from nicholas austin, "discernment as a work of the church," The way, 58/4 (oct 2019), 11-14
The Synodal Church Today
What we see in the early Church we see also in the Church today, namely, the Church in the process of becoming the discerning Church, a Church able to identify the work of the Holy Spirit among us and to follow its lead. In my talk to the students and academics, what we collectively realized is that trying to force one’s view on others does not resolve anything. We had to stop broadcasting and start listening to each other, especially to those who had not yet spoken. Bit by bit, our conversation changed from the shrill sound of argumentative debate to one of mutual attentiveness and respect. We began listening to each other because we were listening for the Spirit of Christ. We began speaking differently, also, with more humility and less concern to have our own viewpoint vindicated. I believe we learnt more about where God is leading the Church than if we had continued without a discerning way of proceeding.
The need for a discerning Church is a key emphasis of Pope Francis’s reform. I first learnt of this, not from a Jesuit, but from a Dominican. In February 2014, I found myself sitting in a church in Belfast listening to Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominicans, talk about Pope Francis’s agenda for the reform of the Church. He had just come from a meeting with the Pope. Fr Timothy was convinced, he said, that Francis believed that radical change was necessary, but that he did not have a blueprint or a checklist. What Francis wanted, he said, was a
Church ‘sensitive to the least breath of the Holy Spirit’, a Church that was open to being led by ‘the unpredictability of grace’.
We see this emphasis on the discerning Church in Pope Francis’s reform of the synod, the regular meeting of the bishops from around the world that assists the Pontiff in his governance and teaching. The synod was founded by Pope Paul VI as a way of continuing the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. On its fiftieth anniversary, Francis set out his own vision, telling the bishops that the synod is ‘one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council’ and explaining that it is a key aspect of his ministry as Pope to ‘enhance’ it. The synod is meant to be an ‘image’ of the council and is ‘to reflect its spirit and method’.
Francis’s vision for the synodal Church reflects the language of discernment.
A synodal Church is a Church of listening. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn: the faithful, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome; each listening to the others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17), to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Revelation 2:7).
A synodal Church, then, is a discerning Church, in which everyone listens to each other, in order to listen to the Holy Spirit.
One condition of the discerning, synodal Church, for Francis, is not merely listening, but speaking. He recounts how a cardinal had written to him saying that it was a shame that some bishops declined to say certain things, either out of respect for the Pope or fear he would disagree. Francis responds, ‘This is not good, this is not synodality, because it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation’. Francis employs an important New Testament word to insist that the bishops should speak with frankness: parrhesia.
Parrhesia is bold, frank, free speech. It is the kind of speech displayed by the apostles after Pentecost. As Francis tells the synod bishops, ‘I ask of you, please, to employ these approaches as brothers in the Lord: speaking with parrhesia and listening with humility’. The reason that parrhesia is necessary for community discerning together is that the Spirit may use the voice of any one of the participants to speak its own message. As Francis puts it elsewhere, ‘In the Synod, the Spirit speaks by means of the tongue of every person, who lets himself be guided by God, who always surprises. Not to be ready to speak with boldness and frankness would not be a sign of true humility, but a pusillanimous lack of willingness to be used by the Spirit for the good of all.
The word synod, Francis explains, comes from the Greek sun hodos, and literally means ‘journeying together’. He insists that synodality is not just for the bishops, but for the whole Church: it should characterize the Church at every level. One sign of his commitment to the synodality of the whole Church is his decision that the two synods on the family be preceded by an attempt to consult all the lay faithful. While this consultation was not always done well, it is a remarkable thing that it was done at all. The theological rationale for the consultation is Francis’s pneumatological approach to ecclesiology: since every baptized person has received the Holy Spirit, potentially every Christian has the capacity to discern the voice of the Spirit. Francis explains:
As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith—sensus fidei—which helps them to discern what is truly of God. The presence of the Spirit gives Christians a certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression.
To fail to consult the faithful, to listen to their sense of the faith, to their discernment of what is of God and what is not, is to close the Church off from many tongues through which the Spirit may choose to speak. However, the obligation here falls not merely on the bishops, to listen with humility and with an open heart, but also on the laity, to be ready to speak with parrhesia. The theologian Gerry O’Hanlon confirms that discernment is the ‘key factor’ in Francis’s program of reform and his advocacy of a synodal Church. He states:
At the heart of this reform lies a personal and communal discernment of what it is God wants of our Church now, a discernment that takes account in its formation of doctrine of the ‘sense of the faithful’ (not least popular piety and the voice of the poor), the voice of theologians, and the authoritative role of pope and bishops. It also allows for lay participation in the Church governance. The potential for change in this more inclusive ecclesial way of proceeding is enormous.
Pope Francis recognizes, then, that the whole Church is called to become discerning. ‘Today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern’. His reforms are motivated by a desire for a more discerning Church, in the bishops’ synods, the local church, the parish, pastoral council, pastoral accompaniment and, ultimately, the consciences of individual Christians. As Francis puts it, ‘Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out’