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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

November 1, 2023: Synod: We preach the gospel of friendships that reach across boundaries

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Synod: “We preach the gospel of friendships that reach across boundaries”

The foundation of all we shall do in this synod should be the friendships we create. It does not look like much. It will not make headlines in the media. “They came all that way to Rome to make friends. What a waste!” But it is by friendship that we will make the transition from “I” to “We.”

To my mind, that was the most important thing that occurred at the synod: Friendships were built across boundaries, within the boundary of our love for Christ, whose love knows no boundaries.

But I would like to answer the questions that many Catholics have about the synod: What really happened? What did you do? And, crucially, what was the point?

This was the most important thing that occurred at the synod: Friendships were built across boundaries, within the boundary of our love for Christ, whose love knows no boundaries.

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During the retreat we received an introduction to the main way of participating in the synod, called “Conversations in the Spirit.”

These conversations, more than anything else, were the main contribution of the synod to the church. It took me a while to understand that the Synod on Synodality was less about issues, even important ones, and more about how we discussed those issues. Thus, the most powerful message of the synod was the image of 350 delegates sitting at round tables, talking to one another and, more important, listening to one another.

What Are Conversations in the Spirit?

But what did we do? What made this method different from sitting around and talking? Let me describe it to help individuals, parishes and dioceses who would like to try to use it as a tool. The first step was prayer. Everything we did was grounded in that, and we frequently paused to reflect. Each module (or section of the synod) also began with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. We also found it helpful to ask everyone what name they wanted to be called at the tables. This may be less urgent in a parish setting, but it was important here, with so many Eminences and Excellencies, as well as Professors and Fathers. Usually they said, “Call me Jim.” “Call me Chito.” “Call me Cynthia.”

Next, everyone went around the table and for three minutes (strictly timed) shared their response to the question at hand. Our questions came from the working document, or Instrumentum Laboris—for example, “How can a synodal church make credible the promise that ‘love and truth will meet’?” No one could interrupt and everyone had to listen. That meant that the cardinal-archbishop of an ancient archdiocese listened to a 19-year-old college student from Wyoming. Or the patriarch or primate of a country listened to a woman theology professor. No interruptions, responses or talkbacks at this stage.

In the second round, after more prayer, we shared what we had heard, what moved us and what resonances we felt in the discussion. Where was the Spirit moving? Again, no interruptions. I was at tables where the facilitator (it helps to have them) would say, “Cardinal, she hasn’t finished yet.” Finally, the third session was a freer discussion, where we could answer questions, share experiences and challenge one another.

The genius of this method lies in its ability to convey the complex reality of our discussions honestly. A secretary would write up the convergences, divergences, tensions and questions. Then a reporter (“rapporteur”) would present the table’s discussion to the plenary session. In this way, there was no need to force a false consensus when there wasn’t one; rather, any differences and tensions were honestly communicated. I found this refreshing. This method meant that everyone was listened to, everyone got a chance, and an honest summary was offered for further reflection.

As we sat in the great Paul VI Aula and saw everyone discussing things on an equal footing, with even the pope at a round table, I realized that the message of the synod is this method, which could help the church immeasurably in a time of great polarization.

Part 1 of a 2 part reflection by James Martin, S.J.

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