As I measure the pulse of the synodal journey throughout the Antilles Episcopal Conference’s geographic region, I sense grave anxiety and urgency to shift into implementation gear. Based on the parish and diocesan syntheses, pastoral leaders have listed common themes, and have invited parishioners and parishes to identify two or three priority areas for implementation. This anxious impetus towards implementation reminds me of gunslingers in Western movies, who stand back-to-back, and turn around to shoot each other, only after they have each taken ten steps. Many parishes and dioceses are quick on the draw long before the tenth step. In this light, I pen this article as a note of caution.
The principal note of caution relates to the correct usage of language because language points to meaning – right language, right meaning. Many participants of the synodal journey have been utilizing the word “report” to describe the final document emerging from the diocesan consultation phase. From the beginning of the synodal journal, the synod secretariat and Pope Francis have been categorically clear in using the word “synthesis” and not “report”. The word “report” assumes that the focus of the consultation was to solicit ideas and opinions aimed at crafting goals and objectives to be implemented in the form of programmes and projects. On the other hand, the word “synthesis” describes the nature of the synodal journey as people-centred, and not programme-centred, that is, capturing the experience of the people.
The synodal journey means that the People of God are journeying together in dialogue and listening to discern what the voice of the Holy Spirit is saying to the parish, the diocese, the region (Stage One – Diocesan phase), to Church of Latin America and the Caribbean (Stage Two – Continental phase) and the universal Church (Stage Three – Universal phase with the assembly of Bishops in Rome 2023 & 2024). As we journey together, it is hoped that one of the fruits is conversion, both personal and pastoral, like a farmer preparing the soil for planting. Without the experience of conversion, then implementation will become flawed because it’s the persons who implement it. Unconverted persons risk failing to bear human and spiritual fruits. It’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes.
The synthesis, therefore, zeroes in on describing the experience of the journey. To this end, the guiding template for producing the synthesis consisted of Part One entitled “Re-reading the Experience”. Under this section the following questions were guides:
- What joys did the experience bring?
- What difficulties and obstacles have been encountered?
- What wounds were revealed?
- What insights were elicited?
The second section was entitled “Gathering the fruits of the experience”:
- Where in these experiences does the voice of the Holy Spirit resound?
- What are the points to be confirmed, the prospects for change, the steps to be taken?
- What is the Spirit asking of us?
- Where do we register a consensus among the participants?
- What are the discordant points of view that were marginalized?
- What paths are opening up for our local Church?
I deeply understand the anxiety towards implementation because there is the fear of the experience simply becoming a “talk shop”. The synodal process is not meant to be debarred of action. It is primarily meant to spiritually and humanly prepare the Church for action. Over the decades, many dioceses have had assemblies and ‘synods’ involving debates, discussions, deliberations, prioritizing, and action plans, only for these glorious ideas to simply remain in print. Perhaps one reason is that participants never experienced personal conversion in the process. It simply remained a cerebral exercise, unable to inspire pastoral conversion – a new way of pastoring!
The vision of Pope Francis is that the synodal journey is people-centred and conversion-centred, not programme- or project-centred. The journey is about forming the People of God in the spirituality of discernment, a skill that requires the human capacity to listen to each other and the spiritual capacity to listen to the Holy Spirit in becoming aware of the signs of the times. What are those current experiences, such as the Corona Virus pandemic, through which the Holy Spirit is speaking to us?
While the intention of the synodal journey is not to devalue or discount the need for implementation, it aims to help the Church plough and mulch the hard and dry soil of our times for planting new seeds. Therefore, let us calm and soothe any intense anxiety for implementation, and continue to participate in the synodal journey which is now in stage two – the Continental phase. In this second phase, the Church enlarges the tent (Isaiah 54: 2) to now include the Church of Latin America and the Caribbean as together we continue on the journey of listening and discernment. Clearly, it’s not the end, but the journey that’s essential.