The Spirit of the Synods

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Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:12 November 2021/Last Updated Date:17 November 2021


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The opening of the Synod on Synodality on October 9, 2021 invites the question of what it means to be Church today and its meaning in history. This question is also at the basis of the Synodal journey that the Italian Church is setting out on, and of those in progress or beginning in Germany, Australia and Ireland.

Those who have followed the Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops in recent years have certainly seen how much diversity shapes the life of the Catholic Church. If at one time a certain latinitas or romanitas constituted and marked the education of the bishops – who, among other things, understood at least a little Italian – today diversity emerges strongly at every level: mentality, language, approach to issues. Far from being a problem, this is a resource as ecclesial communion is achieved through the real life of peoples and cultures. In a fractured world like ours, it is a prophecy.

We should not view the Church as a Lego set with bricks that all fit together neatly. That would be a mechanistic mage of communion. We might better think of it as a symphonic relationship, of different notes that together give life to a composition. If we were to take the image further, I would say that it is not a symphony where the parts are already written and assigned, but more like a jazz concert, where one follows the inspiration shared in the moment.

La Civilta Cattolica

Those who have had the experience of recent Synods of Bishops will have perceived the tensions that emerged within the Assembly, but also the spiritual climate in which they were – for the most part – immersed. The pope has very much insisted on the fact that the Synod is not a parliamentary assembly where people discuss and vote to decide issues by majority. The principal figure, in reality, is the Holy Spirit, who “moves and attracts,” as Saint Ignatius writes in his Spiritual Exercises. The Synod is an experience of spiritual discernment in search of God’s will for the Church.

That this vision of the Synod is also a vision of the Church is not to be questioned. There is an ecclesiology – matured over the years thanks to the Second Vatican Council – that is unfolding today.

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For this there is a need for attentive listening. Listening to God, in prayer, in the liturgy, in spiritual exercises; listening to the ecclesial communities in their exchanges and debate on experiences (because it is on experiences that discernment can be made and not on ideas); listening to the world, because God is always present there inspiring, moving, stirring. We have the opportunity to become “a Church that does not separate itself from life,” said Francis, greeting the participants at the beginning of the synodal journey (October 9).

The pontiff then summarized it this way: “You have come by many different roads and from different Churches, each bearing your own questions and hopes. I am certain the Spirit will guide us and give us the grace to move forward together, to listen to one another and to embark on a discernment of the times in which we are living, in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of all humanity.” Putting the Church in a synodal state means making her restless, uncomfortable and tense because she is agitated by the divine breath, which certainly does not like safe zones or protected areas: it blows where it wills .

The worst way to make a synod then would be to take the model of conferences, congresses, “reflection weeks,” and imagine that in this way everything could proceed in an orderly fashion, even cosmetically. Another temptation is excessive concern for the “synodal machine,” for everything to work as planned.

If there is no sense of vertigo, if one does not experience the earthquake, if there is no methodical doubt – not skeptical doubt – the experience of uncomfortable surprise, then perhaps there is no synod. If the Holy Spirit is in action, Francis once said, then he “kicks the table.” The image is successful because it is an implicit reference to Matt 21:12, when Jesus “overturned the tables” of the money changers .

To make a synod we need to drive out the merchants and overturn their tables. Do we not feel the need today for a kick of the Spirit, if only to wake us up from our torpor? But who are the “merchants of the temple” today? Only prayerful reflection can help us identify them. Because they are not sinners, they are not the “distant,” the non-believers, nor those who profess to be anti-clerical. On the contrary, sometimes they help us to better understand the precious treasure that we contain in our poor clay pots. The merchants are always close to the temple, because there they do business, there they sell formation, organization, structures, pastoral certainties. Merchants inspire the immobility of old solutions for new problems, that is, the safe second-hand solution, which is always a “patch-up,” as the pontiff defines it. Merchants pride themselves on being “at the service” of the religious. They often offer schools of thought or ready-made recipes and restrict the presence of God who is “here” and not “there.”

To make a synod implies being humble, zeroing in on thoughts, passing from “I” to “we,”  opening oneself up. Striking in this sense, for example, is what the General Rapporteur of the Synod, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, stated in his greeting on October 9 during the inauguration: “I must confess that I still have no idea what kind of instrument I will write. The pages are empty, it is up to you to fill them.” It is necessary to live through the synodal time with patience and expectation, opening well our eyes and ears. “ Ephphatha  that is: ‘Open up!’” (Mark 7:34) is the key word of the Synod.

Roland Barthes – a distinguished linguist and semiologist – understood that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola serve to create a language of interlocution with God made up of listening and speaking. It is necessary to understand that the Synod, in its own way, shares this linguistic nature, of the creator of language. This is why the method is important, that is, the way and the rules of the journey, especially in the function  of full involvement.

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Ultimately, the dynamic that develops in the Synod can be described as a “putting of  oneself into play.” For example, playing soccer does not only mean kicking a ball, but also running after it, engaging with the situations that occur on the field. In fact, “the game achieves its purpose only if the player immerses himself totally in it,” as Gadamer writes in his famous essay, Truth and Method. The focus of the game, then, is not the players, but the game itself, which comes to life through the players. This is, in the end, the spirit of the Synod: finally putting oneself truly in the game by following the dynamic animated by the Spirit.