Synodality and listening: “Today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern,” said Pope Francis

December 1, 2017

Excerpt from La Croix, “Pope Francis Wants You” Nov 2017

The world in which we live, and which we are called to love and serve, even with its contradictions, demands that the Church strengthen cooperation in all areas of her mission. It is precisely this path of synodality that God expects of the Church of the third millennium,” the pope said in a major address in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops.

“What the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word ‘synod’. Journeying together — laity, pastors, the Bishop of Rome — is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice,” he said.If you have never read the pope’s speech, or if it has been some time since you last perused it, take a closer look and ponder carefully his vision for a synodal Church.“A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’,” Francis said. He called it “a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn”.And he emphasized that this means “the faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)”.  But this sort of mutual listening, if it is to be fruitful, necessarily requires discernment – the art of praying, waiting, watching and testing what is from God as opposed to what is from the spirits that run counter to God.

The pope is specifically asking the entire Church – especially young people – to help the bishops who will gather next year in Synod to discern vocations. What is the Holy Spirit saying to the Churches in our own day concerning vocations – God’s unique call and life-plan for each man and woman?

“Today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern,” Francis told a group of Polish Jesuits in July 2016 while visiting Krakow for World Youth Day.

And some months later he wrote a letter to young people concerning next year’s Synod assembly, telling them they would have to “learn how to undertake a journey of discernment” (my emphasis) in order to discover their vocation and what God wants of them.

This process of discernment is never an individual task. It takes place with the help of another (or others) within a community. And when we speak of discerning the so-called “religious vocations”, especially those specifically geared to service or servant leadership in the Church, the entire community of believers should rightly play an active role in this discernment process. This, too, is in accordance with the principle of synodality.

Unfortunately, this discernment process is most often restricted to a very small portion of the ecclesial community. For instance, those who help a woman discern if she is called to consecrated life are mostly just the women whose religious community the candidate seeks to join.

More problematic is that fact that those who help discern (and then finally decide!) who is “called” to ordained ministry are almost exclusively the Church’s ordained male clerics.

A synodal process of discernment is all but absent in the way the Church selects its ministers. Absent is a prayerful and mutual listening process by which the wider community seeks to discern whether a potential candidate for ministry possesses the natural and/or spiritual charisms proper to each particular role of service.

For example, the community plays hardly any role at all in discerning whether the one to be ordained as its sacramental minister actually has the gift to lead others in prayer or preside at liturgical celebrations.

The community is never asked to discern (and it often seems no one discerns, either) who among them has the charism to be a minister of the Word. Obviously, holiness does not rest on whether one can read well in public. But being an effective minister of the Word absolutely does.

And a discernment process that identifies the persons among us who are gifted with the charisms for specific ministries would ensure this.

St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, identifies seven gifts of service that build up the Church (Rm 12, 4-11). They include prophecy, practical service (diakonia) and teaching; exhortation, almsgiving, leadership or authority and acts of mercy.

We need to find a way to engage the community at all levels in the process of discerning these gifts and identifying those among us who have been endowed with them. This is not about taking a vote or “electing” our sacramental ministers, deacons or bishops. It is much more arduous than that.

Perhaps next year when the pope convenes the Synod of Bishops someone in a miter or young man or woman who answered the Vatican’s online survey will point out that we as Church don’t do a very good job at recognizing the natural leaders, preachers, teachers or healers among us. They would be saying that we do not know how to discern who has the charismas for ministry.

As Pope Francis said about synodality, so one must also say about discernment: “an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice”.