Put out to sea! Letter Three from a listening and global Synod

By Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 17 October 2023
Pope Francis. Image: Shutterstock.


Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications for the Diocese of Parramatta and is reporting on the Synod of Bishops on Synodality in Rome in October 2023.

Each week he will provide his personal reflection on the Synod.  

Br Mark is also a Pope Francis fellow at Newman College, University of Melbourne.


When your ship, long moored in harbour,
Gives you the illusion of being a house…
Put out to sea!
Save your boat’s journeying soul,
And your own pilgrim soul,
Cost what it may. 

Dom Hélder Câmara, A Thousand Reasons for Living.


Dear Friends,

When your ship, long moored in harbour,
Gives you the illusion of being a house…
Put out to sea!

How Dom Hélder Câmara, a Father of the Second Vatican Council, would have loved to have been present at this October 2023 Universal Synod, as the Church ‘puts out to sea’, navigating future directions!

Throughout his entire ministry, Dom Hélder prophetically called for the Church to transition from a defensive ‘Fortress’ Christendom model, in which it had been entrapped for centuries.

As he poetically put it: [that ‘Fortress’ model of church] Gives you the illusion of being a house….

Instead, Dom Hèlder dreamed of a Church that was the Pilgrim People of God – on a risky journey across perilous seas and deserts – but always inspired with hope by the Holy Spirit.

Today, we are seeing Dom Hélder’s dream becoming a reality under the leadership of Pope Francis – especially at this Global Synod.

Pope Francis is a gift of the Holy Spirit from the Global South to the Universal Church. His Petrine ministry is the fruit of the witness, suffering and love of so many persecuted martyrs – like Óscar Romero and numerous lay women and men, priests and religious who gave everything for Christ. Ordinary women and men in Latin and Central America and the Caribbean, who have lived the Paschal mystery profoundly.

Francis’s clear priority then, in his ministry as the Bishop of Rome, is to ‘accompany’ people on a ‘Camino’ and model the Church as a “field hospital’.

A lesson he learnt as a result of his heart being touched by his immersion in the joys and struggles of Latin America’s poor, as explored in Pope Francis’ famous 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro SJ.

It has been evident from the day he was elected in March 2013 that Francis’s entire pontificate, and this Synod especially, is a daring initiative to urge us all to leave ‘safe harbours’. He calls us to embrace the risk of faith and to fully implement that great Ecumenical Council.

That journey, of course, does require great discernment.

In these days in Rome, I have been reminded of the wisdom of a fellow Jesuit confrere of Pope Francis – Bernard Lonergan SJ. Decades ago, Lonergan once said this:

There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this and now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous centre big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait. – Bernard Lonergan, Dimensions of Meaning.

Lonergan’s insights are not a bad summary of the enormous task being undertaken by this Synod!

As it now moves into a third week, it is marvellous to see how this synod is imaginatively dreaming of a Church that values participation, communion and mission (the three major key words emerging from the year-long consultation of what the spirit is saying to the local churches in our Catholic Church.)

The first week of this global synod stressed participation and this lovely video summarises the joy of the process for so many:


1. A Week Of Communion

The second week has focussed on communion.

Pope Francis kept on repeating that one of the tasks of the #Synod is 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 “a great joy” (Mt 2:10).

Pope Francis is seen during the second week of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality assembly in Rome in October 2023. Image: Supplied

And what a rich week it has been!

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ began the week with an amazing meditation. And what a challenge he gave us all in these words: “Jesus extended this communion to all the sinners.  Are we ready to do the same?” He asked, “Are we ready to do this with groups which might irritate us because their way of being might seem to threaten our identity?”

And even more riches came from the meditation offered by U.K. lay female theologian Dr Anna Rowlands.

A few memorable quotes from Dr Rowland struck me powerfully:

“Communion is the very power of this room … in a modern world that tends towards both homogenizing things and fracturing things, communion is a language of beauty, a harmony of unity and plurality,” she told the synod delegates.

Rowlands went on to recall a recent conversation with a survivor of clergy sex abuse:

He said, “Be bold about the need for healing. This is a paschal journey we must walk together. And tell them the Eucharist is life saving.” Not all abuse survivors feel this way, but I share this because it has the character of a prophecy of communion; it calls for repentance and proclaims the central truth of our faith.

And Timothy Radcliffe O.P. delivered another ‘tour de force’ meditation.

No wonder the 450 delegates had so much to talk about in the small groups. They explored the implications for our Church – as it promotes communion amongst so many in our society and church, who experience alienation and marginalisation.

The delegates are really working hard. With a daily 8.30am start, much prayer and silence, small group work, General congregations with profound input. All in all, it’s a very full day only ending at 7.30pm. At least they get Sunday off.

Here is a photo of a typical, diverse group of hard-working delegates.

A view of delegates including Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Archbishop of Sydney (2R), during the Synod of Bishops on Synodality assembly in Rome in October 2023. Image: James Martin SJ/Facebook/Supplied


2. Light And Shadows

It is especially consoling that small signs of the light of the Holy Spirit are springing up in this prayer-based synodal process.

For example: Cardinal Bob McElroy of San Diego once wrote that the culture of synodality can be a path out of the polarisation we find in the Church – pilgrims together not opponents.

And here are the lovely words of James Martin SJ as he reflects on his encounter with another Synod delegate who comes from a very different theological space, so to speak!

Dear friends: I was honoured to meet Cardinal Gerhard Müller at the Synod. I’ve long admired his friendship with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian theologian and father of liberation theology. His Eminence graciously gave me a copy of his excellent book with Gutiérrez, “On the Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation” and I gave him a copy of my book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”

I’m very happy that Cardinal Müller is with us at the Synod. Please keep all of us in your prayer as we pray and dialogue together.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller of Germany (left) with Fr James Martin SJ during the second week of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality assembly in Rome in October 2023. Image: James Martin SJ/Facebook/Supplied


But shadows are also lurking… wherever the holy people of God gather, evil spirits also hover – spreading disunity, depression, desolation and disinformation.

In our violent and chaotic world of war in Ukraine and the Middle East – who can deny the danger the reality of the presence of evil?

I recommend Chicago priest Louis J. Cameli’s penetrating article on this very topic for your reflection.

And it is depressing to note once again, the presence of those who deliberately spread confusion and negativity in our Church.  In Lonergan’s terms: a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. The hostile campaign of these small vocal group of well-funded right wing ‘Catholic’ journalists continue. Currently, they are nit-picking to find ‘flaws’ in a superb synodal process. Not even Jesus of Nazareth on a good day could please them!

Of course, their real motivation is to discredit not just the synodal process. Their real ‘game plan’ is to discredit Pope Francis himself.

It’s so obvious that they believe that the only person the Holy Spirit can’t speak through is Pope Francis! The opposition to Pope Francis of these ‘Catholics’, who once claimed loyalty to the papacy was the litmus test of orthodoxy, is one of the real scandals of contemporary Catholicism.


3. The Shift To Mission

The third week of the Synod now awaits us with the important question of our mission as Church.

At the week’s end, Cardinal Hollerich again gave another powerful meditation to launch yet more small group discussion and prayer – this time on the synod’s next theme of “mission”.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ speaks during the second week of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality assembly in Rome in October 2023. Image: Vatican Media

Memorably he noted: “Most of us are men…I have never read anywhere that the baptism of women is inferior to the baptism of men. How can we ensure that women feel they are an integral part of this missionary church? Men and women receive the same baptism and the same spirit.”

During the confidential small group conversations of the coming week, synod delegates are now expected to consider the following questions:

  • How can we walk together toward a shared awareness of the meaning and content of mission?
  • What should be done so a synodal church is also an “all ministerial” missionary church?
  • How can the church of our time better fulfill its mission through greater recognition and promotion of the baptismal dignity of women?
  • How can we properly value ordained ministry in its relationship with baptismal ministries in a missionary perspective?
  • How can we renew and promote the bishop’s ministry from a missionary synodal perspective?

More of what emerges from these dialogues at the Synod in my fourth letter.



Yes, it takes courage and endurance to participate in this Synod. And no doubt, I will be able to share some of the fruits of the first session of the Synod when they produce a document in my final letter. However, don’t forget there is a second session of the Synod in October 2024.

And remember, ultimately, this is not a ‘parliament’. The Bishop of Rome, Francis, will make the final discernment about the necessary pastoral decisions to be made to enhance participation, communion and mission for the pilgrim people of God.

We are certainly going to need resilience to continue this adventure of dialogue and encounter in our church and society.

Listen again to Dom Hélder Câmara. His wisdom for this Abrahamic journey of hope certainly continues to console me.

It is possible to travel alone, but we know the journey is human life and life needs company. Companion is the one who eats the same bread.

The good traveller cares for weary companions, grieves when we lose heart, takes us where she finds us, listens to us. Intelligently, gently, above all lovingly, we encourage each other to go on and recover our joy on the journey.


Further Reading

It would be impossible to cover in this short letter all of the Spirit-filled ‘action’ of this Synod’s first two weeks as it unfolds.

However, I do recommend the following links to give the reader a better understanding of the unfolding of this Spirit-filled diverse assembly of the People of God… So, for further analysis I recommend:


Read Br Mark’s first letter – ‘Trust the God of surprises! Letters from a listening and global Synod’

Read Br Mark’s second letter – Ear to the Ground: Letter Two from a listening and global Synod

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