05 October 2023, The Tablet

Delegates urged to ‘speak freely’ and listen as synod begins

Pope Francis said that the Holy Spirit “often shatters our expectations to create something new”.

Delegates urged to ‘speak freely’ and listen as synod begins

Delegates in the Paul VI Hall sat at round tables to encourage “conversations of the spirit”.
Associated Press / Alamy

The sixteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops – the Synod on Synodality – opened on Wednesday with appeals to delegates to listen and speak with candour.

“Everyone needs to express themselves freely,” said Pope Francis in his opening remarks.  “The protagonist of the synod isn’t us but the Holy Spirit.”

He said that the synod was neither a parliament nor “a meeting of friends to resolve some things”, but a search for “harmony”.

This, he said, did not entail “synthesis” but “communion”.  For everybody in the room to agree would mean that the Holy Spirit had been “left outside”, he said.

For the first time at a synod, delegates sat at round tables intended to encourage “conversations of the spirit” rather than the Paul VI Hall’s usual theatre seating.  Delegates have electronic tablets to hear each speaker and to submit their own requests to speak, while a secretary and a facilitator follow the discussion at each table.

The Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, Ibrahim Sidrak, opened the session by saying that the preparation for the synod “was not easy, many of us felt disorientated”, but through it the Holy Spirit “helped us live synodality before we discussed it”.

Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the synod office, emphasised that the “harmonious diversity” of delegates was intended to promote “a more synodal Church”.

Each delegate received a set of patristic texts chosen by the Pope, largely drawn from St Basil the Great’s writing against fourth-century heresies (of the Arians and the Pneumatomachi) which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The selections emphasised that it “grieves the Holy Spirit” to talk to no constructive purpose: “You should not have useless conversations from which you gain nothing.  Indeed, even to speak or do good, without it being for the edification of the faith, is to grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”

In his own remarks, Francis condemned “vicious gossip” and encouraged delegates to be frank: “If you don’t agree with your bishop, tell him, don’t talk about him behind his back.”

However, to cultivate “the priority of listening” he asked them to follow “a certain fasting from the public word” rather than speak to journalists.

The synod regulations published on Wednesday said that “each of the participants is bound to confidentiality and discretion regarding both their own interventions and the interventions of other participants”.

At the synod’s opening Mass in St Peter’s that morning, which he celebrated with the new cardinals created at Saturday’s consistory, Francis quoted John XXIII’s speech at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which looked “to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate”.

Francis said that the Holy Spirit “often shatters our expectations to create something new”.

He also cited Christ’s commission to St Francis of Assisi, to “go and repair my church”.

The same day – the feast of St Francis – saw the publication of Laudate Deum, an apostolic exhortation to follow the 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato si’.

Towards the end of the synod’s first day, its relator-general Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich announced the first question it would consider:

“Starting from the journey of the local Churches to which we each belong and from the contents of the Instrumentum laboris, which distinctive signs of a synodal Church emerge with greater clarity and which deserve greater recognition or should be particularly highlighted or deepened?”

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