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Synod process – through dialogue and discernment

This is the official logo for the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (CNS photo/courtesy Synod of Bishops)

Q: Archbishop J, why synodality?

Synodality speaks about a way of being Church, where its members walk together, where its leaders listen to all the faithful, as it discerns God’s will for its future.  This is a humble Church that puts God’s will above all other criteria in decision-making, one in which the little and the least have a voice.

Lessons learnt

During the first morning of Synod 2003, our local Church learnt some vital lessons. Some 1,000 people can be rumbunctious. The first session collapsed because we had not carefully thought through the process of listening to so large a group.

After Archbishop Edward Gilbert CSsR had consulted with a small group, it was decided to adopt Roberts’ Rules of Order. A solution was found that very much saved the day.

Resolutions were passed and the business of the synod was conducted with relative order. The decision was a good way forward, but incomplete.

By these rules, the synod was transformed into a deliberative assembly, a specific type of decision-making process. In a deliberative assembly: “The process of making a decision is done through a motion, which is a proposal to do something. The formal steps in handling a motion are the making of a motion, having a second, stating the motion, having debate on the motion, putting the motion to a vote, and announcing the results of the vote. Action could be taken informally without going through these steps by using unanimous consent. When making a choice, the basic principle of decision is majority vote” (Robert’s Rules of Order, Wikipedia).

The heart of the process was debate, the decision was settled by a majority and there were winners and losers. It was involved and passionate, and people participated in a relatively orderly fashion. The resolutions that were produced guided the Church to the next stage. This was also the process used in Bridgetown and Kingstown.

The major challenge is that a deliberative assembly is not a discerning assembly. The process was parliamentary, not ecclesial. It was debate and not discernment. We arrived at directions, but not necessarily at consensus. We had participation but not necessarily communion and thus not necessarily mission.


A discerning community

Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, the document from the International Theological Commission (ITC), lays out the ecclesial and theological foundations of synodality.

It says: “The synodal dimension of the Church must be brought out by enacting and directing discernment processes which bear witness to the dynamism of communion that inspires all ecclesial decisions”, P 76.

The big words here are discernment and communion. This is at the heart of Pope Francis’ vision. Through dialogue and discernment, we will build communion from the ground up and this will lead the people of God to mission and the renewal of the Church.

The document continues: “Synodal dialogue depends on courage both in speaking and in listening. It is not about engaging in a debate where one speaker tries to get the better of the others or counters their positions with brusque arguments, but about expressing whatever seems to have been suggested by the Holy Spirit as useful for communal discernment, at the same time being open to accepting whatever has been suggested by the same Spirit in other people’s positions, ‘for the general good’” (1 Corinthians 12,7), P 111.

To move from a deliberative assembly to a discerning assembly requires a special kind of preparation for those participating in the synod at all levels. We need to work together to understand the principles of discernment.

We need to learn how to listen, not only to what people are saying, but also to discern what spirit is operating in the group—a good spirit or a bad spirit? We need to move from majority to discerning God’s will.

The ITC document further says: “The criterion according to which ‘unity prevails over conflict’ is of particular value in conducting a dialogue, managing different opinions and experiences and learning ‘a style of constructing history, a vital field where conflicts, tensions and opposites can reach a pluriform unity which generates new life’, making it possible to ‘build communion amid disagreement’. Actually, dialogue offers the opportunity to acquire new perspectives and points of view in order to shed light on the solution of the matter in question,” P 111.

To build communion and mission, we need a new process. We need to keep order, but it must be in the service of discerning the will of God for the Church at every level.

From a practical perspective, there should be two moderators: one to keep track of the process and the second to listen to the Holy Spirit and discern where the Spirit is moving at any particular moment.

In moving from disagreement to communion, the process should be interrupted whenever there is a clarity that is emerging or when the process becomes too political or parliamentary.

To stop the process in silence and pray offers more than a pause for the next person to speak; it leaves room for the Spirit to accomplish its work. It is all a matter of discernment.

Discernment of spirits

Pope Francis is a son of St Ignatius of Loyola who integrated the process of discernment into the spiritual life. It is all about discerning whose spirit is at work. Are we in consolation or desolation? Are we bending to our will or God’s will? Without discernment we could have a majority leading us away from God’s will. We could miss key opportunities in the life of the Church when we need to respond to God in concrete ways. We could miss our moment of visitation.

We are in a change of era; the rules are being fundamentally rewritten. We must walk together if we are to be the Church that God is calling us to become. Synodality is not a fad or a process: it is a way of living our deepest value—Integral Human Development, believing in the intrinsic value of every person.


Key Message:

Synodality is a process of moving a people from disagreement to unity of purpose using discernment as the guide.

Action Step:

In meetings and conversations, become conscious of your desires and motivations around the point you are making. Learn to listen not only to the conversation but also to the Holy Spirit.

Scripture Reading:

1 John 4:1–6