This article will present the Latin American experience of synodal paths in recent years and the associated spiritual accompaniment, starting with the discernment that allows us to follow the Lord more closely. Ours is an experience full of limitations and fragility, but also endowed with parrhesia and courage to boldly seek new synodal paths for the Church of the present time. With great simplicity we will describe a process that disclosed the faces and voices of countless people who participated in the experience.
These reflections reveal some instances found in two recent events. The first is the Special Synod of the Universal Church on Amazonia, which began in 2017, had its assembly phase in Rome in 2019, and is still ongoing. The second is the First Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean, which began in January 2021, had its plenary phase in November of the same year, and continues, in full swing, in connection with the Synod of the Universal Church on Synodality. These are unfinished processes, full of experiences of discernment in common and sincere listening to the people of God.
Let us begin with a prayer contained in Pope Francis’ apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio (EC). This document is not only a text on the structure of the Church. It reveals the pope’s aspiration for a fully synodal Church. This prayer, which is taken from the experience of the Synod on the Family, can be considered the best summary on the synodal path we are walking together as one Church: “For the Synod Fathers we ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, that with him we may hear the cry of the people; to listen to the people until we breathe with the desire to which God calls us” (EC 6).
In this prayer we discern three fundamental principles that in the recent experience of the Latin American Church have revealed themselves as essential truths:
1) Listening is a gift, a grace. It must be asked of the Lord and presupposes a prayerful attitude, an attitude of openness, for it is God who grants it to us. It is not just a special ability, or a tool that we can take possession of; it is first and foremost a grace. We enter into an experience of sincere listening when we take off our sandals before the holy land of encounter with the Other. It is an indispensable condition.
2) Listening is not an individual or autonomous exercise. It is a way of recognizing God as the center of the synod process and seeing ourselves as God’s co-workers in this experience. Only with Him can we really listen, and the recipient is always the people of God. Most importantly listening brings us to an awareness of the cry of the people, not our own voice or self-referential ideas. The Holy Spirit works through the voice of the people.
3) Only by listening to the people will we be able to discern in them the will of God. In this way the sensus fidei stops being just a theological concept, sometimes ethereal, and is found in the cry of God’s people’s living faith in Jesus. Only if we step out of our closed and safe spaces will we be able to go out to meet the people of God who cry out, who wait and who have much to say, expressing God’s own desire for the Church.
In order to present some important ideas that we have drawn from the synod process in Latin America, we will use a profoundly improbable, yet absolutely necessary image, that of the blind Bartimaeus (cf. Mark 10:46). It would seem difficult to assume as a guide, in any journey, a blind man who sits, motionless, on the side of the road. In fact, however, in our Church, we sometimes give the impression of walking in darkness, with a profound blindness. Yet Bartimaeus is a redeemed blind man, once blind who is then able to see, with new eyes, the way God makes all things new. Bartimaeus’ journey is the same one that our Church is walking in its attempt to be more synodal, more faithful in following the Lord, seeking its own redemption.
Bartimaeus’ blindness is also our own
Our growing inability to respond to the signs of the times — both those of the world and those of the Church — leads us to recognize that we have been walking in deep darkness. Limits, inconsistencies, sins and our resistance to the calls of the Holy Spirit coming to us from the Second Vatican Council reflect our blindness and structural incapacity. Unless we recognize ourselves as limited and in need of redemption, as blind as Bartimaeus was, it will be impossible for us to convert to a synodal Church.
In the Latin American synod process, the most intense participations, the strongest expressions of conversion have come from the recognition of our limitations. We should note that what moved us, more than learned intellectual contributions, were the testimonies of the recognition of our own frailties, as a Church, in addressing the most urgent needs of the people. When we embrace our wretchedness, we prepare our hearts for a sincere encounter and allow ourselves to be transformed by the encounter with others who are as fragile as we are.
Those previously undesirable and unlikely elements present in the Amazon and Latin American synod experience – original peoples; subsistence farmers; those with other beliefs; women criticized because of their firm appeal for fair treatment – were those with the clearest, most revealing voices, the ones whose strength made us recognize the need to open our eyes.
Bartimaeus, sitting on the roadside and condemned to remain on the periphery, receives a call that moves and stirs him. Like Bartimaeus, the Church also needs to recognize its own limited, maimed, holy and sinful condition, relegated to the roadside, less and less relevant, unable to embrace all that makes Christ suffer. If we are to heed the calls to renewal, we must recognize our own weak condition, our need for help. Bartimaeus, who feels irrelevant, senses that Jesus is passing by and begins to cry out with all his might. He cries out to be heard; he cries out because he wants relief from his painful condition. Our Church needs the strength of parrhesia to cry out again, with the desire to meet the Lord who is passing by.
During the recent Latin America synodal paths, we experienced the need to name what keeps us from heeding the great listening events; 87,000 people in the Amazon Synod, 22,000 of them directly; and at least 70,000 in the Ecclesial Assembly. The cries coming from the Church and directed toward it that we heard in the synod event call us to counter clericalism, to face up to the need to be accountable for sexual abuse and misuse of power with effective actions to eradicate these evils. The cries heard urge us to recognize the essential role of women in society and in the Church, and that without their presence the Church has no future; to perceive the urgency of responding to the challenges of caring for the common home which has been so undermined; to seek ways of accompanying the young people of our time; to give more space and recognition to the laity, accompanying them in their formation; to modernize seminary courses and the formation of priests with elements proper to synodality.
On the other hand, we must feel called to confess the centrality of Jesus in this new time and the need to discern ways of proclaiming him today in secularized societies; the urgency of developing new ministries, creating ecclesial structures adapted to the present reality that make possible opportunities for the marginalized, especially indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, migrants and refugees, those who feel marginalized, and so many other faces that ask us to cry out with them.
Bartimaeus, hearing Jesus’ call, and despite others wanting to silence him, gets up, throws off his cloak and goes to meet Jesus. This seemingly unremarkable character, who, recognizing his own blindness, cries out with the cry of the world, with the cry of a Church that wants to be redeemed, with our own cry, is able to hear Jesus’ call and immediately stands up with a strength that can only come from the Lord, and goes to meet him. Many try to silence him, would like to prevent him from approaching Jesus, deem that cry of his inappropriate and try to stop him, but he goes ahead. But there is more. In order to go to that meeting with Jesus, Bartimaeus must give up what is undoubtedly his only possession, his only security. He throws off his cloak; he gives up what apparently gave him security and kept him alive, because he wants to discover the true center of his being, the Lord Jesus.
In recent years, in the synodal journeys of Latin America, amidst profound frailties and errors, we have been committed to responding to the call that, since the Second Vatican Council, has been heard in our region, so that, beyond all resistance, the cries and hopes of the people would be heard. Despite the fact that so many voices, representing the status quo, wanted to dismiss those uncomfortable cries, despite the fact that the presence of indigenous peoples or representatives of the peripheries seemed so foreign to our religious criteria, the strength of their voices compelled us to listen more attentively to what the Holy Spirit wanted to tell us: we must change, be transformed by these encounters.
The periphery is the center. This was made clear by Pope Francis, who called for those voices “discarded by the builders” to become true “cornerstones” in the Church’s conversion process. They were the ones who cared about form rather than individual faces; the ones who wanted to silence the voices clamoring for conversion. In the Amazon Synod, they tried to silence those voices, creating a false scenario, the specter of a nonexistent “Synod of Pachamama,” when in fact they tended to prevent substantial changes, the urgent ones, the ones that were the result of a clear discernment that took place in an attitude of prayer in the synod hall.
At the same time, the need to give an appropriate place to the sensus fidei of the people of God has become more evident in the Latin American synod experience. It is not a matter of replacing the structures, the depositum fidei, but rather of giving space to the Spirit so that it is not somehow excluded, and so that the forms continue to develop, and the structures to reform, in the service of the great diversity of the Church, of its full catholicity. It is impossible to walk synodically unless we break through the constraints that make a common path impracticable, in the variety of charisms and ministries, performing different roles and services in the Church, but recognizing ourselves as equal in baptism.
After Bartimaeus has been brought into his presence, Jesus asks him, “What do you want?” Jesus questions that blind man, even though he already knows what evil afflicts him; that is, he asks him a question to give him the opportunity to express his most urgent need. Confronted with that question, Bartimaeus takes responsibility for his own blindness so he can ask for sight; he takes responsibility for his own inability to see and places the situation in Jesus’ hands.
Thus, in this dialogue the need for mutual listening is clearly manifested, not so much because we are unable to identify what is happening in the Church, but because the Church, like this man, can only take charge of its own condition if it becomes aware of what it is suffering from. A true process of conversion is initiated, in which a dialogue takes place, in which the main interlocutor is Jesus himself.
Several times in the recent Latin American synod experience, we were told that it was a waste of time. Why make such a great effort to listen to what we already know and have already studied in depth? Why so much effort if nothing changes? There were many other similar questions. Nevertheless, those who committed themselves to participate in these synod processes with freedom and hope experienced in their own skin the power of conversion found in listening to others, being heard by others, discerning and dreaming new paths together.
We have seen that change toward a synodal Church is not produced by or based on documents, or even on events. Conversion occurs in the process of shared listening, praying together, discerning and opting for new paths that are possible in each particular reality. In all places where listening is predetermined, reduced to the usual few, or turned into a mere report on analyses already known, we can see that, regardless of the strength of the documents and events, nothing changes, because there is a lack of recognition of one’s need for conversion.
If we reduce this synod, and any synodal process, to a series of programmatic activities, or tasks to be accomplished, or a certain number of requirements to be sifted through, then failure is determined from the beginning. If the synod does not transform us through the encounter with “the most unlikely,” not even the most persuasive of documents will produce the desired fruit of making us a Church that walks more synodically and allows itself to be challenged. It is necessary not to lose sight of the goal; the essential dimension of the process, which is this: to take the necessary step forward, which must be taken at this time, in order to move toward a true culture of synodality in the Church.
Bartimaeus’ synodal conversion occurs when, once he is healed, he decides to follow Jesus on his journey. The account of Bartimaeus’ conversion does not end with a predictable conclusion, namely that he regains his sight. No, the most profound change occurs when, having recovered his sight in his encounter with Jesus, he decides to follow him wherever he goes; thus he becomes a true disciple of the Lord.
The mission of the Church is not synodality but the following of Jesus; however, without synodality it is impossible to follow Jesus fully and in communion with others. In other words, synodality is an indispensable and nondeferrable means, but still a means, with the sole purpose of re-energizing the following of the Lord in our Church for the building of the Kingdom in a wounded world.
In the Latin American processes, there are those who accuse us of wanting to change the Church by putting the momentary fashion of synodality before what is central to it. This is actually not the case, because the synodal mode belongs to the identity of the Church from the beginning. The Church cannot be itself, in its fullness, if it does not implement this journeying together that is expressed in the characteristic way Jesus walks with others, especially those considered to be from the peripheries, “the most unlikely.” This, as the sacred texts tell us, is how the early Christian communities acted.
But, as the Amazon Synod recognized, we must find “new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology,” and, as was specified in the first Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean, we are called to be “outgoing missionary disciples.” In our time there is a need for the “overflow of the Spirit,” a “synodal overflow.”
On October 15, 2019, during the Assembly of the Amazon Synod, the pope took the floor and said firmly, “Let us not stop making total proposals… We agree on a common feeling about the problems of the Amazon and the need to respond, but when we look for ways out and solutions, something is not satisfactory. The proposals are mere patching over. There is no totalizing solution that responds to the totalizing unity of the conflict… With mere patching over, we cannot solve the Amazon’s problems. They can only be solved by overflow – the overflow of redemption. God resolves conflict by overflow.”
We now want to share some aspects of our recent experience in Latin America.
In an experience of unprecedented dimensions at the regional level, we left behind a vision of isolated events, as this Assembly is a process that continues, marked by various stages, inspired by the synodal proposal of the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio. Based on the latter, the Assembly has experienced:
– an attentive listening to all of God’s people, who wanted to participate with the clear intention of a broad and non-exclusive openness, making room for the “excluded” and the “unlikely.”
– a deep and structuring spiritual and liturgical journey that accompanied the entire process;
– the development of a document for discernment from listening, which oriented the search for horizons from the very words of God’s people;
– a differentiated Plenary Assembly phase (virtual and in-person), with unprecedented participation in terms of composition and number: more than 1,100 people (about 100 in person in Mexico; plus a thousand virtual participants throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including about 150 Hispanic delegates from the U.S. and Canada);
– results in the form of 41 challenges with their own pastoral orientations, worked out together in the discernment groups. Based on these, next steps will be taken, which include: a document of pastoral horizons of the Assembly; an account of challenges to the people of God; connection with the Synod on Synodality; and consolidation of the renewal and restructuring of the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM).
– The composition of participants representing the people of God was broad: 20 percent bishops; 20 percent priests and deacons; 20 percent women religious; and, 40 percent laymen and women.
– The process took its course in a transparent way so that all of God’s people could know what had been worked out, based on their voices and contributions and through listening to each other.
– They worked with a method of participation and community discernment which deeply characterized the experience in the Assembly groups and was greatly appreciated.
– Throughout the unfolding of the process, spirituality was an essential element, as it has focused our experience together on seeking God’s will, placing the word of Christ and the desire to follow him at the center.
– A radical choice was made to link this experience with the Synod on the Synodality of the Universal Church. The participation of representatives from other regions of the Church in the world, from their continental conferences, both in attendance and through communiqués was significant.
– The fruits of the community discernment experience were the 41 challenges for the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some of them constitute pastoral innovation; others express the need to deepen and engage more in various areas.
– The digital broadcast – accessible to every member of God’s people through various channels – of about 80 percent of the Assembly (with the exception of the discernment groups) opened up the Assembly experience to the whole Church.
What is the most significant aspect of this ongoing experience? The most important thing is to ask ourselves a question that is at the heart of what we have experienced: “In what ways have we been transformed – personally, communally and as a Church – by the experience of encountering and listening to the God of life through the real voices of God’s people, especially the most ‘unlikely,’ and toward what new paths have we been guided ?”
If we have not experienced a sincere conversion (metanoia), this enterprise will have been in vain. No final document, no list of challenges and pastoral guidelines, no methodological or operational element of the Assembly has any meaning or value if it does not give us a deep awareness of being called to follow Christ more closely.
. Cf. D. Fares, The Heart of ‘Querida Amazonia’: ‘overflowing en route’ Civ. Catt. En., May, 2020 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-heart-of-querida-amazonia-overflowing-en-route