November 12, 2021


A call to encounter, listening, discernment

During his homily on October 10 for a Mass to open the synod process now underway in all dioceses throughout the world, Pope Francis emphasized “encounter, listening and discernment” as essential to the success of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome two years from now. The first idea, “encounter,” is the art of seeing people as they are, not being indifferent or uncaring. Our model for this is Jesus.

As Pope Francis says in his homily:

The Lord does not stand aloof; he does not appear annoyed or disturbed. Instead, he is completely present to [each] person. He is open to encounter. 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. Jesus did not hurry along or keep looking at his watch to get the meeting over. He was always at the service of the person he was with, listening to what he or she had to say.

The second idea—listening—makes genuine encounter possible. True encounters require attentive listening. If we don’t hear what others are saying; if we ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts; if we allow our own comfort and concerns to drown out the voices of others, we cannot serve as Jesus did. We “serve as Jesus did” when we freely give ourselves in service to others. But we cannot make this kind of sacrifice if we are deaf to the cries of those around us or if we are indifferent to the hunger, homelessness and suffering of our brothers and sisters.

Thirdly, Pope Francis calls the listening process that we began last month an exercise in “discernment of spirits.” Encounter and listening are not ends in themselves, leaving everything just as it was before. On the contrary, the pope says, “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.”

Discernment involves learning what is of God and what is seeking to frustrate God’s will. “When we face choices and contradictions,” the Holy Father says, “asking what God’s will is opens us to unexpected possibilities.” The Holy Spirit guides and directs us when we are lost and confused. He can open doors that have been closed for generations, and he can unite us when we seem hopelessly divided from one another.

The Holy Father describes the synod as “a process of spiritual discernment that unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the Word of God.” The Word of God “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.”

When he formally inaugurated the synod process, the Pope identified three risks and three opportunities. The first risk is that the synod process will be a mere formality. Will we really commit ourselves to reaching out and listening to everyone? The second risk is that the synod’s ambitious goal will remain an abstract idea that never becomes real. And the final risk is what the pope calls “complacency,” the attitude that “we’ve always done it this way” and the refusal to try new approaches to the ministry of our Church.

To minimize the risks and take full advantage of the opportunities, we must all take this synod process seriously. We should participate actively at every opportunity afforded us by our parishes and by the archdiocese. As Archbishop Charles C. Thompson said in a recent message to archdiocesan leaders:

The synod process we began last month here in our archdiocese—and in all dioceses throughout the Universal Church—invites us to recognize the sacredness of all human life. In order to encounter Jesus in everyone we meet on the road we are traveling together, we must recognize that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. We are all members of God’s family, all sisters and brothers in Christ, and regardless of our differences and disagreements, we must listen to each other and treat one another with dignity and respect. 

Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will walk with us—as individuals, families, parishes and dioceses spread throughout the world—to comfort and guide us along the way.

—Daniel Conway

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