“Today, as we begin this synodal process, let us begin by asking ourselves – all of us, Pope, bishops, priests, religious and laity – whether we, the Christian community, embody this ‘style’ of God, who travels the paths of history and shares in the life of humanity. Are we prepared for the adventure of this journey? Or are we fearful of the unknown, preferring to take refuge in the usual excuses: ‘It’s useless’ or ‘We’ve always done it this way’?” Pope Francis’ homily for the opening Mass of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, on the theme: “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission“, opened with this set of questions, in the form of a soul searching process.
The Synod is not “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”,
the Pope remarked in the closing lines of his address: “In these days, Jesus calls us, as he did the rich man in the Gospel, to empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, including our inward-looking and outworn pastoral models”, Francis explained: “and to ask ourselves what it is that God wants to say to us in this time. And the direction in which he wants to lead us.” “Encounter and listening are not ends in themselves, leaving everything just as it was before”, the Pope’s reminder: “On the contrary, 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. The Synod is a process of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, that unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the word of God.” “May we be pilgrims in love with the Gospel and open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit”, is Francis’ final invocation.
“Become experts in the art of encounter”,
is the Pope’s first imperative, delving into three verbs characterising the Synod: encounter, listen, and discern. “Not so much by organizing events or theorizing about problems, as in taking time to encounter the Lord and one another”, Francis said with regard to the first verb: “Time to devote to prayer and to adoration – that form of prayer that we so often neglect – devoting time to adoration, and to hearing what the Spirit wants to say to the Church. Time to look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say, to build rapport, to be sensitive to the questions of our sisters and brothers, to let ourselves be enriched by the variety of charisms, vocations and ministries.” “Every encounter – as we know – calls for openness, courage and a willingness to let ourselves be challenged by the presence and the stories of others”, Francis noted:
“If at times we would rather take refuge in formality or presenting the proper image, the experience of encounter changes us; frequently it opens up new and unexpected possibilities. So often God points out new paths in just this way. He invites us to leave our old habits behind. Everything changes once we are capable of genuine encounters with him and with one another, without formalism or pretense.”
As Jesus does, indeed, when he encounters the rich man “the Lord is not stand aloof; he does not appear annoyed or disturbed. Instead, he is completely present to this person. He is open to encounter.” “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. 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.”
“Let us ask ourselves frankly during this synodal process: Are we good at listening?”, Francis said, prompting a set of soul-searching questions: “How good is the ‘hearing’ of our heart? Do we allow people to express themselves, to walk in faith even though they have had difficulties in life, and to be part of the life of the community without being hindered, rejected or judged?” “Participating in a Synod means placing ourselves on the same path as the Word made flesh. It means following in his footsteps, listening to his word along with the words of others”, Francis explained: “It means discovering with amazement that the Holy Spirit always surprises us, to suggest fresh paths and new ways of speaking.
It is a slow and perhaps tiring exercise, this learning to listen to one another – bishops, priests, religious and laity, all the baptized – and to avoid artificial and shallow and pre-packaged responses.
The Spirit asks us to listen to the questions, concerns and hopes of every Church, people and nation. And to listen to the world, to the challenges and changes that it sets before us.
Let us not soundproof our hearts; let us not remain barricaded in our certainties. Let us listen to one another.”
“Whenever we listen with the heart people feel that they are being heard, not judged; they feel free to recount their own experiences and their spiritual journey”, Francis said. Commenting on the Gospel passage of the rich man, the Holy Father remarked: “True encounter arises only from listening”: “Jesus listened to that man’s question and to the religious and existential concerns that lay behind it. He did not give a non-committal reply or offer a pre-packaged solution; he did not pretend to respond politely, simply as a way of dismissing him and continuing on his way. Jesus simply listens. He is not afraid to listen to him with his heart and not just with his ears. Indeed, he does more than simply answer the rich man’s question; he lets him tell his story, to speak freely about himself.”