Last year, the Catholic community in the United States undertook the largest non-governmental process of interpersonal dialogue and consultation ever held in our nation’s history. More than five hundred thousand men and women gathered together in prayer and discernment in their parishes, schools, cultural communities and service organizations to share their joys and their sorrows, their hopes and their fears for the life of the Church.
This initial process of dialogue produced a rich sense of exhilaration and unity among its participants. As the Catholic communities of the West Coast observed “many who conducted listening sessions described being transformed by the process of listening to others’ stories and hearing about their faith journey. Those who shared their stories, especially those who participated in small group sessions, stated that they felt listened to by the Church for the first time.”
One of the most striking realities reflected in our national dialogues was the commonality of the perceptions and questions of the People of God across dioceses, regions and cultures within our country. While sometimes framed in different language or with different emphases, the joys, the hopes, the sorrows and the fears of God’s people were remarkably similar. For this reason, it is truly possible to see in the results of the dialogue a composite picture of the Catholic community in the United States today and a picture of where we must move in the years to come.
These synodal dialogues constituted the first step in responding to Pope Francis’s call to the global Church to undertake a penetrating synodal process of renewal that seeks to touch and transform every element of our ecclesial life and our outreach to the world. It is for this very reason Pope Francis has stated that “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.”
The holy father is emphatic that the synodal process is by its very nature an effort to “plant dreams, draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.”
It is also, in the most fundamental sense, a call to conversion to the whole Church, recognizing that the current synodal process seeks an outcome far beyond the issuance of new documents, or even a moment of change, but rather an ongoing process of reform and renewal that constantly enhances ecclesial life from the parish to the diocese to the world Church.
In the preparations for the synod, Pope Francis pointed to eight major marks of a synodal Church: journeying together, listening, discerning, Eucharistic, inclusive, participative, humble, and missionary.
These eight characteristics form a template against which the Church is called to measure itself constantly. And this same template provides a pivotal framework for understanding the picture of the Church in our nation that emerged during the local dialogues last year. For this reason, it is important to examine in depth these eight marks of a synodal Church, and the realities and hopes which each of them revealed in the local dialogues.
1. Synodality points to the reality that the whole of the People of God are journeying together.
This means that we cannot operate from a mindset of complacency or one that accentuates the differences among the baptized. Rather, we must view ourselves as the people of Israel in the desert, united in their faith and in their understanding that God was calling them to a common pilgrimage on this earth.
The synodal dialogues gave deep witness to the beautiful forms of community that flourish at all levels in the life of the Church. So many participants spoke of the profound relationships that they have formed in their parish, their school, and in their ministries to the poor and the suffering. The Diocese of Reno noted, “clearly people find their faith and experience of God through a community that welcomes, sustains and challenges them.”
People spoke lovingly of the webs of faith, friendship, searching, love, compassion, justice, and hope which have enriched their lives in the communities of the Church. These include a vast array of prayer and formation groups, liturgical ministries, outreach to the sick and the marginalized, schools, cultural communities, and social activities which truly give shape to the body of Christ in our nation. The Catholic community is journeying together because, in its vibrant and disparate communities, families rejoice together, mourn together, question together, grow together and find a home, all within the framework of faith.
Yet even as the synodal call to journey together highlighted the beautiful bonds of friendship and community that exist within the Church, it also accented the polarization that is a cancer in our Church in the present day. One dialogue participant observed sadly, “the divisive political ideologies present in our society have seeped into all aspects of our lives.”
Another lamented that “people at both ends of the political spectrum have set up camp opposing the ‘others,’ forgetting that they are one in the body of Christ.” It was noted widely in the dialogues that there was no unity among the bishops on key questions of pastoral life and mission in the world. This is a scandal of division that is deeply dispiriting to the laity and indeed the whole of the Church.
The synodal call to journey is a rejection of these divisions. It is a call to replace our ideologies and partisan lenses with the unifying love of the God of mercy who makes us one. We must purify our communities of this polarization, this unwillingness to see in those who disagree with us our sisters and brothers called to walk in harmony along the path that God is preparing for us.