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Trustworthiness and Synodality

When the Pentecost Vigil Project was being born, Pat (the co-founder) and I were talking about the whole exciting enterprise, about being part of something Spirit-inspired, about the privilege of seeing the Church actually change the way she operates and about being part of the first people to help push this rock uphill, for uphill it will be. Why? Because, we said almost in unison, the Church has a fundamental trustworthiness problem. And that inhibits participation and communion. This is the final blog in this installment on trustworthiness. Read on to see how we connect this to synodality.

Here's are the connections we see. Maybe you see something more?

Eroding Trustworthiness

Let’s start with the big issue, the proverbial elephant in the room: the sex abuse and cover-up scandal. Even if no one in our particular orbits has been affected by this, these things are still true: the abuse shattered trust in the clergy, the cover-up shattered trust in the Bishops and the Pope, and the duration of the problem has shattered trust in the institution as a whole. And every one who remains affiliated with the Church is affected by this loss of trust. Everyone. As I was first writing this, new reports were coming out about how little priests trust their bishops to be there for them should they be accused of sex abuse. And today, as I prepare this for posting, NCR reported "theologian Massimo Fabbioli and Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner wrote recently in this space, 'It must be understood that the chances of the synodal process that will soon begin its continental phase are closely tied to what the Catholic Church is doing and not doing on the abuse crisis. It's about the abuse crisis even when it's not explicitly about the abuse crisis.'" (Tom Roberts. National Catholic Reporter. "Hierarchy's sacramental betrayal in abuse scandal obstructs synodality." 1-17-23.)

Loss of trustworthiness is the consequence of the abuse scandal.

But there are other elements at play in the Church’s loss of trustworthiness: the abuses of power (ask someone to tell you why they are no longer a Catholic and I can guarantee you that if it’s not the sex abuse-cover up scandal, next on the list is an abuse of power, mostly by clergy or by Church structures like Tribunal offices, where annulments are adjudicated.) Rules oppress the people. Priests abuse their position. Staff are non-existent or purely "Father's helpers". Women are appreciated for their willingness to labor and shunned from leadership.

Next, it’s institutional intransigence, in the face of science, of historical research, of the wisdom found in the People of God, and in the face of heightened awareness and justice. Not sure what I mean here? This is the umbrella under which the role of women in society in general and in Church leadership in particular rests, as does white supremacy and the Church’s role in perpetuating it. It is where advances in understanding human sexuality, in ignoring research, lived experience and the fruit of prayer among the People of God rests. This is where the refusal to reconsider an all-male celibate priesthood rests. This is where birth control sits. And while knowledge advances and conversion is happening “out here,” the Church remains cemented in her views. This is institutional intransigence. It inhibits trustworthiness.

Finally, the Church has a trustworthiness issue when it comes to walking the talk. Examples include: 1) Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian lives together and it is poorly carried out with abysmal preaching, truncated rites, and a preference for expedience over transcendence. 2) We are to be a people of charity and justice, and yet most parishes just offer some opportunities to be charitable, with no expectations or obligations attached, patting themselves on the back when the generosity of a few allows the many to be proud. Those same parishes don’t wade into issues of justice because that will afflict the comfortable and that could affect already scant giving. Better to leave that to others…the courageous, socialist, bleeding heart liberals. Never mind Jesus. This erodes trust.

Hypocritical...that's what many young people see when they look at us. Another example? We are a people to be known by the unmistakable way in which we care for each other, and yet we do not know one another’s names, do not walk along together in joy or sorrow because we do not know of it, and we do not re-distribute our wealth to see that everyone among us has what they need. Oh don’t get me wrong, parishes do that once in a while, but it’s hardly the way of life. And that "say one thing-do another" destroys trust.

One final example…the mission of the Church is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a broken world. We are woefully under-equipped, under-motivated, and under-performing in this, preferring a private and individual, “no one knows what’s in my heart” kind of faith to the one created by Jesus. Evangelize? Catholics don’t do THAT! The young see this and they refuse to participate or be in communion with us because we do not participate in the Church's primary mission. Saying one thing and doing another makes us a people not to be trusted.

Persuaded that the Church has a trustworthiness issue? If not, stop reading here. But if any of this resounds with you, read on, for this is the arid soil into which Pope Francis is sowing the seeds of synodality. This is the soil into which the Pentecost Vigil Project has planted ourselves, as well. So while Pope Francis is getting seeds distributed, we are focusing on amending the soil. Why? Read on to see how synodality is dependent upon good soil, which includes trustworthiness.

Discovering Together

The very word synod means to be on the road together. TOGETHER. And that presumes a desire to be on the road together. One of our learnings as we attempted to listen to those “on the margins” was that some of them, even those who trust us as individuals, have no desire whatsoever to journey with “us.” The Church cannot be trusted, so why bother?

Early on, one listening group participant asked “How truthful can we be here?” Another asked, “What will happen with all of this? Nothing has happened in the past. Why is it different now?” And too many, if they heard of the chance to speak at all, preferred to ignore the invitation altogether. They are not in a relationship with us. Why? We are not trustworthy.

Trustworthiness is foundational to any kind of relationship. Synodality presumes a relationship exists. Baptism has made that relationship, but trust is what will enable it to grow. And a lack of trust, well that destroys any relationship. Even with the Church. Even if baptized.

Here’s what I am discovering about trustworthiness and journeying together, especially with those who no longer trust the Church (and therefore me when I come into the relationship as a member of the Church). I have to be trustworthy in my relationships with them: empathetic, present, re-distributing wealth, listening, and offering the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. I have to be generous, presuming they are doing their best, and non-judgmental as they navigate life’s journey. In other words, I have to continue to love them as I want to be loved, to go about making choices that benefit them, even when they do not benefit me. I have to bring Jesus to them, where they are. Consistently and recognizably.

In this way, I journey with them, and their voices and perspectives enter the Church through me. Imagine if you will, how large the tent is if all of us who know those who do not trust the Church love them, all the time. And now and again, we share with them that our ability to do this comes from Christ and the Spirit and our food for the journey is the communion we share with Christ and one another in the Eucharist. That’s it…and we hold our part of the tent flap and we hold each other’s hands and together, together we walk through life. We do not let them go, even if they have let “the Church” go. We, the Body of Christ, the Church, has not let them go! They are "with us" even if they are not inside the tent.

Oh, and this is true for those still on parish registries, and those who are Christmas and Easter Catholics, and for those “strangers” who sit near us each week. We love them…we hold them close to Jesus…we are present, empathetic and we listen with our hearts. And we amplify their voices inside the tent. Feel the space growing inside the tent? It grows because we are trustworthy, and because we love.

Discerning in Common

So, we journey together, we meet our conflicts, dilemmas, and struggles together. Synodality means that we intentionally set out to address these together: speaking truth boldly but with love, and listening with our hearts to one another and to the Spirit’s voice emerging from our knowledge and experience. Discerning in common means we listen to the voices of the Lord found in other knowledge streams, and most especially in the Sacred Word and the Magisterium of the Church. Discerning in common means we are always searching for God’s presence, and for what God is saying in the here and now. Discerning in common means we seek the Spirit's voice from those we encounter who are not inside the tent, but who are on the journey with us because we love them.

I hope you can see how trustworthiness is connected to the synodal practice of discerning in common. I am trustworthy even if the institution is not. I am/we are transparent, able to give good reasons for our thoughts, opinions, suggestions and conclusions. We are humble: that is accountable to one another especially when we are mistaken or make mistakes/sin; that is, we live with integrity: walking the talk and talking the walk. We exhibit a humility speckled with a generosity of spirit, always believing the other is doing the best they can and offering what they have to offer.

I/we practice parrhesia: speaking bold truth in search of the common good; and we speak honestly and clearly what we see from where we stand, knowing always that we see only part of the picture. We invite others to do the same, and we actively listen when they do. Parrhesia and active listening presume the others with whom we are walking are trustworthy. There is no discerning in common, no hearing the Spirit’s voice, no ability to recognize the common good if there is not a fundamental trustworthiness. As individuals, we have a role in increasing trustworthiness by the way in which we relate to others as we together listen for the Spirit's voice.

Journeying together presumes not just the ability to discern together, based in a fundamental trust. Journeying together also means being able to decide, to move on the journey together. We are a pilgrim people, and so to journey is to make decisions for the common good. Shared decision-making, also known as consultative decision making is also grounded in a fundamental sense of trustworthiness between the people making the decisions.

Deciding together

Synodality is connected to governance, to making decisions. Ecclesial leaders governing synodally must agree to the trustworthiness of these sources as they discern and then decide:

  • The voice of the Lord found in Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church

  • The voice of the Lord found through reflection on our experiences

  • The voice of the Lord calling us to the common good, rather than to personal or institutional well-being, and

  • The call to Christian joy: a sense that God-is-with-us, that the decision aligns us with God’s intention and God’s will, that we know the decision to be aligned with the Gospel and so the community is joyful.

So synodality requires a foundation of trustworthiness/trust: that we trust each other and that we individually and communally are trustworthy; that we agree to the sources we will trust to reveal God’s voice; and, that we ground ourselves in God’s promise to be with us always. So as you amend the soil around you, ask yourself questions like these:

  • To what degree do those entrusted with synodal-style decision making center Scripture and Tradition as non-negotiable sources to hear the voice of the Lord? And how are they continually engaging with both sources?

  • What listening and reflection practices are leaders using as part of their discernment? Is there a belief that the Lord is at work through these experiences? How do you know that?

  • How is the “common good” defined as it relates to each discerned choice? How are we leading others into Kingdom of God living?

  • How do you recognize joy as it emerges from the decision?

Deploying Together

Trustworthiness' tie to synodality is not quite complete. We have discovered our own work, we have discerned and we have decided, grounded in mutual trust. Now, along the journey will come the necessity to bring a decision to bear, together. So for those entrusted to lead the implementation of a decision, is there trust between and among the people? Ask these questions to determine trustworthiness:

  • Is everyone clear about what is ok and what is not ok in the implementation of the choice?

  • Are those entrusted with elements of implementation competent and reliable?

  • As implementation unfolds, can everyone talk about what they need and how they are feeling? Are participants careful not to make up stories about what others are thinking or feeling?

  • Is the commonly held perspective about each person that they are doing the best they can right now? Is there a fundamental disposition of kindness and gentleness toward one another? Is there room for mistakes and failures and yet the community goes on together, implementing the discerned decision?

This is how trustworthiness is directly related to synodality: it is the soil in which these synidal practices either flourish or flounder. These are the questions leaders wishing to create fertile ground for synodality to take root ask. If this isn’t what’s afoot in your parish/diocesan culture, get to work on trustworthiness before you plant the seeds of synodality. If you don’t, the seeds will fall on arid ground and die.

And remember, the Church as a whole has a trustworthiness issue, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you are unaffected by that. It's one of the signs of our times.

Bonus Resources:

Want to learn a little more about the anatomy of trust?

Here’s a quick list of Dr. Brené Brown’s work, the acronym BRAVING:

For a fuller explanation of this, read her book Braving the Wilderness or her book Dare to Lead.

Watch this TED talk: “How to build (and rebuild) trust” 14:57

Know we are always available to talk…go to and send us a message! While you’re there, be sure to get on our contact list so you can join us on the #synodjourney.

And stay tuned as we blog about the next element foundational to synodality: discernment in common.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash Christian Gertenbach

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