Catholic Outlook Highlights for 2023: Trust the God of surprises! Letters from a listening and global Synod

Br Mark O'Connor FMS, 25 December 2023
Children at the Ecumenical Vigil. Image: Vatican News


Over the holiday break, Catholic Outlook is showcasing some of its most viewed, inspiring and thought-provoking articles from 2023.

Throughout October and November, Br Mark O’Connor FMS, Vicar for Communications for the Diocese of Parramatta and the Pope Francis Fellow at Newman College, University of Melbourne, reported on the Synod of Bishops on Synodality in Rome.

This was his first letter, written before the Synod commenced on Wednesday 4 October 2023.

This article was originally published on 2 October 2023


“Go down into the plans of God. Go down deep as you may. Fear not for your fragility under that weight of water.”

Dom Helder Camara, The Desert is Fertile.


Dear Friends,

Rome is at its most beautiful in Autumn. The crowded city has beautiful sunny days and mellow sunset-filled evenings. The place exudes a sense of peace and joy – even if some hearts like my own are occasionally anxious about what exactly will happen in the coming weeks as the Universal Synod is yet to start. It formally commences on Wednesday, 4 October.

Each week in October, I will simply offer some personal reflections and a digest of links with text and video that offer you further opportunities for meditation and reflection.

For now, I can only offer some very preliminary remarks.

This unique gathering – The Synod on Synodality – is set to shape the future of our Catholic Church for decades to come.

This gathering brings together 450 delegates from all over the global church and seeks to pay special attention to those on the margins. The laity, members of consecrated life, bishops and cardinals are all here led by the Successor of Peter, Pope Francis. An excellent overview of the month-long process of the Synod by LaCroix International can be found here.


A significant moment in the Church’s history

Of special note is that for the first time in church history, 54 women are participating as full members with voting rights.  Perhaps a small step – but this assembly truly marks a significant moment in Church history. So much is therefore at stake in this ecclesial event, which some have described as the most significant meeting since Vatican II!

In the lead up to the Synod, I have been acutely aware of the tensions, fears and indeed raised hopes of so many in our church.

I must confess it was making me feel a little anxious about what would unfold in this extraordinary meeting about the future directions of our church. I have had to remind myself often, that everything depends on how much I really am open to trust and believe that the Holy Spirit – the God of surprises – is the one directing the whole show!

For some, that is difficult to believe. But if this basic attitude of faith is missing one cannot move forward on the pilgrim journey.

For, in all of us, there is tension between trust and mistrust. But conversion of heart is possible. In that regard, please read the perceptive interview by National Catholic Reporter’s Christopher White where he interviews Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod.

Yes, if we can have faith and trust, the result is a sense of hope!


Hope. Consistory for the Creation of 21 new Cardinals

Hope was very present yesterday in Rome at the Consistory for the creation of 21 new Cardinals – many from the peripheries of our church. Vatican News summarised this event: “Pope to new Cardinals: work for an ever more symphonic and synodal Church”. You can read the full text of the Holy Father’s homily here.


Silence. A landmark ecumenical prayer vigil

And then, later that Saturday evening, there was an extraordinary moment in Christian history. Pope Francis and leaders from Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical traditions gathered in St. Peter’s Square for an ecumenical prayer vigil.

Here, Pope Francis and all Christian leaders prayed:

“Let us ask that the Synod be a kairós [moment] of fraternity, a place where the Holy Spirit will purify the Church from gossip, ideologies and polarisation.”

Pope Francis movingly told the ecumenical prayer vigil ahead of the Synod that the world needs to “free” itself from noise, in order to hear the voice of the Spirit.


Meditations from the pre-Synod retreat

This need for silence is the very reason the Synod delegates are now on a three-day retreat from October 1 -3. Among others, they are being led in meditations by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP. You are in for a treat as you watch and listen to these deeply profound and moving meditations. Please watch them!

The first meditation, “Hoping against hope” is 30 minutes long:

The second meditation “At home in God, and God at home in us” is 27 minutes long.

The Third meditation “Friendship” is 1 hour and 19 minutes long.

The prophet and mystic Dom Helder Camara of Brazil has a poem worth meditating on as we begin the Synod:

Go down into the plans of God. Go down deep as you may. Fear not for your fragility under that weight of water. Fear not for life or limb sharks attack savagely. Fear not the power of treacherous currents under the sea. Simply, do not be afraid.

Let go. You will be led like a child whose mother holds him to her bosom and against all comers is his shelter.

Dom Helder Camara, The Desert Is Fertile.

Stay tuned each week this month – as I offer some further personal reflections as to how this special moment for our church calls us to: Trust the God of Surprises!


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