Synodality: A surprisingly strong response to a world in crisis

(Foto CNS/Vatican Media)

On 15 April 2024 in Sydney, the bishop of Christ the Good Shepherd Church was stabbed six times during a Scripture preaching service which was being live-streamed on Facebook.

The video footage went viral and, before too long, a large crowd of angry men gathered outside the church, demanding vigilante justice in front of police officers and shouting, “Bring him out!”

Fortunately for the assailant who was only 16 years old, what was happening inside the church was rather contrasting.

While he was being held down on the ground, one of the churchgoers chastised him with a slap on the head, at which point the police officer, whose face could not be seen in the video, intervened and said, “Don’t! You are going to make it worse.”

There can be no doubt that a strong response to the terrible incident was shown inside the church rather than outside, for the simple reason that, had the angry crowd got their wish, their actions would have made a bad situation unimaginably worse.

This story then could serve as an allegory about what a strong response to a world in crisis might actually look like.

Our world is in crisis. Unfortunately, this might be one of the few things we can agree on, for a major reason for the crisis is precisely that we are polarised beyond belief, even violently so.

synodality - the catholic weekly
Parish priests from around the world meet at Sacrofano, outside of Rome, April 29, 2024, and listen to the introductory talks at the beginning of a four-day meeting to share their experiences and contribute to the ongoing synod on synodality. (CNS photo/Courtesy of the Synod of Bishops)

Consequently, there is a great longing in us for a strong response to what feels like an untenable situation. But what would that look like? Because it might not be what we expect.

A strong response is that which makes a bad situation better, not worse. But the same could be said of mercy which, by definition, makes a bad situation better, especially in the long term.

Otherwise, it would not be true mercy. This is why mercy is not the same thing as, for example, pacifism or relativism, neither of which, unlike mercy, guarantees betterment of a bad situation.

So why is mercy often considered a weak response? Humanity has become impulsive, short-sighted and polarising in the age of smartphones and instant gratification.

The unprecedented reaction to COVID-19 was emblematic of the problem: what seemed like a strong response turned out to be a weak one and therefore bound to make a bad situation worse, perhaps more often than not.

What then would a strong response to a world in crisis look like, especially from the Catholic Church?

Given our current idiosyncrasies described above, we might imagine a strong response to be that which is ferociously reactionary to the most visible of problems, throwing all its weight, rather impatiently and inauthentically, toward swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction.

But would such a response really make a bad situation better, especially in the long term?

Or would it be analogous to putting a band-aid over the wounds of humanity without actually working towards healing them?

If so, then, how long before the same wounds flare up, perhaps in an even worse manner next time, under the appearance of another political or ideological movement?

Synodality - the catholic weekly
Pope Francis holds his rosary as he joins the congregation in prayer before presiding over a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 29, 2023, at the conclusion of the first assembly of the Synod of Bishops on synodality. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The Holy Father of the Catholic Church proposes synodality (‘journeying together’) as a way forward.

This tends to be considered a weak response by the sceptics, but the more I reflect on it the more I think he is right, for two reasons, firstly because the remedy of synodality aims to treat not just symptoms but also causes, secondly because it works by way of infusion rather than invasion.

What would God’s strong response to a world in crisis look like? Christians already know the answer: it looks like the cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The next pertinent question is, how does the medicine of mercy—the primary fruit of the Paschal Mystery—heal the wounds of humanity? By way of infusion rather than invasion, that is, from within rather than without.

Our response to a world in crisis, therefore, in order to be truly strong, must have openness from within, both transcendentally and communally; in other words, it must be synodal, which includes being humble, patient, firm, gentle, courageous and listening.

This makes room for authentic dialogue, mutual understanding and, most importantly, a contemplative or spiritual dimension in all human discourses.

Do we really believe that our contemplative or spiritual capacity is innate to human nature and therefore must necessarily be involved in any pathway toward true progress?

If so, then, could what Pope Francis means by synodality be the strong response our world needs, perhaps for a long time to come? Here is what he said at the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops:

“A synodal church is like a standard lifted up among the nations in a world which—while calling for participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration—often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups.

As a church which ‘journeys together’ with men and women, let us cherish the dream that a rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and of the functions of authority as service will also be able to help civil society to be built up in justice and fraternity, and thus bring about a more beautiful and humane world for coming generations.”

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