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Synod is turning the church pyramid upside down

The Synodal Pathway process turns the church pyramid upside down, says Jane Crone, a member of the parish synod team at Clare Priory Parish in Suffolk.

In October 2021, Pope Francis invited the world’s 1.37 billion Catholics to take part in a Synod with the theme, ‘For a Synodal Church: communion, participation and mission’. The worldwide Synod of Bishops meet in Rome and around every two years they also hold Extraordinary Synods, such as those for Youth, The Family and the Amazon. But this is different type of Synod, it’s a call to rediscover our roots and church’s deeply synodal nature. What does that mean and how do we respond?

The invitation isn’t just for a few, it’s for us all: lay, religious, young, old, daily Mass attenders, disenchanted lapsed Catholics, people from other faith traditions and of no belief. We’re all invited to get involved. The synod, and the practice of the synodal process calls us, the Church, to rediscover its nature as a pilgrim and missionary people led by the Holy Spirit. It calls us to listen to each other, to discern together within a ‘culture of encounter.

The process might have been launched by Pope Francis in Rome and by bishops in their own cathedrals, but this isn’t something that starts at the top of a pyramid and filters down to parishes at the bottom.

Instead, the pyramid has been turned upside down. The synod starts in parishes, at the grassroots, by consulting the whole people of God and ends at the tip of the pyramid with a Synod of Bishops.

How do we make the most of this exciting but daunting opportunity, which is ‘a gift and a task’, work in our parish communities? Anyone involved in parish life knows that organising meetings isn’t easy at the best of times – Covid has made it far more complicated. Much has been written about the theology behind the synod. Little has been written about how it works in practice, here are a few thoughts from one Suffolk parish.

Every Catholic parish is unique and every synodal journey will be unique. When we get into a car or onto a train, we might think that we’re in control of the journey we’ve planned but we all know that trains can be delayed, a car can grind to a halt because of road works or traffic jams.

A journey led by the Holy Spirit, that ‘blows where it wills’, is bound to be even more unpredictable. Our faith will be tested, we will need to be ready for the new, the unexpected, the surprising, but at the same time this journey will be full of joy and hope.

During his homily on the Feast of the Epiphany Pope, Francis linked the synod journey to that of the Magi, who return “by another way” (Mt 2:12). They challenge us to take new paths. Here we see the creativity of the Spirit who always brings out new things. That is also one of the tasks of the Synod we are currently undertaking: to journey together and to listen to one another, so that the Spirit can suggest to us new ways and paths to bring the Gospel to the hearts of those who are distant, indifferent or without hope, yet continue to seek what the Magi found: “a great joy” (Mt 2:10). We must always move forwards.

In our parish, a group of three lay people and parish priest, Fr Gladson Dabre OSA, started meeting in October to pray, listen and discern how ‘a gift and a task’ can work in our community. Drawing on diocesan resources, as well as the Vademecum, we considered how the synodal journey could work for us. We introduced the Synod during the notices at the end of Mass at the start of Advent and made sure that we were available at the back of church afterwards to talk about it. The Parish newsletter contained weekly reflections on the synod during Advent, linking it to the week’s Gospel readings and to the theological virtues represented by the week’s Advent candle, Hope, Love, Joy and Peace.

Informal conversation after Mass seemed to encourage people to get involved in the synod and to listen to each other’s thoughts. We responded to this by setting up a ‘synod corner’ next to the church door and font. It has become a place for informal listening and discernment – the questions the diocese has asked us to consider are on the wall and we’re handing out printed copies for people to take home and reflect on. These informal discussions have led to face-to-face meetings before and after Mass.

Starting with a time of reflection based on the Synod prayer, the Bible themes we’re asked to meditate on and the synod prayer, they give an opportunity for personal silent reflection followed by a chance to listen to others. We put the questions up on the wall by the church door on large sheets of paper after Mass so that others can add their thoughts to them. We make sure that we’re standing at the back of the church to listen. We’ve heard stories of faith and community, disappointment and frustration, and some exciting suggestions for our future parish journey.

Not all our ideas work out and we’re still working out how best to involve young people and the housebound. We’ve noticed that some people don’t wish to get involved and do not press them to change their minds.

Most importantly, although the logo of the Synod says 2021-2023, this is just the beginning. The church of the third millennium will be a synodal church – the picture on the logo explains it better than any words can – an image of the diverse people of God journeying together led by the Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, come and renew the face of the earth!

Click here to complete the Synodal Pathway questions for East Anglia (closing date March 8).

Click here to read articles on this topic on ICN