Walking together and listening to the Holy Spirit
By Lisa Zengarini
Pope Francis’ address opening the first General Congregation of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Wednesday in the Paul VI Audience Hall was followed by the interventions of the Synod’s General Secretary Cardinal Mario Grech; and the Relator General, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, who recapitulated the goals, spirit, and method of the three-year synodal process launched by the Pope in 2021.
A synodal Church is a Church of listening
Taking stock of the preparatory phases – including the Diocesan, Episcopal Conferences’-Synods of Oriental Churches and the Continental stages – Cardinal Grech pointed out that, despite initial reservations and some difficulties and misunderstandings, this journey has helped the Church “grow in vigour”, educating it “in the synodal experience of ‘walking together’”.
“Today – he said - we can attest to how true the vision of the Church that Pope Francis proposed in the speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops is: ‘A synodal Church is a Church of listening’.”
The Assembly must be a strong sign of synodality for the Church
The intense experience of synodality lived by the People of God and their Pastors in these past two years, therefore, calls upon the Assembly “to be a strong sign of synodality for the Church, listening to the Word of God, in the light of Tradition, to understand God's will for today”, and “to show the Church as one and only.”
“Here more than anywhere else what John Chrysostom states must be clear: ‘Church and Synod are synonymous’”, Cardinal Grech said, recalling that the Synod of Bishops expresses the unity of the episcopate around the Bishop of Rome, the Communion of Churches (Communio Ecclesiarum), but also – and in a special way this synod – the unity of all the People of God with their Pastors.
A visible sign of communion
The Synod’s General Secretary went on to highlight that the Assembly is also called to be a “visible sign” of communion and to be an instrument at the service of the Church and of the world.
“Cum et sub Petro, we are here to continue listening to the underlying question that has supported the entire synodal process: ‘…what steps does the Spirit invite us to take as a synodal Church?’ he said.
"It is up to this Assembly", Cardinal Grech concluded, citing Pope Francis’ words on the 50th anniversary of the Synod, 17 October 2015, "to question itself - at a universal level - on the Church's ‘walking together’, in the certainty that ‘the path of synodality is the path that God expects from the Church of the third millennium’" .
Being open to the Spirit’s guidance
Taking the floor, Cardinal Hollerich, further elaborated on the current synodal process and the spirit of the Assembly.
He reminded the synodal members that the protagonist of the Synod is the Holy Spirit, who “makes Christ present among us”, and that “only with a heart fully open to the Spirit’s guidance will we be able to respond to the call we have received”.
Recalling that mission plays a key role in the notion of synodality, the Relator General remarked that to grasp the reality of the mission of the Church, the synodal members are called to “broaden their vision" from the Paul VI Aula "to the whole world”, plagued by so many evils: from climate change to migration, wars, extreme polarization, and a consumeristic lifestyle.
Learning the “grammar of synodality” and discernment
In this context, the Church is being called to become more and more synodal and to learn the “grammar of synodality”. “Just like the grammar of our languages changes as they develop, so does the grammar of synodality”, Cardinal Hollerich said. “Therefore, reading the signs of the times should help us discover a grammar of synodality for our time”, without changing the “basic rules of Catholicity”.
Cardinal Hollerich once again reminded the synodal members that their work is not a parliamentary debate ruled by the majority principle, but “is a common work of discernment”, which cannot be carried out without praying together.
The method of conversation in the Spirit
With regards to the organization of the work – which, as per tradition, will see the alternation of General Congregations, and smaller working groups, the Circuli Minores, to discern on the four topics of synodality, communion, mission, and participation before preparing a synthesis of the work accomplished – Cardinal Hollerich recalled that discussions in the Circuli Minores will follow the method of "conversation in the Spirit," in continuity with the synodal journey of the past two years.
He explained that one of the strengths of this method is that it “allows the expression of everyone's point of view, enhancing consonances without neglecting differences, but above all discouraging polarisations and polemics” and “aims to build consensus without dividing into factions or crushing into uniformity”. “In this way", Cardinal Hollerich said, "it fosters the passage from listening to one another to listening to the Spirit”.
A road map for the next session of the Synod
Concluding his address, the Relator General expressed his hope that Synod’s work will allow the development of a “road map” for the second final session to take place in October next year. “Ideally," he said, "this road map should indicate where we feel consensus has been reached among us and above all within the People of God, laying down possible steps to undertake as a response to the voice of the Spirit. But it should also say where deeper reflection is needed and what could help that process of reflection”.
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