I may never attend a synod of bishops, but I have attended four international meetings of Marianist Lay Communities; 2001 in Philadelphia, 2005 in Bordeaux, 2009 in Nairobi and 2014 in Lima. As I followed the daily news from the synod, I couldn’t help pondering the similarities with our MLC international meetings.
First of all, there is the mind-opening reality of any international experience. As brothers and sisters in a worldwide community of communities, our commonality is grounded in a shared charism and spirituality. Our diversity is present in how we live this charism in the day to day.
Beyond obvious differences in language and culture, there are differences in political realities and agendas. These differences affect the mission of each community. It is important to share one’s local experience. After all, this is one of the main reasons to gather across the many miles. It is equally important to come with an open mind and heart to listen carefully to the experiences of others. This requires checking in our natural, parochial mindset at the door.
This is especially true for those of us in the western world. Our issues may not be the issues of our neighbours in the global south. We are sometimes so ready with an answer to the problems before us, that we fail to listen, really listen, to the experience and wisdom of others.
Watching the bishops in the synod halls struggling with headsets reminded me of the long meetings listening to simultaneous translations through static sound systems. It required extra attentiveness to follow the English translation going on in your headset while you could still hear the French or Spanish being spoken on the floor. Add to that the deliciousness of a hefty midday meal, late nights and jet lag, fighting the mid-afternoon demons of sleep was inevitable.
Writing international documents is a major challenge. I was on the writing team at two of the international meetings I attended. We had the added disadvantage of not having a shared language to work with around the table. We struggled to make the necessary changes and edits in three languages. Our translators were our trusted and indispensable companions as they helped us to communicate in our discussions and in our writings. Late, exhausting nights were the norm.
Compiling the numerous statements, comments and edits was often a herculean task. The documents we were writing would become our foundational identity documents. We had to discern which statements reflected the general assembly, and which were indicative of a more individual or local preference. As Marianist Lay Communities, we value inclusivity. The challenge was to make the documents inclusive of our diversity while specifying the foundational characteristics that united us. It was not easy, and there was always a point where our efforts seemed doomed. Relief came when the final document was voted on and approved by the assembly.
As with the synods, our international meetings provided the dual challenge for delegates to faithfully represent the grass roots experience of their region, and to take the fruits of the meeting back home so that visions and carefully chosen words could be transformed into action.
Interest in our international meetings was often mixed at the local levels. Again, as with synods, international meetings come and go while the lives of communities go on.