The beginning of the Synod of Bishops in Rome (Catholic Press Photo)

Synod: A time to listen

The Synod opens today in Rome. In this interview with Traces, Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Assembly of Bishops, explained why the Church is called to reflect on itself.
Luca Fiore

The goal of a synod, according to Pope Francis, is not to produce documents but to “draw forth prophecies and visions, allow hope to flourish, inspire trust, bind up wounds, weave together relationships, awaken a dawn of hope, learn from one another, and create a bright resourcefulness that will enlighten minds, warm hearts, give strength to our hands.” On the 10th of October, a synod opened under the title, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” The church has committed to self-reflection and has begun to do this in a process of consultation at the diocesan and continental levels, which will culminate in the Assize of Bishops in Rome in October of 2023. The pope has invited all of the baptized to participate because it is a topic that is relevant to everyone.
What the meaning of a “synodal church” may be is the question we asked Cardinal Mario Grech from Malta, previously the bishop of Gozo, and, since September 2020, the secretary general of the synod. In his response, he does not mince words: “It is a church that is listening to the Holy Spirit. And listening does not mean ratifying the result of the assembly of bishops, but recognizing the Spirit that communicates itself through the life of persons in order to understand what He wants from us today. Pope Francis desires that we help each other to rediscover the beauty of a style that should inform all levels of the ecclesial experience.”

But why should there be a synod about synodality?
It is a way to take up again the conversation that began with the Second Vatican Council, which underlined the importance of the “People of God.” This theme is very dear to the Holy Father, who previously engaged with it in Evangelii Gaudium. The invitation to participate in the synodal path is an act of faith in the people of God, which is infallible in credendo, or, in the exercise of the faith. It is a proposal to rediscover the gift, too often neglected, of being a people, of sharing in a common priesthood rooted in baptism, from the most recent ly baptized soul all the way to the pope. We all must learn to listen and know that the smallest and the last to arrive can make a contribution. My dream is that history might remember this century as the century of the synodal church. And mind you: this is not a recent discovery or invention; it is a return to the origins of the church.

As a pastor, have there been moments in which you consciously recognized the voice of the Spirit in this way?
I was a parish priest for a year and the bishop of Gozo for fifteen. And, even if I would not have imagined becoming the secretary general of the synod, I have always believed that I need to listen. Many times, coming out of a pastoral council or a presbyteral council, I realized that I needed to change everything. Because by listening you learn, not merely human strategies or cultural content, but what is the will of the Lord.

In an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, you said that the faith is no longer an “obvious presupposition of common life.” In such a context, is it not self-referential to speak of the internal dynamics of the church?
No. The conversation about the synodal church presupposes faith because if the recognition of the presence of the Spirit begins to wane, then we will have failed right out of the gate. It will become a sociological analysis or a debate about our opinions and will not be an ecclesial discernment of what the Lord wants from the church today. It presupposes faith, but it has the goal of helping to find or to mature the faith. In this sense, it is not a self-referential conversation. “The Church is not solely constitutively synodal,” as the Holy Father says, but is also constitutively missionary. For this work, the faith is a presupposition, yes, but it is also a goal. The church cannot lose the occasion to become more synodal precisely for the good of its mission: evangelization.

The synod is an astounding organizational challenge. How is it possible to not lose sight of the essential and not reduce your work to producing a document that might be just sufficient for the task?
I would be lying if I said that I do fear running that particular risk. But, at the same time, I have great hope because I know that this is not just a project of mine or of the Roman Curia, but is a project of the Lord. Everything depends not on our own strengths, but on how much we open ourselves to the Spirit. Yes, it requires significant effort because it involves the church throughout the world. But it couldn’t be otherwise: it is from the local church that everything must begin and to which everything must return.

One of the risks highlighted by Pope Francis is centralism, a risk one might fall into in Rome just as at a local level.
For this reason I spoke of circularity. There is not a local church if it is not in communion with the other churches and there is not a universal church if it does have branches that are living. Seeing it in this way avoids the danger of centralism, but also the danger of every particular church seeing itself as autonomous. The church is one body, the mystical body.

To a Movement such as ours, what is being asked by this process? How can we contribute?
Throw yourselves in. Throw yourselves into this journey in the dioceses because your Movement, which I had the fortune of getting to know in Malta, has much to offer. If the contribution of realities such as yours begins to wane in the local church, there will be an impoverishment of both the church and your Movement. Seek to break down the walls that history–and we ourselves–have built over time that take away the gusto for listening to what the Spirit wants to say to us. Not only through our brother Christians, but even through the world, because not everything in the world is wrong. In today’s society, there is a great thirst for the Spirit, perhaps expressed in different ways, but it is there.

On various occasions, the pope has addressed the realities of associationism, saying, “Your most precious contribution will be able to be reached, once again, by your laicity, which is an antidote to self-referentiality.” What does this mean?
Self-referentiality is abstraction. A quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind, who said that the Christian must have the Word of God in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Only if we understand the experience of the common man will we be able to illuminate history with the Word of God. Who in the church can carry the experience of man if not each one of the baptized, in particular, the layperson? Their contribution is invaluable in helping the church to create a bridge with the world so that we can find a response to their questions in the light of Christ. The alternative is to close ourselves into a golden cage: true, it’s made of gold, but it is a cage nonetheless.

“We do not need to make another Church; we need to make a different Church.” Pope Francis quoted the theologian and cardinal Yves Congar in his inauguration of the synodal journey. Why is there a need for a different church and what does this expression mean?
The church, like every living thing, is dynamic, not static. It lives and, like a body, matures. The church of today is called to reflect that which the Spirit, who is alive, is seeking to communicate in the present. John XXIII called it “aggiornamento.” It is necessary that the church receive this aggiornamento, and for this reason we call it a different church, not another church. The Word became flesh two thousand years ago but continues to become flesh even today. This does not mean that it is not the same Word or that doctrine has changed. What must change is the way in which we communicate it and the fact that we must go more deeply into what we already know in order to respond to the questions of the man of today just as he is. It is part of our mission.

The pope has often repeated that the synod is not a “Catholic parliament.” What can help us to not equivocate about the meaning of the synod when it comes time to approve the final document?
The pope’s words are not meant to disrespect the institution of a democratic parliament, which is a valid system for the governance of society. But the church is not just any society: her founder is the Lord and at the helm is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, one cannot think in terms of minority and majority, and decisions cannot be made based on who is stronger or who shouts the loudest. The method is that of ecclesial discernment. In the positions of the minority there can be seeds of truth that need time to mature. We must listen to one another and give each other time. Listening, discerning, and, above all, praying for the assistance of the Spirit: these are all actions that do not adapt well to contemporary culture, in which everything must happen immediately.

In the recent synods, the question of the vote created division. You have even aired out the possibility of resorting to the vote only in cases where there is no accord. But does this mean that the alternative to conflict is compromise?
No–the alternative is consensus. The council used the Latin term conspiratio, which describes the situation in which each person decides to listen to the other and to the Spirit. In the church there are no parties; there are no ideologies that separate us. We have Christ and the gospel in common. This is the foundation that allows us to listen in an atmosphere of prayer and makes it possible to reach a consensus, the conspiratio. We have nothing to lose. If there is anything to lose, it would be ourselves. Because what we have in common and what moves us is that we love the Lord and that we desire that others can also experience this love.

Read also - Synod: The Church and the gaze of Jesus

What helps you to return to this love?
The synodal journey is also a journey of conversion. That which most urges me on is that I, in the first place, can convert. If all of us are ready to open ourselves to the Lord and to deepen our love for Him, then we will be able to prophesy, to, in other words, interpret the will of the Spirit in a right way. The alternative is trying to make one’s own opinion prevail.

How do you seek to maintain this openness?
I try to execute my mission with maximum simplicity. I do not entrust myself only to my abilities and those of my collaborators, but also to the Spirit who fills the sails of this ship. Organization is necessary, yes, but there is also the importance of relationships. But to be able to create significant relationships, I need to make a daily examination of conscience and to take care of my personal discernment. I know that there is a subtle line between fulfilling my ministry and managing my office like a CEO. I miss community greatly, but here in Rome I am finding another community–my brothers in the episcopate.

Is this a friendship?
More than a friendship: it is a sharing of the same passion for Jesus, for the church, and for man.

From Traces no. 8/2021