Q: Archbishop J, how do we transform a ‘deliberative assembly’ into a ‘discerning assembly’?
A ‘deliberative assembly’ and a ‘discerning assembly’ share several things in common. But their core, heart and processes are fundamentally different.
To recap: in Synods 2003, 2005 and 2009, we used the model of a deliberative assembly. ‘Roberts’ Rules’ gave structure to our gathering and the method to move an idea into a resolution: a motion was brought to the floor, someone seconded it, a debate ensued, and a vote decided the matter. It was effective.
When Pope Francis says he wants a synodal Church, he is asking for something beyond the deliberative assembly as we have experienced it thus far.
The envisioned process has two phases. The preparatory document says: “In a synodal style, decisions are made through discernment, based on a consensus that flows from the common obedience to the Spirit”.
Then the question is asked: “By what procedures and methods do we discern together and make decisions? …How do we articulate the consultative phase with the deliberative one, the process of decision-making with the moment of decision-taking?” (30, IX).
We are walking together as a Church, which has different charisms and gifts. In a synodal Church, all the parts of the People of God have unique roles to play in building up the Body of Christ. But to be the People of God, means our first identity arises out of our belonging to this body.
Only secondly is our identity defined by the specific role we play in the body. I believe to move to a discerning community we will need a spirituality, a theology of the Church (ecclesiology) and a toolkit.
To walk together as Church requires that all of us believe it is God who is leading us on the journey. The image here is the Exodus. The people were led by God at every stage of the journey—a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Ex 13:22). They could perceive movement but did not know where they were going.
The Old Testament typology is always inferior to the New Testament reality. Before He died, Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit who will teach us all things (Jn 14:26). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, who came on the Apostles as wind and fire, fulfilled both the Old Testament typology and the promise of Jesus.
To be a disciple is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to let Jesus lead. A synodal spirituality is a discipleship spirituality. The whole Church is called to follow Christ in its pilgrimage on Earth. Just as the disciple listens to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in every sphere of her life, so too the Church—hierarchy and laity—is actively listening to the promptings of God in all spheres of her activity. The Church, as the body of Christ, is directed by its head in things little and big.
So, the Church must be a listening Church: listening to God who directs her in all she does, listening to one another, as we discern together the will of God in all things, because we believe He has a plan for His Church that is available to us if we seek it (Is 55:8–9).
In the ‘Our Father’, we pray every day: “Your Kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This means we believe God’s plan is infinitely better than any ideas we may have and that it is possible to access His help, in things small and great. This is synodal spirituality. We pray constantly: “Bend my heart to your will, O God”.
Synodal Theology of the Church (Ecclesiology)
The Second Vatican Council’s definition of the Church as the People of God has far-reaching implications. For our purpose, the most important is that the whole People of God are “called to holiness” (cf Lumen Gentium, LG, Ch V) and thus to participate in the mission and ministry of the Church. The same document states:
“Christ, the great Prophet, who proclaimed the Kingdom of His Father both by the testimony of His life and the power of His words, continually fulfils His prophetic office until the complete manifestation of glory. He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensus fidei) and an attractiveness in speech so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life.” (LG, 35)
This sensus fidei, given as gift to the laity, is the second vital foundation of a synodal Church. Bishops, priests, and deacons (hierarchy) must believe that any pastoral problematic brought to the People of God for discernment will produce a result that is infinitely better than any plan done in isolation.
If we believe this, we will have continuous conversations on our most important and vexing pastoral issues.
This concept is so important that the Vatican’s International Theological Commission wrote the document, Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church. Reflecting on 1 Jn 2:20, the promised anointing of Christ that teaches the disciple everything, the document says: “As a result, the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognise and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei, and it enables Christians to fulfil their prophetic calling” (2).
The document concludes by saying: “It (sensus fidei) is the instinct by which each and all ‘think with the Church’, sharing one faith and one purpose. It is what unites pastors and people, and makes dialogue between them, based on their respective gifts and callings, both essential and fruitful for the Church” (128).
A synodal Church, therefore, is not an optional extra.
A synodal Church requires a spirituality, a theology, and a toolkit. (We will reflect on the toolkit next week.)
Recall an experience when you were in a group that truly listened, and the outcome was far better than the individual positions. Reflect on how we can do that more often.
1 John 2:20