Shared responsibility is ancient faith practice

Synodal assemblies and listening sessions are not a new Catholic invention; gatherings of the faithful to pray, discuss divisive issues and seek a solution together are as old as the Hebrew Scriptures, a Canadian theologian told clergy at the World Meeting of Parish Priests for the Synod.

May 10, 2024

Priests work in an English-language small group April 30, 2024, with facilitator Sister Maria Cimperman, a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as part of a meeting of parish priests from around the world gathered at Sacrofano, outside of Rome, to share their experiences and contribute to the ongoing synod on synodality. (CNS photo/Courtesy of the Synod of Bishops

Synodal assemblies and listening sessions are not a new Catholic invention; gatherings of the faithful to pray, discuss divisive issues and seek a solution together are as old as the Hebrew Scriptures, a Canadian theologian told clergy at the World Meeting of Parish Priests for the Synod. The Bible is filled with references to the “assembly” of the faithful at crucial moments in the history of the Israelites, and again as the newly formed Christian communities dealt with growing numbers, increased diversity and signs that the community was neglecting the widows and orphans, the theologian, Fr Gilles Routhier, told the priests May 1.

Gathered at a retreat centre outside of Rome from April 29 to May 2, the approximately 300 parish priests were sharing their experiences of ministry and collaboration to provide input for the second assembly of the Synod of Bishops on synodality, which is scheduled for October. Participants were chosen by their bishops’ conferences or Eastern Catholic synods to represent parish priests working in different environments and with different levels of experience. Fr David Garaman, from the Diocese of Sandakan, was the representative from the conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Their focus May 1 was on structures like pastoral councils, finance councils and other bodies that promote shared discernment in parishes and dioceses.

Fr Routhier said that in situations marked by tension, there is a natural temptation “to try to take possession of all spaces of power and self-affirmation” when what is needed is time, patience and a willingness to let the Holy Spirit speak to the assembly.

Fr Tomáš Halík, a Czech theologian, elicited laughter when he told the priests, “There are still places where the parish priest sees himself as the pope of his parish.”

“But the Church confers the gift of infallibility on only one of its members, and then only under strictly limited conditions,” he said. “And if even a pope relies on several consultative councils to help him make his decisions, how much more should a parish priest listen to those he has been sent to serve?”

“We must not approach others with the pride and arrogance of the monopolistic owners of truth,” Fr Halík said. “Truth is a book that none of us has yet read to the end. Only Jesus can say, ‘I am the truth.’ We are not Jesus. We are only disciples and followers of the only one who is allowed to say, ‘I am the truth.’”

Fr Halík told the pastors that the synodal practice of listening to one another without interruption or immediately trying to change another's point of view can benefit their parishes, communities and the wider world, even in situations of great diversity and differences.

“The Church was born at Pentecost as a sacrament of understanding,” he said. By the power of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, the Apostles were able to address people of different cultures and languages “with clarity and conviction. Let us offer this healing power to the wounds of the Church and the world.”

When St Francis of Assisi heard a voice calling him to repair the Church, he initially thought it was a call to fix up a building, Fr Halík said, but eventually, he understood it was a call to help renew the entire Church.

“Perhaps Pope Francis and the whole Catholic Church is only gradually realising that the synodal renewal is a process that does not concern the Catholic Church exclusively,” he said. “It is about much more than the transformation of the clerical mentality and rigid institutions of the Catholic Church into a dynamic network of mutual communication.”

Synodality, he said, can be a school teaching people how to exercise solidarity, cooperation and ecumenical communion “in the broadest and deepest sense,” embracing not just the Christian churches, but “all human beings and all forms of life on earth.”

“The parish priest is a man of the people and for the people. Like Jesus, he is open to the crowd, constantly open to the crowd, to help each and every one understand that they are a letter from Christ,” said Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the General Secretariat of the Synod, in opening the event.

The first day’s discussion was based on the theme The Face of the Synodal Church, while the second day’s discussion focused on All Disciples, All Missionaries. On the third day, the participants came together to study Teaching Ties, Building Communities.

In reflecting on the overall scope of the Synod on Synodality, which will reconvene in October for its second and final assembly, Cardinal Grech told participants that at the centre of this process is an understanding, and sharing, of personal narratives.

“Our stories are human stories, but human stories in which God, Jesus, is present,” the cardinal remarked.

“Sometimes we need others to help us see God’s presence in our stories. This is our mission, this is the mission entrusted to us, to you, my dear brothers,” he said.

Cardinal Grech told the clergy gathered that “being synodal does not simply mean walking together, but rather, walking with God, or better to say, God walking with us.”

“Synodality is about God, before being about the Church,” he continued.

The World Meeting of Parish Priests for the Synod was first announced in February and is jointly organised by the Dicastery for the Clergy and by the General Secretariat of the Synod in response to the first synod assembly’s synthesis report, which identified a need to “develop ways for a more active involvement of deacons, priests, and bishops in the synodal process during the coming year.”

“There is no synod without a bishop, but allow me to say today there is no synod without a parish priest,” Cardinal Grech said to the participants. “That is the reason why we felt the need to make this meeting, so that we can enrich our preparation in view of the next session for the synod of bishops.”

The meeting culminated with an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 3, followed by Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Grech, in St Peter’s Basilica. — Agencies

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