Editor’s note: Following the listening phase of the Synod on Synodality, a mix of religious, clergy and lay people gathered in Frascati, Italy, to synthesize reports from around the world. Austen Ivereigh took part and gives this insider’s account.
At the end of our first day in Frascati in late September, struck by the solemnity of the task that faced us, I messaged a friend to say that many of my fellow “experts” felt the hand of history and the weight of responsibility on our shoulders. “I hope you’re keeping a diary,” my friend pinged back.
I didn’t just mean the pressure to create, in two short weeks, a document that harvested the fruits of the greatest-ever exercise in listening and consultation the Catholic Church has ever carried out. It was more solemn than that. As Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, had told us that morning, we were on res sacra, holy ground. The documents that the 26 members of the reading/writing group had been entrusted with had been written with tears and even sometimes with the blood of martyrs. To read them superficially, or to use them in the service of some agenda or other, would be disrespectful not just of the people but of the Holy Spirit acting through the sensus fidelium. “We are the heart and ears of the church, to hear the cry of the people of God,” Cardinal Grech, speaking in Italian, told us.
Our task was to present, in a single document accessible to the whole church, the hopes and dreams of God’s people who had assembled in unprecedented numbers over many months across the globe for the first phase of the Synod on Synodality.
Reminding us of Pope Francis’ famous four principles (time is greater than space, realities are greater than ideas, unity prevails over conflict, and the whole is greater than the part), Cardinal Grech said the first phase was about allowing the voice of the Spirit to emerge above conflicts and divisions; about listening to experience rather than discussing ideas; and about capturing the bigger picture, “what the Spirit is saying to the whole church, not just to one part of it.” Many people, he reminded us, had not taken part in the synod or done so skeptically because of previous experiences in which they had spoken but what they said had not been heard or acted on. This time needed to be different.
To be the voice of God’s people, added Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., the synod’s relator, “you need not just your mind but your whole selves to be present.” It meant being attentive, for example, to the way in which in some synod reports filters had been applied to what the people were saying by bishops keen to embellish or groups with agendas.
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Austen Ivereigh is a biographer of Pope Francis with whom the Pope collaborated on Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future (Simon & Schuster, 2020). He writes here in a personal capacity and all views expressed here are his own.
With thanks to America and Austen Ivereigh, where this article originally appeared.