By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

The Synod on Synodality that Pope Francis launched this past fall is a whole new ballgame for all of us.

Being on altogether new turf makes us especially prey to not knowing where we are – and assuming, falsely, that we are in one place when, in fact, we are in another.

That may help explain why some church leaders and their followers seem reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace the process. They’d like a clearer indication of where it is all going. If you’ll pardon a metaphor, they want to know two things: where the bus is heading and, even more important, who gets to drive it.

Pope Francis tried recently to clear up our working assumptions about what it means for all Catholics – from devout to indifferent -- to be involved in a Synod on Synodality.

According to a Catholic News Service (CNS) story, when the pope met with leaders of the French Catholic Action movement on Jan. 13, he told them that synodality is “not a plan or a program to be implemented” but “a style to be adopted” that listens to the Spirit through the word of God, prayer and adoration.

In a phrase, Pope Francis would like to see Catholics – laity as much as clergy – go deeper by exploring the lives and spirituality of others and also by exploring our own lives and spirituality. He wants us to spend more time listening to our own hearts and the hearts of our neighbors – family, friends, fellow community members -- to reveal for us the answer to two questions:

  • What does God want from us, individually and collectively?
  • How can we help one another get there?

This is a change for many of us who grew up in an age when being a lay Catholic pretty much came down to three things: pray, pay and obey.

Recent surveys show that these days we Catholics are less inclined to be doing any of these things.

But rather than scold us on these three matters, the pope is encouraging us to drill deeper both into our own interior realities and the realities of those around us to discover what the Holy Spirit is calling us to become and do.

Pope Francis’ hope is that we will find hints from the Spirit about God’s plan for us when we take a little time to probe -- listening and sharing both with our deeper selves and with one another.

The Synod on Synodality he has called comes with a process and a timetable. But it’s clear the pope sees this as something that has no end. It is, in essence, “a style to be adopted” by the church – in its members and in the manner with which its leaders lead the organization.

Pope Francis has taken some pains to point out that the process is not a parliament, that it’s not a matter of “majority rules” or any similar thing.

Many of us struggle with understanding reality as anything more than simple polarities: It’s either a democracy or a dictatorship. But Pope Francis is asking more from us. He wants us to midiscard our political language and to adopt the language of biology -- understand the church as a body, the Mystical Body of Christ.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, St. Paul launched that boat two millennia ago.

The more we understand about how bodies work, the more we realize how complex, interactive and interdependent their various parts are. Most of the body’s life-sustaining processes do not occur under the conscious direction of the head, but rather as a result of intricate, sensitive, comprehensive feedback loops throughout the body that are not impeded by the friction of ego.

I think Pope Francis would like to see us – the People of God – behave more like that going forward, on and on into the future, well beyond the years the Good Lord has bequeathed to him personally.

It may take us some time. But we can do it. With God’s grace, we can do it. The Synod on Synodality is our chance to get started.