As I write this article, many dioceses within the Antilles Episcopal Conference, from Hamilton, Bermuda in the north, to Belize City/Belmopan, Belize in the west, and Cayenne, French Guyana in the Southeast, are undertaking the tedious task of the diocesan phase of the Synodal Journey.
The overall goal of the synod process is to listen deeply to each other and the Holy Spirit to discern, “What is the Holy Spirit saying to the Church today?” The first phase of the journey is called the “Diocesan Phase” where parishes, lay movements, schools and universities, religious congregations, neighbourhood Christian communities, social action, ecumenical and inter-religious movements gather to engage in intentional speaking and listening. The aim is to “integrate the Synodal Process into the life of the local Church in creative ways that promote deepen communion, fuller participation, and a more fruitful mission” (Handbook, 3.1). In this listening phase groups are encouraged “to gather and respond to stimulus questions/images/scenarios together, listen to each other, and provide individual and group feedback, ideas, reactions, and suggestions” (Handbook, 3.1). It must be pointed out that the questions serve simply to generate discussions and stimulate deeper and rich interaction in the way oil is used in mechanical engines.
As these various groups gather, they will encounter a diversity of persons. There will be:
- persons emotionally bruised either from within or outside the Church and who need a safe space to vent their emotions;
- persons whose raw and broken circumstances of life trigger a kind of ‘dark night of the soul’ – a feeling of God’s absence;
- persons who have hardened ideological positions and who come to argue and reinforce what they consider to be orthodoxy; and
- persons who have abandoned the faith, and are disinterested in dialoguing with the Church.
Sometimes the discussion may be derailed from the train-tracks of the guided questions, leaving participants to be discouraged and disheartened due to the perceived non-achievement of goals.
If the group faces these or similar positions, what is the recommended action? First, participants must avoid reacting like adversaries to volcanic emotional outbursts with pre-packaged platitudinal and religious formulas, like Job’s friend, Eliphaz, to his wounded story (Job 4). Eliphaz’s advice regarding Job’s anger and cursing directed at God is described by American Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr as based on being “agenda-driven.” He continues, “Ideology is a very common masquerade for real faith because the agenda looks good or religious.” While the synodal journey is being lubricated and stimulated by a structured agenda, we must remember it is Spirit-driven. “We stand before You, Holy Spirit, as we gather together in Your name” (Synod Prayer).
What does a Spirit-driven process look like? A colleague and friend of mine, Gloria Bertram, offers a metaphor for what I consider to be a Spirit-driven synod process. She writes, “Looking in your cupboard, seeing what you have, and making a meal out of it for the family to enjoy and be nourished, as against taking a recipe and looking for the ingredients far and wide, and then ‘bussing you head’ to make a perfect dish that most people will not eat, or enjoy, and therefore remain hungry.” First, a Spirit driven process/journey pays close attention to the people with you, who come on the journey with their own personal stories. Second, the questions serve as the vehicle enabling participants to speak boldly and courageously and others to listen intently. Third, participants ask not agenda-driven questions, but open-ended questions to enter and understand their experience. If the discussion turns into a wild forest fire, the facilitator should invite participants to pause for a period of silence, and ask themselves, “Based on my thoughts and feelings during the discussion, what is the Holy Spirit saying to me now?”
Jesus’ conversation with the persistent Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), demonstrates the value of courageous speaking and listening in the synodal journey. She demands to tell her story to Jesus and express her needs. Moreover, Jesus’ willingness to listen to her, notwithstanding his initial position to refuse her request, eventually evolved into a discernment of the Spirit – “For saying this, you may go.” Those who gather to speak must be bold and courageous. Despite the awkward, clumsy, or perhaps aggressive manner of expression, listening must be purposeful and intentional.
In closing, we are reminded that the goal of the synod journey is not to establish a strategic plan with goals and objectives. This way of decision-making is based on the problem-solving approach. While this approach has its place in the life and mission of the Church, Pope Francis argues that listening and discernment of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to the mission of the Church, following the example of Jesus. If this way of being Church is new, awkward, or unclear, I invite you to address the Holy Spirit with the words, “Teach us the way we must go and how we are to pursue it” (Synod Prayer).