By Fr Donald Chambers
In today’s culture, group discussions and one-on-one conversations tend to be guided by the philosophy of “the survival of the fittest”. They are usually characterised by unarticulated agendas and biases, the control of persuasive, influential, and extrovertive speakers, scarcely any space for introverts, and voting in which the majority wins.
However, the group decision is not necessarily the most suitable, but the voices of the majority prevail. The CreatingWE® Institute refers to this type of conversation as ‘Exchange Power’ where the participants simply defend their views and attempt to persuade and influence others to agree with them.
This synodal journey is one of communal discernment and decision-making. In this regard, spiritual conversations are essential raw materials for the building of a synodal Church.
From the Scriptures, we learn the fundamentals of spiritual conversation because they are replete with faith stories of God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ, who teaches disciples to discern and make decisions through the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. We turn to the narrative of the ‘Miracle of the loaves’ (Jn 6:1–15) for insights.
Jesus’ mission is unequivocally clear. He comes for the sick, not the healthy (Mt 2:17). At each point on the mission, Jesus, together with the disciples, discerns and decides how it must happen.
As Jesus journeys, He is deeply aware of the needs of the “sick”. “Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd approaching” (6:5). Instigating a process of discernment, the text says that Jesus asks Philip a question, “Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?” (6:5).
Asking a question is an invitation for group discernment. Second, Jesus listens to Philip’s response, “Two hundred denarii would only buy enough to give them a small piece each” (6:7). Philip’s response implies that the crowd can be fed but not satisfactorily.
Listening to Philip’s answer, Andrew retorts, “There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that among so many?” (6: 9). Andrew’s contribution adds data to the discernment process. Jesus’ practical instruction, “Make the people sit down” (6:1) demonstrates His active engagement in the conversation leading to a decision that the crowd is to be fed.
The dynamic of that conversation is referred to as “spiritual conversation” in the Synod handbook. It is “a suitable method for group dialogue . . . [that] promotes active participation, attentive listening, reflective speaking, and spiritual discernment.” (Vademecum, Appendix B, 8).
This authentic conversation is not without suffering due to the inclusion of multiple and even opposing voices. For this reason, the Preparatory Document of the Synodal (PD) process insists that, “Dialogue is a path of perseverance that also includes silences and sufferings, but which is capable of gathering the experience of persons and peoples” (PD, VI), in the way Jesus gathered the insights of Philip, Andrew, and the “small boy”.
This conversation is described by The CreatingWE® Institute as ‘Exchange Energy’. At this level, participants aim to discover what they don’t know. It’s a ‘Share-Discover’ dynamic or a We-centred conversation in which participants’ mindset is to “hold a neutral space to explore uncharted territory. Ask questions for which we have no answers and listen to connect.”
This is the kind of conversation that needs to be cultivated and nurtured by decision-makers in parishes, religious communities, and chancery offices.
How does this function? We turn to Jesuit General Superior, Fr Arturo Sosa’s insights on communal discernment (Taking the Risk – Making Discernment Central).
First, Fr Sosa writes that there needs to be a clear definition of the question in focus. Jesus is clear that the group needs to find a way to feed the hungry crowd.
Second, the group needs to have the right people engaged in the discernment. Hence, Jesus engages His disciples who are aware of His missionary mindset. Third, there is a need to gather information. Andrew provides information about the availability of five barley loaves and two fish.
Fourth, there ought to be a willingness to pray and share the fruits of prayer. Prayer assumes that the mission is God’s mission, directed by the Holy Spirit, and that we are people of faith.
Fifth, present a proposal for consideration.
Spiritual conversation facilitates conversion or repentance. In the New Testament writing the Greek word for repentance is metanoia – meta (after or beyond) and noeo (to think), that is, to reconsider or rethink something.
Because metanoia is aligned with belief in theology, it ultimately means the renewing of perspectives to align our thoughts and values with God. If we listen to others, to the Spirit in moments of silence, to the tensions within us, and open to new information, then we are guaranteed to discern new paths toward building a synodal Church – a Church of inclusive communion and participation in the mission.
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.