The synodal listening sessions opened the door to hearing the voice of the laity in a new way, as parishes across the world were asked to share their stories, hopes, and disappointments about living within the Catholic Church in order to guide where it goes next.
Yet, according to the 2023 U.S. National Synthesis Report, dioceses entered the process with “a combination of excitement, confusion, and skepticism.” In fact, “several dioceses noted some apprehension and even opposition as they began their synodal listening”—due, in part, to a feeling the process would be futile.
This sense of futility reflects a Church that is communal in nature but not yet communal in participation. Though we speak of a united Body of Christ, the synodal proceedings reveal the limits of the laity’s words and actions in the face of ecclesial structures. In a Church where laypeople have been fashioned to receive and not to share, it’s understandable that many are not simply unwilling but actually unable to make their voices heard. Breaking centuries of silence in the space of a four-year synodal session is bound to be a challenge, especially given that we perhaps failed to consider one of the preemptive needs for the synodal process: training lay voices to speak. I propose the laity may be experiencing what I call “acute ecclesial laryngitis,” the inability to contribute to the life of the Church due to a lack of capacity to speak. In this synodal moment, we find the voice is a muscle, and the failure to use it results in a stifled and hesitant voice.
There are two things we can do to address this condition. The first is to focus on a better formation of the prophetic voice that our baptism gives us. The second is to develop a better understanding of what it takes to nurture a truly synodal Church. This will aid those in the Church not practiced in listening, as well as those in the Church not yet trained in speaking. In doing so, we can introduce a way of being a Church that has not been culturally practiced yet, while also moving closer to Francis’s ideal vision that we are not just practicing synodality, but that we are a “synodal Church.”
If we think of the synodal process as a way for the Church to preach the Good News, then we should approach it the way we prepare for a sermon. This is the moment when we pray and listen for the Spirit as we ready the Church to proclaim God’s message for today. A good sermon starts before its proclamation. It is found as you listen to the needs of the community and consider how God may be calling you to speak. It means listening as the community shares their stories and their experiences of God. It means not assuming you know what they need even before you have met them. Preaching shows us, as synodality should, that if we do not hear, then we are not ready to speak.
In her book Ingenuity: Preaching as the Outsider, Vanderbilt professor of homiletics Lisa Thompson calls listening a “cultural act.” Listening is a way of responding that is guided by the given cultural context, one we exercise even when we don’t acknowledge it. In the Catholic cultural context, this would necessitate a new practice, not yet honed, whereby clergy listen to the laity and make themselves open to the wisdom possessed by those who’ve spent their lives in the pews listening to words from the pulpit. It flips the age-old image of leadership, since it requires the “shepherds” to turn their ears to the proverbial “sheep” and realize that they too have lessons to learn about who God is and what God is saying.
This will require patience and persistence from those in positions of power—but wisdom comes to those who wait. During the Synod on Youth in 2018, Pope Francis advised us to listen with humility and speak with courage. A new practice will invite those in power to respond with humility and see the laity as partners in the spiritual journey, and to call on the lay community to speak with courage in expressing the Spirit moving within them.
If the Church is truly a sign of God at work in the world, then it needs to model listening to those in society and in the ecclesial body whose voices have gone unheard and whose needs have been overlooked. Even as listening sessions come to a close, this courageous and humble mode of speaking can create a new cultural dynamic—a “synodal way of being” evident in everything from church councils to Sunday gatherings to the weekly bulletin. It can allow the sound of new voices to echo throughout the Church.
In the end, the Spirit at work still has a lot to do if the Church is to form a single collective body moving into the future. If we believe the Holy Spirit is at work through the laity, then we need to remember it is God’s movement in a Church that speaks, hears, yearns, and lives in ways we do not, through all members of its body. Are leaders ready to listen? Are laypeople ready to speak? How should we move the synodal concept from ideal to reality, from simple “listening sessions” to a lived value for clergy and lay alike? These questions raise additional ones, like: How do we train our ears to truly listen? What voices may be missing from the conversation? Who is speaking and who has yet to be heard? But even taking up these questions would inspire a true ecclesial and cultural transformation, showing us that unity is not something to be coerced or commanded, but achieved instead through communication.
If we want to become a synodal Church not simply by ideal but by practice, then we must be willing to learn new ways to “walk together.” Walking together requires a willingness to let go of certainty and succumb to the vulnerability of new challenges. Becoming an actively communal Church demands nothing less. It may mean that our common walk starts with a crawl. But in the end, it may allow us to run toward the Church we truly hope to one day be.