This is the homily delivered in Saint John’s Abbey Church on Sunday, October 18 by Fr. Lew Grobe, OSB. A video of the homily as delivered is here. At the direction of Bishop Donald Kettler, the Mass was for the Synod on Synodality, with special readings including the Emmaus story.
At the outset I need to warn you, I’m going to use a word in the next few minutes that doesn’t get thrown around in everyday conversation. It may sound a bit churchy…and that’s because it is.
The word is “synodality.” In choosing to preach on this word, I know I’m in a bit of an uphill battle because when typing out this homily, synodality was underlined with a little red squiggle each time I used it! Microsoft’s subtle way of telling me this word isn’t real.
But the word “synodality,” as exotic as it may seem, is crucial for understanding why the entire universal church has taken this Sunday to commemorate the opening of the church’s next Synod…which has been dubbed the Synod on Synodality. So don’t let your eyes glaze over just yet, stick with me here.
Over the past eight years, Pope Francis has emphasized a few themes for his vision of the Church that have really stuck with people: encounter, joy, mercy and even his metaphor of the church as a field hospital, to name a few. But as much as he has tried, it has been difficult for his vision of synodality to stick. The word just doesn’t roll off your tongue. Just try using it in a sentence!
Yet, synodality is a big deal because it refers to the way or the process for how decisions are to be made in the Church. This may be an overstatement, but synodality would be a paradigm shift to our way of being church.
For instance, if you were to imagine how decisions are made today in the Church, you may think of a group of bishops and maybe some theologians coming together for a meeting in a closed room, creating a document, passing it on to the Pope who then informs the rest of the church of his decision.
This top-down method would be fairly accurate for how decisions are made today.
In contrast, with synodality, Pope Francis is looking to create a process that reaches out to the entire church…not just the bishops or clergy, but all the baptized. A process that listens to the hopes and challenges that exist, encountering people where they are at in hopes of discerning where the Spirit is calling the Church to be in each particular time and place.
Instead of a closed room, think of synodality as more of an open town square where people come from all walks of life, encounter one another, talk, listen and become involved in topics of real import to the Church’s future. In essence, synodality is a collaborative process that looks to engage the faithful at all levels; laity, religious, bishops and even the Pope to dream about the church we are called to be.
The Pope sees this synod as a way to give synodality a try – not just talk about it, but do it.
Over the next two years, each parish and community is being asked to engage, not through surveys or questionnaires, but through conversation, listening and walking with one another…reaching out to those who may have not had a voice in the past. While the Pope still has the final say on decisions, this would be a big shift towards a more consultative and decentralized church.
So, it sounds like a good idea, but what does synodality actually look like in practice? Let’s use today’s Gospel as a guide.
In Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus we meet two disciples, leaving Jerusalem shell-shocked and saddened at the crucifixion and death of Jesus…their hopes dashed…thinking that all was for naught.
As they are talking about these tragic events of the past few days Jesus draws near and simply walks with them, takes the time for a real encounter…even though they are going the wrong way.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t simply start with a solution, telling them turn around, but walks with them in their doubt and pain, and draws near. This is what Pope Francis calls the art of encounter, a hallmark of synodality. Not staying at a distance but drawing near even to those who are moving away from the community.
And as they walk together what does Jesus do? Not much.
He first listens…as Benedictines would say, “With the ear of his heart.” He doesn’t give them a pre-packaged solution to their problems or dismiss what they are feeling. He lets them speak freely about their concerns and hopes, no matter how long it takes.
Think about it: Jesus has just risen from the dead and what does he do for those first few hours? He listens to two people who are going the wrong way. He encounters and listens.
But as Pope Francis says, synodality isn’t simply about encountering and listening. Ultimately it is about advancing on the journey, to be the church we are called to be, to chart a way forward.
And so, we see that as these two disciples dialogue with Jesus and speak about the word of God they start to discern a path forward. They feel their hearts burning within them…the work of the Holy Spirit.
As they share a meal with Jesus, it dawns on them what they need to do. And they make the decision to turn around – not because Jesus commanded them or said it would be a good idea, but because they have discerned it together through their encounter with Jesus. Through the synodal process.
Now this may all sound wonderful and straightforward, but if you have ever tried to work with a group to come to consensus, you know how difficult it can be. And a shift towards a synodal church will certainly be messy and come with its own set of challenges because it is not how we are used to doing things as a church. It takes time, it takes patience and trust that the Spirit is with us.
But in the end, it is how Pope Francis looks to lead the Church into the third millennium.
And maybe the most difficult thing about synodality is that it puts demands on each of us, the baptized, the people of God, for it to work it needs us to be engaged.
Not just the bishops and cardinals, but the church, each of us.
Who knows where it will take us. But for those disciples on their way who engaged in this synodal process…it made all the difference.