A couple years ago, I had a chance to meet with Pope Francis. During our time together, I shared with him the progress we are making in our effort to build a culture of missionary discipleship. He encouraged me (and us) to “lean into the Holy Spirit,” listening for where the Spirit is guiding us.
In my column reflecting on our visit, I wrote of the pope: “He also said that we need to remember that it is not so much that we bring the Holy Spirit to others; the Holy Spirit is already there. We simply help the people realize how close God is to them already and help them respond to God’s love.” I remember how powerful his words felt at the time.
Well, it seems that the pope’s message was not just for me; this is something he desires for the entire Catholic Church. This weekend, the church around the world will begin a two-year process of prayer, dialogue and listening to help us hear how the Spirit is moving us in this third millennium of the church. This process is known as a “synod” and the theme of this synod is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”
Now, you may be wondering, “What is a synod and what does it mean to be a synodal church?” A “synod” is another name for a “church council,” and synods have been around since the church’s foundation. They can take place at a local level, such as a parish or a diocese, or they can take place in the universal church.
Since Vatican II in the 1960s, the Vatican has regularly held synods of bishops, to bring together bishops from around the world to discuss important topics and help inform the pope’s thinking on key issues. Recent synods at the Vatican have addressed the new evangelization, families and young people.
The word “synodal” is the adjective form of synod. It describes a church that, by its very nature, emphasizes the importance of listening to the people of God. Some may hear this and wonder if the church is becoming a democracy. The answer is no.
Listening to the people of God is not about everyone having a vote and Catholic teaching being decided by majority rule. Rather, it is an invitation for all people to listen attentively for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and then gathering to discern how the Spirit is leading the church. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is in charge. Our job is to be attentive and remain open to the surprises of the Spirit!
As you can see, Pope Francis is challenging us to pay attention to how the Holy Spirit is moving in the world and what that means for us as a church. In particular, we are being called to make a special effort to listen to the Spirit in the voice of people on the margins of society, whether they are Catholic or not. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus devoted his time and energy to people on the outside of society. So today, we, too, must go to the margins and listen to how Jesus remains present there through the Holy Spirit.
The synod officially begins this weekend at the Vatican. Next week, in dioceses around the world, including our own, we will begin the diocesan phase of the synod. I will kick this off with my 9 a.m. Sunday Mass, Oct, 17, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral.
Over the next six months, we will engage in a process of prayer, listening and reflection to see how the Spirit is moving in our diocese. Next spring, all the dioceses of the United States will share what we have heard, which will be collected and shared with the organizers of the synod. Finally, in 2023, a group of bishops from around the world will gather at the Vatican to prepare a final report for Pope Francis.
You may be reading this and think that this all sounds a bit overwhelming. I’ll be honest, at times, I feel overwhelmed, too. But rather than seeing this as a burden, I see this as an invitation to deepen our relationship with God by listening closely to the Holy Spirit as revealed in the lives of our brothers and sisters. This is something we have been striving to do here in our diocese over the past several years, so I see this as an opportunity to deepen those efforts and recommit ourselves to being guided by the Holy Spirit.
I hope that each of you will open yourselves to where the Spirit is leading you as well as the church, both here in our diocese and throughout the world. As it says in the preparatory materials for the synod, the purpose of this synod is not to produce documents but to plant dreams, inspire trust, weave together relationships and awaken a dawn of hope. May each of us see ourselves as an essential part of what God is doing in our church.
Come Holy Spirit!
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.