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Communal discernment, loading… loading

Q: Archbishop J, what is the synod about, really?

The Synod on Synodality is a major upgrade of the operating system (OS) of the Roman Catholic Church. In my November 12, 2023, column, I used this OS metaphor to talk about the synod.

Every now and again, we need to upgrade the OS on our devices to improve their functionality. In some instances, the upgrade may provide us with new ways of doing tasks that make the device better suited for its purpose or mission.

Every substantial upgrade is painful. We need to relearn how to do familiar things and learn new things. We discover new tasks we did not know about and ways of using the device that we did not anticipate.

As Church, we are in a steep learning curve right now and many want to simply continue using the old OS. The old is good some say; why worry with this new synodality?


A paradigm shift

Synod on Synodality has initiated a major upgrade of the Church’s OS; it is not just helping efficiency—allowing us to do things more easily. This new OS is making the Church better suited for its purpose.

Important: we cannot achieve Christ’s intention for His Church, using the old model of pastoral, finance, priest, and vicars’ councils, and episcopal conferences.

The Second Vatican Council had a vision for the Church that could not be fully realised because its OS, when it was concerned with leadership and governance, was inadequate. But the vision is correct: the whole people of God journeying together; a Church that is at once hierarchal and collegial, at the same time.

We have known a Church where the hierarchy was large and in charge, with a laity who prayed, paid, and obeyed. Now, we are moving to a Church where the priest is an equipping pastor who prepares God’s people for taking full responsibility in the mission of the Church; a pastor who accompanies leaders to live their vocation fully and use their gifts for the building up of Christ’s body (Eph 4:1–16).

In this model of Church, each baptised member has been anointed, through Baptism for holy mission as Prophet, Priest, and King. Each member is co-responsible for mission.

In this Church, the Bishop’s role is not to rule, but rather to initiate priest and people into the sacred mystery where they encounter Christ. Through this encounter each member of the body finds their vocation and their gifts and offers them generously for the building up of the body of Christ.

Here we begin to understand Jesus’ warning to the two brothers and the 12: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:25–28).

The synod is moving the Church to be faithful to this command of Jesus. The leader is one who serves. The bishop, priest, religious and consecrated laity serve the communal discernment required for governing this People of God.

This is a new way of being Church where we learn to make decisions through communal discernment rather than by decree of the authority figure.

If you have not realised it yet, decree by fiat is a toxic OS that is wounding the body of Christ. It puts absolute power, with little accountability, in the hands of men who could completely disregard competent religious and laity.  They make bad decisions against the advice and support of their people because they have the power—this is clericalism. I will add quickly this is not a matter for priests and bishops alone, many leaders of groups and institutions are infected by this bad virus.


Communal discernment

The synod is teaching us a model of communal discernment—conversation in the Spirit. In this model, we learn the practical steps and tools for moving a diverse group to consensus on a topic. It is a tool designed to be used consistently at every level of Church. It is a game changer.

Once there is a major pastoral decision at the level of the group, parish, or diocese a process of decision making is employed. Previously, in the most productive settings, this involved a round of comments by participants and a vote. The majority won and the decision was made.

What if the majority was wrong? What if the minority held insight that was necessary for the smooth implementation of the decision? How did the losers feel, especially if it was a very emotional issue, with much at stake?

Communal discernment is a biblical model that was used in the early Church. We should all be familiar with Acts 15 where there was a major theological disagreement on whether gentiles needed to be circumcised to become Christians. This was a very emotional topic and hotly debated. The early Church used a discernment model to arrive at a decision and then declared, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

A communal model of discernment is not simply finding consensus among participants; it is more importantly about finding consensus with God. It is in the service of lines three and four of the Our Father—”Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10).

Communal discernment is aligning the Church with the Will of God at every level. Think about it for a moment.

This is learning to see the world through God’s eyes, learning to see and listen to each other through the ear of the heart and learning. Isiah says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55: 8–9).

Communal discernment is the secret ingredient that was missing from the post-Vatican II Church. The infrastructure was in place, but the OS remained political, authoritarian and clerical.

The intention of the Holy Father is for the whole Church—at all levels—to engage in communal discernment to make and take decisions. The hope is that we all will move much closer to the Will of God, individually, and in all parts and levels of the Church.


Key Message:

The Church after Vatican II was given synodal structures, but they were used with the old style of leadership. The Synod on Synodality is providing an OS upgrade, so it can better connect with its purpose—being God’s instrument in the world.

Action Step:

Reflect on a major pastoral decision that you were involved in recently. What was the model of decision making? Discernment or majority? What was the consequence? How would communal discernment have served you better?

Scripture Reading:

Lk 5:37–39