Earlier this month, I attended and helped facilitate a listening session for the Synod of Bishops within my diocese.
In case you need a refresher course on what this synod is about, here’s some context: Called a synod on synodality, Pope Francis wants to hear how the Holy Spirit is working not just among the bishops and the hierarchy of the Church, but also among all members of the Church faithful throughout the world. In October, the synod began at the diocesan level, and it is scheduled to end in October 2023 with an ordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome.
I might not have participated in the diocesan phase if it hadn’t been for an invitation from a friend to assist as a facilitator for the listening session being held at our parish. This friend in particular happens to be a canon lawyer and a consecrated virgin, so it’s hard to say no to her. But in all seriousness, I took her invitation to heart and ended up agreeing to assist in the session knowing that, as usual, volunteers can be hard to come by.
A few weeks before the session was held, those of us who volunteered as facilitators and notetakers gathered to run through what the evening would look like. Most importantly, we were given the questions we would ask those attending — questions that addressed issues such as who is not being heard by the Church or our experience with the celebration of the Eucharist — and we were asked to pray with these questions. My friend stressed to us that in order for this synodal process to be of the Holy Spirit and not our own personal inclinations, it had to start with prayer.
And so it did. First, in our own private prayer. And second, by opening the listening session itself with Mass, during which we asked the Holy Spirit to open our hearts so that we could be God’s instruments. Similarly, once Mass had concluded and we had divided into groups to discuss the questions, we repeatedly called on the Holy Spirit to guide our conversation.
While I won’t rehash what we discussed, it was a beautiful experience to hear the hearts of other Catholics living within the same diocese and city — their joys, hopes and hurts. Some were familiar faces — even friends who I had encouraged to attend — and others were strangers whose love for the Church was evident.
I don’t know what will come of this synod; it’s simply too early to tell. But here are a couple of my takeaways.
First, we don’t call down the Holy Spirit enough in our Church — specifically in our personal lives and at the parish level. And yet, without this constant prayer to the Holy Spirit and reliance on his direction in our lives, it is very easy — dangerously so — to get stuck in what we think the Church should do or what we should do instead of asking God himself to enlighten our hearts to his most perfect will. Everything — yes, everything — should be rooted in prayer and reliance on the divine.
Second, while the synod is for the universal Church, I don’t think we should discount the local Church. In fact, I believe it could be more beneficial for our own individual dioceses. While the notes from each listening session will be passed on to the bishop, who will then synthesize and pass them on to the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, who will again synthesize and pass them on to the Vatican, I hope each bishop in each diocese will prayerfully consider the documents sent to them and see what it means for their diocese. Further discernment will likely come from Rome, but this is an opportunity for each bishop to truly hear from the faithful in their diocese. Not every comment or concern from faithful Catholics around the world will apply to us in the United States and in our respective dioceses. In a time when many people don’t feel like their bishops have heard from them, this could be a beautiful opportunity to rectify that.
Whether or not you participated in a listening session within your diocese, I do ask and encourage you to pray for this synod. Pray that all participating — especially the bishops who will be evaluating the comments of the faithful — will listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling them. For only God knows what the Church truly needs.
Ava Lalor is assistant editor for Our Sunday Visitor and editor for Radiant magazine.