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.