While the focus during the Synod on the Family has been on disagreements and documents, perhaps the real news is yet to come. Pope Francis has been clear in his vision for a synodal church, a listening church which makes room for all the People of God to be heard. Here is my latest article for the Prairie Messenger….
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.
The Synod on the Family is heading into the home stretch. Abbot Jeremias Schröder, president of the Congregation of Sant’Ottilia, is one of the Religious Superiors given voting delegate status at the synod. In an interview with Michael O’Loughlin of Crux, Abbot Schröder shared some insight into the Rule of Benedict and the challenges of a synod.
St. Benedict had a down to earth approach to community that acknowledged our human weakness. Monks are not an elite group of saints. Benedictines live diversity within community each day, acknowledging that the spiritual journey is unique for each monk.
“The rule of St. Benedict, in his wisdom, talks about encouraging the weak while not disheartening the strong,” he said. “In our tradition, it’s very clear that you take care of the needs of the individual, and at the same time, maintain the character of the community. Those two shouldn’t be played off against each other.”
He said it’s not true that “the moment you are lenient or merciful in the one instance, you weaken whole doctrine.”
“I think for a [member of a religious community], that it would be much easier to understand how these two do not harm each other,” he said.
During my years in leadership with the Marianist Lay Communities, I had the privilege of attending several Marianist General Chapters (Society of Mary and Daughters of Mary Immaculate. Both incorporate the Rule of Benedict into their Rules.) Chapters can be exhausting work, like synods. But, the Abbot believes that religious women and men have deep experience and wisdom gleaned from these gatherings.
“We have developed general chapters over centuries that are quite efficient in bringing positions together, fleshing out where the differences are, seeing what common ground there is, where we can move forward together,” he said, referring to the method of dialogue monasteries use to consider important questions about the life of the community.
One of the key differences between the synod and a monastery, however, is that monks pledge to live together for life, whereas a synod bishop will “go home afterward, and may not see his fellow synod fathers ever again,” he said.
“The fact that you know you’re bound together for life prevents you from going to the extremes. You don’t want to rock the boat, you’re aware you’re sitting in the same boat,” he said.
I experienced this in the three Chapters that I attended. Religious priests, brothers and sisters live in community unlike most diocesan priests and bishops. Community can truly be a “school for the Lord’s service” in the words of St. Benedict. It is one thing to have strong opinions, but living in community forces you to temper your opinions in seeking the common good.
As a Jesuit, Pope Francis knows the challenges of community. He also knows the importance of prayerful discernment. At the Santa Marta mass today, he preached on reading the signs of the times saying,
First of all, in order to understand the signs of the times we need silence: to be silent and observe. And afterwards we need to reflect within ourselves.
The first word in the Rule of Benedict is “Listen”. I hope that there was lots of prayerful listening both within and outside the synod halls.