Synod on Synodality

Bishop announces the start of Synod

Press release

Pope Francis has called the Church to ‘encounter, listen and discern’ as its clerics and lay people walk the ‘common road’ in the coming Synod. At today’s 11am Mass, Sunday 17th October, Bishop Stephen explained what this means in our diocese.

In his homily Bishop Stephen said:

James, and John the brothers, sons of Zebedee were chosen according to St Mark, to be second and third called by the Lord in his Gospel to join the intimacy of what would eventually be called the 12 Apostles. They couldn’t have become much more important in Jesus Life and apostolate – in fact they would be on the same level of importance as Peter himself and Andrew. James, became leader of the early Jerusalem Church; John, the youngest of the disciples, became the beloved, the agapeton, the Evangelist of the Fourth Gospel, the Apostle of the Incarnation, and the Apostle of Love.  

And yet the story of the request of James and John, in todays Gospel to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in the Kingdom, seems to us to be a bit like misplaced naked ambition on their part.  The brothers do not seem to know what they are asking. Ironically, as we know, later in the Gospel in the Passion narrative, it would be the two thiefs “one on his right and one on his left” of Jesus’ cross, who will take the very places that James and John had sought: ‘today, you will be with me in paradise”.

James and John seemed to want unambiguous power from the Lord. Yet he does not rebuke them for this. He merely explains that they are asking for something impossible. For, as he concludes service, not power, is the sign of the way of Christ: And we can vividly see in our minds eye the Lord saying this:

‘For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

So for Jesus, power is service; no one can Lord it over others; there is complete equality among the baptised… And Jesus also hammers this message home.   ‘Can you not be baptised …….with the baptism with which I must be baptised’.

Bring news of the forthcoming Synod, the Bishop added…..

“Pope Francis has decided that in the next two years the whole church will be consulted in a process which he calls synodality.

“Last Sunday in St Peter’s he opened the process, and preached an extraordinary homily in which he explained to his hearers what Synodality is meant to be, what it is not meant to be and how it is to happen.  So, today I am going to use his own words in the context of today’s Gospel because he himself can tell what he means best. And I will adjust what needs to be adjusted to suit the context of today’s story fo James and John.

“The Gospels, the Pope said, frequently show us Jesus “on a journey”; he walks alongside people and listens to the questions and concerns lurking in their hearts.  He shows us that God is not necessarily found in neat and orderly places, distant from reality, but walks ever at our side.  He meets us where we are, often on the often rocky roads of life. 

“Celebrating a Synod, he said, means walking on the same road, walking together.  So, let us look at Jesus in the Gospel today.  First, he encounters James and John; he then listens to their questions, and finally he helps them to discern what they must do and become to inherit eternal life.  Encounter, listen and discern.  I would like to reflect on these three verbs that characterize what the Synod is all about.

“The first is encounter.  The Gospel passage begins by speaking of an encounter.  James and John ask Jesus whether they might inherit seats on his right hand and left in the Kingdom in Heaven.  So important a question, albeit an arrogant one, requires attention, time, prayer and thought.  But the Lord does not stand aloof, appearing annoyed or disturbed.  Instead, he is completely present to James and John.  Nothing leaves Jesus indifferent; everything is of concern to him.  Encountering faces, meeting eyes, sharing each individual’s history.  That is the closeness that Jesus embodies.  He knows that someone’s life can be changed by a single encounter.  The Gospel is full of such encounters with Christ, encounters that uplift and bring healing.  

“As we start this process [of Synodality], we too are called to encounter others.  Not so much by organizing events or theorizing about problems, as in taking time to encounter the Lord and one another.  Time, first, to devote to prayer and to adoration – that form of prayer that we so often neglect –and to try to listen to what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the Church.  […]  Every encounter calls for openness, courage and a willingness to let ourselves be challenged by the presence and the stories of others. [Further,] The experience of encounter changes us; frequently it opens up new and unexpected possibilities. 

“The second verb is to listen.  True encounters arise only from listening.  Jesus listened to James and John’s question and to the concerns that lay behind it.  He did not give a non-committal reply or offer a pre-packaged solution; Jesus simply listens, for whatever amount of time it takes; he is not rushed.  Most importantly, he is not afraid to listen to [James and John] with his heart and not just with his ears.   Whenever we listen with the heart: people feel that they are being heard, not judged; they feel free to recount their own experiences and their spiritual journey.

“Finally, to discern.  Encountering and listening are not ends in themselves, leaving everything just as it was before.  On the contrary, whenever we enter into dialogue, we allow ourselves to be challenged, to advance on a journey.  And in the end, we are no longer the same; we are changed.  We don’t seek to change thingswe ourselved are changed: a aprocess of conversion is taking place.  We see this in today’s Gospel.  Jesus senses that James and John before him are good and religious men. Through talking to them and listening, he helps them to see through Jesus’ own eyes: to discern.  Jesus encourages James and John to look within themselves, and to discern in that light what their hearts truly treasure.  

“So the Synod is a process of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, that unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in sharing with the word of God.  God’s word summons us to discernment and it brings light to that process. So a vital point is reached: God’s Word guides the Synod, preventing it from becoming a Church convention, a study group or a political gathering, a parliament, but rather a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Spirit.  

“In these days, Jesus calls us, as he did James and John in the Gospel today, to empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, and to ask ourselves what it is that God wants to say to us in this time.  And the direction in which he wants to lead us.

“So, if this is what Synodality is, we need to reaffirm also what it is not, and there are examples in the Church where the idea of Synod has gone very drastically wrong, particularly at the moment in the Catholic Church in Germany.  The mistakes of the German church are more often than not to do with money and power; riches and financial clout; treating synodality like a parliament as they have been accused as doing is to throw everything up in the air and to want to change everything – including that which cannot be changed because the Church’s teaching is already settled. To do so would be rash, madness.

“Let us remind ourselves again what the Pope himself said the Synod is not: The Synod is a work of the Holy Spirit. And God’s word summons us to discernment and it brings light to that process.  It guides the Synod, preventing it from becoming a Church convention, a study group or a political gathering, a parliament, but rather a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Spirit.

“And a ‘kind of parliament, a convention, a politicised gathering’, is precisely what has gone wrong in Germany and even though the Pope has sent to the Catholics of Germany who are steering their own synodal process a very strongly worded letter, and warned them of the outcome, that if they persist in their ideas of changing doctrines, processes, structures but not themselves, they are doomed to put themselves outside the communion of the Church.

‘The German church, of course, is immensely rich in material goods. Last year they received 6 billion Euros in Tax money [Kirchensteur]. The German Catholic Church is also Germany’s largest employer, something completely alien to us. But the German Church itself is dying; German Catholics are leaving the Church in their droves – which is so sad, because of the great works of charity and mercy which the German Church has always so generously carried out in the poorest of countries in the past and is still doing. 

“So Synodality is a process, a walking together where we encounter, listen and discern – A timeline? Now Oct 2021 until Oct 2023. First the local phase from now until about Easter next year and we’re only at the starting gate as so many people are nervous about it.

“Important questions to ponder: there will be a consultation on a series of pastoral questions, a continental phase [for us] Europe-wide bringing all our insights together, then leading to the Synod of  Bishops in October in 2023 for the whole world. This is truly a massive gamble on Pope Francis’ part and it could all go pear-shaped. But for the Church to be led to Healing and Unity, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is its ultimate goal, and that is surely a laudable aim. 

“Remember: Synodality is not about changing things, or truths of the faith; it is about changing us, and helping us to realise that God wants us as his baptised sons and daughters to realise our dignity, to be converted ever closer to Christ, and to share our Catholic faith with the world, not hiding it under a bushel because we are afraid and ashamed of ourselves or our history which we ultimately have no control over.

“Finally as Pope Francis says: ‘Synodality could lead to a Church capable of communion and fraternity, of participation and subsidiarity, in fidelity to what she proclaims, a Church which will be able to stand beside the poor and the least and lend them her own voice. A Church entering with courage and freedom of heart into a conversion process in ourselves that is necessary for the “continual reformation of which [the Church] always has need, in so far as she is a human institution’ 

“Watch this space!”


Please click on the link below to see a recording of the whole Mass: