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Synodality makes me nervous as a lay professional

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

Preface: Fellow travelers, this is the last blog in the series on #synodality and listening. But it's not the last word on this important foundation for synodality to take root. We must embrace the truth revealed in Vatican II's documents that the Church is the People of God, the baptized...all of us journeying together in communion and mission, led by the living Spirit given to us by the Lord himself. Together we must speak boldly what we see from where we stand, and listen to other perspectives from fellow travelers, from Scripture, from Tradition, from other knowledge streams and from the signs of our times. And then, we must task our ecclesial leaders, after listening to all of this, to articulate the Spirit's voice, #listening and then leading us to follow the Spirit's way. #synodjourney

Not so very long ago a friend who is a professional lay ecclesial minister and a sacramental theologian commented to me, a little irritated, that all this emphasis on the sensus fideii/sensus fidelium was making her nervous. Apparently she and some of her fellow theologians were beginning to sense a new way to silence their voices in favor of listening to “all the other people.” It took me by surprise at first. Then I realized she is expressing some of the same trepidation the clergy feel. It sounds something like, “So now all my education and experience count for naught, as the real ‘truth’ is found among and within the People of God?”

I remember this tension from my time working on both parish and diocesan staffs: that tension between what the people want/will do and what the Church says ought to be; the tension between what the people agree with and the Gospel’s call to conversion; the tension between American cultural values and those of the Gospel. I was obligated to speak of Jesus’ way expressed in the Gospels and elucidated by the Catholic Tradition/Magisterium. And often, too often, I was sidelined in favor of what the people want, a majority vote, a popular trend. It was irritating. I expect this is what my friend and her colleagues are feeling…those who do not know Scripture, Tradition, documents, Bishop’s statement and local directives, who have no experience in what a parish/diocese is to do, are somehow supposed to be “right” in their perspectives? We are to listen to THEM and make choices based on THEIR perspectives? Hold on…hold on…wait….really?

As I was listening to her argument and her irritation (trying to practice active listening with her), I pulled away a bit and was able to see this either-or thinking emerging. It’s either THEM or it’s US. I also heard the judgment…that THEY do not know or understand the faith and so are not equipped to set direction, make policy, change anything. Mind you, my friend is neither an elitist nor judgmental. And yet, I heard these perspectives and I realized how much work we have to do to understand the kind of active listening Pope Francis is calling for. They DO know. But so do WE. It's together that we can hear the Spirit speaking as we listen deeply, not just to one another but to the knowledge streams given to us in Scripture, Tradition and the signs of our times.

In a nutshell, what the Pope is asking for is active listening to as many different perspectives as we can find in order to eventually discern the voice of the Spirit, guiding, correcting, directing the Church. It’s not either-or. It’s both/and. And he is urging the Church to step away from the “Father/Bishop knows best” perch, and to create a table where the clergy sit alongside theologians, pastoral practitioners, regular parishioners, those on the margins, those who long ago left the Church, and those fellow Christians walking this road as well. Their disposition: to listen actively, with mind and heart. Their purpose: communion with the Holy Spirit who will direct the missionary efforts of Christ’s Body, the Church.

My friend asked me what lay professionals are supposed to do in this “synodal” climate. Coming from a theologian who has already experienced the Church silencing theologians, limiting the scope of their inquiry and placing some subjects completely off limits, I can understand her testiness and respect her curiosity. What indeed, are all lay professional ministers and the clergy supposed to do now? Here are some suggestions:

  • Take the listening inventory, and assess your own active listening skills.

  • Learn how to actively listen and practice it in all professional and personal settings.

  • Help structure the diocese/parish such that it is a conduit for parrhesia¸that bold speaking of truth without fear of reprisal. That will mean assessing levels of trust and safety. For help with that, subscribe to get notices when the blog series on trustworthiness drops.

  • Help form the laity in Scripture and Tradition, fostering their ongoing conversion as missionary disciples. One glaring outcome of many listening sessions was the need for adult faith formation so that those speaking do so formed in their Tradition. And now I am going to speak boldly here: don’t suggest it. Require that membership in a parish have the related responsibility of growing in knowledge and understanding of the faith by the adults.

And then there is the final contribution you, my fellow professional lay ecclesial ministers, will make to creating a synodal culture. It is to participate fully in listening to the hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows of the people of God and their preferred responses/recommendations, seeking to fully understand what they are saying. With that understanding, your work is to put their perspectives into dialogue with the perspectives you hold from your education and experience. See how they are affirmed by the Deposit of Faith, from your fields of study and from your experience, and how they deviate from it. Ask these really difficult questions in either case:

  • Does affirmation from the People of God mean something does not need to be changed or further understood? Or is affirmation coming from ingrained rhetoric, “the way it’s always been”, or popular sentiment?

  • Does resistance mean the people need more formation or does it mean the prophetic voice is challenging the Church?

Then, my friends, collect your thoughtful and prayerful contributions, and add them, along with your recommendations to the voice of the People of God, and send them to the clergy. Volunteer to assist the clergy in parsing all of this through their required lens: conserving the apostolic tradition and preserving communion. Help them search for understanding, to ask hard questions and to hold space for the surprising and the uncomfortable. Continue to participate in this level of discernment, actively listening and remaining curious. Perhaps when it is time, offer to help craft feedback to the participants, and to frame decisions in language that promotes understanding, gives gratitude to God for the gift of listening and articulates a pathway.

From where I sit, the voice of the lay ecclesial ministers/professional theologian is not diminished at all. Rather, our voices are an active part of the discernment. We lend an essential perspective to the speaking honestly and listening actively, and we have skills in formulating thoughts, expressing them in writing, and seeing where they are in continuity or are disruptive to the existing lines of reasoning. So my friends, this is how I see our role in a synodal Church…vital, necessary, critical even.

What’s different? It will be how our voice is included in the listening process. We will learn by doing, making this #synodjourney together. It will require trustworthiness and the ability to discern.

Bonus: Trying to understand this cultural change to synodality a little better? Take a look at these various models of theological reflection, considering how they invite the kind of deep listening Pope Francis is saying IS the way the Church is to be the Church in the third millennium: John Trokum “Models of Theological Reflection” College of Mt. St. Joseph.

And so we complete this second part of our Foundations of Synodality blogs. We turn next to trust/trustworthiness.

Photo courtesty of Unsplash

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