Some Reflections on the Synod

Some Reflections on the Synod on ‘Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment‘ given at the ”Gather” Conference of Catechists and Teachers in Torquay, 19th January 2019

As background, on an understanding of Synod and Synodality in the Catholic Church, it is worth being aware of two background reflection documents;

• Pope Francis’s Address at 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops (October, 2015)
• International Theological Commission, “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church” (March, 2018).

From the second:
1. “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium”[1]: this programmatic commitment was made by Pope Francis at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops by Blessed Paul VI. He stressed that, in fact, synodality “is an essential dimension of the Church”, in the sense that “what the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word 'synod’”[2].
2. This document is meant to offer some useful guidelines for going deeper into the theological sense of this promise and some pastoral orientations about what it implies for the Church’s mission. The Introduction indicates the etymological and conceptual data required for a preliminary clarification of the content and use of the word ‘synodality’; it then puts into context what a momentous and new teaching the Magisterium has offered us on this subject in the wake of Vatican II.
Synod, Council, Synodality
3. “Synod” is an ancient and venerable word in the Tradition of the Church, whose meaning draws on the deepest themes of Revelation. Composed of a preposition συν (with) and the noun όδός (path), it indicates the path along which the People of God walk together. Equally, it refers to the Lord Jesus, who presents Himself as “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14,6), and to the fact that Christians, His followers, were originally called “followers of the Way” (cf. Acts 9,2; 19,9.23; 22,4; 24,14.22).

So “being with, on a path” is central to this way of living within the life of the Church. This sense of “walking with” is crucial to the experience and understanding of the recent Synod. Important in this “walking with” was the consultation which had taken place with Young People in the Pre-synod meeting attended by 350 in March of 2018 and in the consultations taken place with hundreds of thousands on-line. In this country, there were a variety of local and regional gatherings and meetings with Young People, including our own one here in the Diocese over several days in July. There were also national meetings with those who work with young people, attended by Cardinal Vincent, Bishop Ralph Heskitt and myself, who were the three Synod Fathers from this country.

The Young People also had an important voice at the October Synod meeting. There were 40 from across the globe; they were given a prominent place in the plenary sessions, were given a longer amount of time for their interventions and certainly made their voices heard in the Synod hall. They were also full and active members in the different language groups. In addition, there were two broader afternoon/ evening gatherings of several thousand. One of those was to hear Testimony and Witness from a range of Young People, and attended by a group from this country, among many others. The other gathering was of “Inter-generational” dialogue, which I suppose is what we might also see happening at “Gather”.

I was struck by the importance of accompaniment, the sense of walking together and listening to one another. It is not just the bishops listening to the young, but a mutual dialogue and listening to one another. This “inter-generational” dialogue – which Pope Francis stresses again and again, is important. There is that lovely saying of Pope St John XXIII, “to the young, it is important to say, ‘the world existed before you’; to the elderly, to say ‘the world will continue to exist after you’”. As the days progressed, I had a real sense of a growing esteem and affection for the young people present, and I believe that was true of how the young people felt, when they reflected about the bishops, too. In this sense the young are active participants in the Synod process, not passive recipients.

In terms of the structure of the time we spent in Rome we were limited - some of us would say “straight-jacketed” - by the preparation document, the Instrumentum Laboris. This laid out the pattern of how the interventions were to be heard and the discussions undertaken. It was split into three parts, adopting the pattern of the “See-Judge-Act” method that many would be familiar with from the Young Christian Worker Movement. Except, being a Church document, the language used was more complicated. So rather than speaking of “See-Judge-Act” we were to engage in three movements – “Recognising, Interpreting and Choosing”.

The first week or so we spent on the “Recognising element”. There were inherent tensions in starting in this way, from a kind of sociological analysis, because the contexts are so different and what one ends up with is a kind of “Supermarket” of issues and situations. This has fed into the final document. When you look at it - and finally an English translation is now available - what you come across, certainly in the first part, is a seemingly endless list of every major reality, from gender issues to ecological matters, from war to education, and everything in-between.

The positive side of that, I suppose, is that everyone can find themselves in there somewhere. It also makes the final document quite easy to read. It is not particularly theological or full of footnotes or Church language, though it is far too long and could have done with much more editing.

This was my first experience of a Synod. I was struck by the rich diversity and catholicity of the Universal Church. There are the very different contexts in which faith is lived. For example, the two Bishops sitting either side of me were both Missionaries from different parts of the world. Bishop Jean-Pierre Laurent, originally from Canada, now ministers in Paraguay; Bishop Damiano Gozzetti, originally from Italy has been a Missionary in Uganda for many years. +Damiano has a diocese covering the size of Ireland, with just 5 priests. The Confirmation ceremonies he presides over are usually for 500; one of them was for 1500 and the confirming alone took 4 hours!
The experience of meeting, sharing with and getting to know other Bishops was a highlight. This experience of collegiality, within the experience of synodality, is an important one and is, I believe, a particular richness of the Catholic communion. This was strengthened by the generosity and presence of the Holy Father, who was there to welcome and greet us as we arrived for every plenary session. He stayed throughout and heard everything.

His simple summary of the meaning of a Synod within the Catholic Church was particularly profound – “The Synod is not a parliamentary process but a Sacred Space in which to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.” At numerous times I was struck by the link with Acts of the Apostles and the first Council of Jerusalem. At that time the Apostles came together in order to decide on the place of Gentiles in the Church, asking a fundamental question – how does the church remain faithful to the tradition it has received in regard to the Lord’s Resurrection and at the same time, be open to the challenges it faces in light of gentile converts to Christ?

In many ways that dynamic has not changed in the Church. It is the relationship between what one might call “focus and fidelity” on the one hand, and “flexibility and creativity” on the other. The Catholic genius is not to collapse one of these into the other; so never just to insist on fidelity and focus, and never just to push for flexibility and creativity.

One of the most inspiring elements of the Synod was to hear accounts of modern day Martyrs. One young man - Safa al Abbie, a 26 year old Dentist, who is a Chaldean Catholic from Iraq - spoke of the challenges for peace and stability in his homeland, alongside the right to live in dignity. He relayed the experience of coming away from Mass one Sunday morning. In saying goodbye to his friends, he shouted out, “See you next week”. But he didn’t, because shortly afterwards they were killed by a car bomb down the road from their Church.

Archbishop Barwa of North East India shared the experience of Rajish Digal, a Dalit Youth, a Catechist of 22, killed by Hindu Fundamentalists. He was travelling home on the bus, they came on board and asked him, ‘Are you a Christian?” He didn’t answer. They searched his bag and found his prayer book and Catechism, so they bundled him off the bus. They beat him, demanding, ‘Give up your Jesus’. He replied, “I will not give up my Jesus.” They hurled him into a pit, and filled it with mud, up to his neck. They raised a large rock over him and asked him one last time, “Give up your Jesus”. He would not, so they smashed the rock down on him.

We only know the circumstances of his death because two years later these men came to his village to meet with his parents and to ask their forgiveness. The parents replied, “He would not give up Jesus, neither can we. He asked us to forgive our enemies, so we forgive you.”

Other testimonies from the young people bore witness to the transforming power of Jesus’ love. We heard of one man’s addiction to pornography, and others addiction to drugs and alcohol, of a young woman who had struggled in a series of broken personal relationships. In each of these situations the young person spoke honestly of their struggles with self-esteem and feelings of isolation, despite living in a digital world which esteemed direct contact and 24 hour communication but which, nevertheless, left them cut off in self-destructive siloes. A number, particularly form the affluent West, spoke of the present challenges for young people with mental health issues.

Each of these young people went on to relay stories of how individual Christians, friends and family, had reached out to them, and how they had discovered a sense of belonging in communities and networks of relationships where they were given second chances, the opportunity to begin again. It was in these contexts that they began to discover afresh the person of Jesus, by reading the Gospels, by praying before the Eucharist and by helping others.

They recognised they were all still on a pathway of conversion, not the finished product but “on the way”. They valued enormously the accompaniment given within the Church. The Church was experienced, not so much as a judgemental institution but as a loving mother, experienced as a place of healing, of belonging, a place where one continues to encounter Jesus and to share Him with others.

I think that giving voice to this dynamic in the work of Evangelisation has been one of the most inspiring elements of the Synod for me. It was an important part of “interpreting” and “Choosing”.

I went to the Synod with the hope that there would be some definite proposals and ideas which might make this focus on Jesus more concrete for our situation in these islands. A disappointment has been that this was not the case. But the Synod confirmed in me the reality that young people, like all of us, are more attracted to the Lord of the Church rather than to the Church of the Lord.

I am not suggesting – and you would not expect a bishop to suggest - we can have Jesus without the Church. Rather, it is a matter of priority. Where the Synod really took off, in my view, is when we looked to Him, rather than to the structures, or programmes, or organisation.

This was the path which the Synod also laid before us as the “Choosing” that is to be done in the future. We have recognised that there are some things which make encounter with Jesus more possible.

“Accompaniment” is crucial for the Young and is key in moving forward – an accompaniment of the heart, which helps each person overcome, or perhaps better integrate the wounds of their history; an accompaniment of the mind which provides some of the orientations in faith necessary, in order to negotiate a faithful path through a terrain which is often experienced as hostile to a religious perspective; and an accompaniment in the service of others, which takes me out of myself in to a practical love of my neighbour.

When the Church is experienced as the place in which these things happen, then young people can feel at home. They are given that firm, but gentle hand, which helps them to set out on the way to continue to encounter the Lord.

The dynamic of the Road to Emmaus is important here, and thankfully it became the concrete motif for understanding and exploring the three movements of recognising, interpreting and choosing, in our accompaniment of young people. On that road, the disciples discover Jesus to be with them, even when they are walking away. They do not recognise Him as He takes up His place alongside them and walks with them. In His accompaniment – His walking with them - He helps them to interpret the experience that they have had in the light of His Word. Recognising Him fully in the Breaking of Bread they choose to return to Jerusalem and become His missionaries to others.

This is the path of the Synod for the future as we take forward now, the implementation phase in our own country and situations. My prayer continues to be, “Draw close to us Lord, that we may continue to encounter you, and so bring others to you. Amen”

+Mark O’Toole
Bishop of Plymouth