an attitude of authentic care toward all people. From the moment I began reading these texts, I was struck by the beauty here. I began investing more of my energy in them and contemplating the wisdom of synodality. We live in a moment in history where solidarity and care for all creation are sorely needed. This is why the call to synodality is perfectly timed.
This Synod of Bishops on synodality is not like any other Synods in our history: For the first time, it is not the Bishops’ voices alone who will be guiding this gathering, but the voices of many people within the Church and people of goodwill around the world. With a theme like ‘Communion, Participation, and Mission’, you can expect that there will be a concerted effort to listen to and value the voices of as many people as possible. The goal is to engage and inspire participation in the Church’s mission, in hopes of sparking a far-reaching impact on all people, globally. As Francis stated in the Synod’s opening address, his hope is that we “move forward together, to listen to one another and discern our times, in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of all humanity”
You may recognize the language and spirit of Vatican II in such a phrase. It’s an optimistic idea, but it’s also a mammoth project. I do find the grassroots sentiment of the mission inspiring. It shows that the Synod is meant to have far-reaching effects. It starts with local churches across the world and promises to listen to all the faithful, especially lay people. This is why it’s such a long process (expected to take 2 years). We can also expect the conversations arising from the process to be diverse and enriching, but also messy and challenging!
As we’ve witnessed in our churches, the messier something promises to be, the more reluctant people (including our leaders) are to cooperate with the process. While many dioceses across the continent and the world are actively participating in the Synod, some are choosing to ignore it completely. Yes, this has become a welcoming opportunity for lay Catholics and others to express themselves about the Church and Her needs, but many may also feel they don’t have enough information to answer questions being asked of them by their local dioceses. For others, it is an excuse to complain rather than make suggestions to lead the Church in the 21st century. One fitting Ignatian summary I’ve heard is that many responses to these questionnaires come from a 1st week dynamic of sin, sorrow and confusion as opposed to a 2nd week of openness to joy and mystery.
I can understand the desolation some people may have around the process. It’s hard to believe that our Church can suddenly change Her approach from a top-down to a grassroots one so easily. Historically, we know change is implemented only when the leadership of bishops decides, as opposed to being in consultation with the faithful around the world. But maybe that’s the whole point: When we look at the scope of what’s involved with this current process, we should be excited by the possibility of doing things differently. As Bridgeport Connecticut Bishop Frank Caggiano indicated in an interview with the podcast Jesuitical :
“it’s an opportunity for us to hear what’s on the ground, to hear how others are experiencing the Church, not just those in charge…This is considered as a dry run for a method of consultation that involves everyone in the Church. The idea being that we can somehow come up with a generic text that encompasses as many people’s perspectives as possible and gives the faithful something to strive for.”
I have no trouble agreeing with him and seeing this is an exciting process. I also seem to be caught in some trepidation around the aspects of this process that are daunting. Especially when you consider how dialog, in general, seems to be conducted nowadays in our society. Many people seem to be in their own silos, and are unable to digest the experience or wisdom of others that would disrupt the integrity of their own silos. So, in the context of our polarized and divided Church, how can we have a dialog that is focused on listening? This can feel hopeless.
I can certainly fall into that trap myself: What inspires me in the Church are ideas that speak of imagining a practical and all-inclusive theology, living the Gospel in a more Christ-centered way, and being more engaged by the needs of others. If others aren’t inspired by these things, can I still dialog and learn from them? It’s no doubt harder. But as I alluded to earlier, I’d like to believe that my vocation as a Brother revolves around not staying in my ‘silo’ but walking with others and listening to what their hearts and minds are carrying. I don’t have to agree with their perspective, but I am invited to value it as I would value my own thought process and experience.
I feel this kind of reaching out to the other is something many religious Sisters and Brothers may also have in their charism. Does every religious do this perfectly? Of course not. However, I do believe that many can carry with them a vulnerability, and consequently an ability to develop solidarity and compassion towards all people they journey with. Many of them are driven by this desire to listen attentively to all people. That listening can authentically reflect God’s love for creation and needs to be at the center of our way of proceeding. In the end, I believe this is why Sisters and Brothers can bring a lot to the process of Synodality.
We know that sometimes, this process can be messy but Synodality is what we need today. We can’t expect to heal the whole world from the divisions and polarizations that poison it, but we need to believe that we can be a bit freer of this handicap in our own Church family. May the graces of this complex but inspiring process guide us to a deeper fellowship with Christ and others, and pave the way for our efforts to be more loving people of the light.