On Sept. 30, the eve of the General Assembly of the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis addressed 15,000 pilgrims during an ecumenical prayer service in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Those gathered, which included heads of many Christian churches of various denominations, gathered to call on the guidance of the Holy Spirit during the synodal proceedings.
During an address offered by Pope Francis as part of the vigil, he reflected on silence, saying it “lies at the beginning and end of Christ’s earthly existence.
“The Word, the Word of the Father, became ‘silence’ in the manger and on the cross, on the night of the Nativity and on the night of his Passion.”
He noted how God prefers speaking in a “small still voice, especially in the midst of shouts, gossip and noise,” and that silence was that characteristic after Peter addressed the Council of Jerusalem. (cf. Acts 15:13) Pope Francis said it is silence which allows for fraternal communication, “enables true discernment, through attentive listening to the Spirit’s sighs too deep for words, which echo, often hidden within the People of God.”
He asked vigil participants to pray for the Holy Spirit to “bestow the gift of listening” in the Synod meetings and concluded offering silence as an aspect “essential for the journey of Christian unity. The more we turn together to the Lord in prayer, the more we feel that it is he who purifies us and unites us beyond our differences.”
With some (not unexpected) disappointment, I admit the coverage in the American Catholic media of the Synod on Synodality seems to be sensationally highlighting the “shouts, gossip and noise,” exactly what our Holy Father referred to. I follow a variety of news sources, and so far all have engaged in what I qualify as mostly angled opinion and commentary. We have to remember that this isn’t a novelty.
There is no denying the Pope Francis’ style is challenging for American and many northern European Catholics. Ever since the beginning of his papacy, I have had countless conversations about the cultural differences.
From personal experience living in Mexico, and that of siblings who’ve lived in Italy and Argentina, I can attest that Latin cultures live a very different sense of rules and regulations than we’re used to, but they do not disregard them.
In fact, and I think it’s very interesting to note that these are more historically Catholic countries, the principle is why before the what – people first. Their societal structures – as with the Church herself – are seen to be at the service of the people, not the other way around.
Prior to Pope Francis’ pontificate, never have so many topics of Catholic theology and practice been talked about so openly, and that’s positive because it can lead to better understanding.
All of this does call us faithful Catholics to not be afraid to continue to ask questions, have conversations and to better understand what areas need to be addressed; but this can only lead to real reform if loyal sons and daughters of the church are willing to remember that we are part of the living and breathing Body of Christ in the world through whom the Holy Spirit is constantly carrying out Divine Providence. As such, our most important work is to remember who is truly in charge and trust.
In August, I began a Master of Arts in Faith and Culture through the University of St. Thomas in Houston. One of my first classes is on the Second Vatican Council, taught by Fr. Donald Nesti, CSSp, an 87-year-old priest who was in Rome as a seminarian during the Council in the early 1960s.
While not unfamiliar with the documents and teachings of Vatican II, the class – and my fellow classmates, who cover a range of ages and backgrounds, including converts and one non-Catholic – has been very informative and providential considering the historical synodal gathering Pope Francis has called.
Much of what I have learned has been the historical context of St. John XXIII calling the council – an incredibly surprising announcement only three months into his pontificate, thought by many to be merely “transitional” after Pius XII and in the midst of the Cold War – and the undertaking of Vatican II as the first truly global ecumenical council.
We are only halfway through studying the four constitutions – on the Liturgy, Revelation, the Church and the Church in the World and the interlinking declarations on the church’s mission, her external relations and the people of God – but I already have a strong understanding of the solid foundation Vatican II was built on. How all the popes since the council’s conclusion have been little by little distilling, clarifying and calling the Catholic Church to carry out what the Holy Spirit was doing, not as something new but in continuity with what the Holy Spirit’s mission has been since the moment of the Incarnation.
Pope John XXIII said in his opening speech to the Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, “The very serious matters and questions which need to be solved by the human race have not changed after almost 20 centuries. For Christ Jesus still stands at the center of history of life.”
He clarified that the Council’s principal task was “that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively defended and presented… for all human beings, individually or joined together in society, are required constantly and throughout their lives to seek heavenly things.”
He iterated that the teaching and life of the church is the common heritage of humanity, and that her task is “not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with an antiquity…
“What is needed is that this doctrine be more fully and more profoundly known and that minds be more fully and more profoundly imbued and formed by it. What is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times.”
The Holy Father then summarized what I believe Pope Francis sees himself trying to carry forward still, that the truths contained in Catholic doctrine are one thing, but that how they are expressed is another. As John XXIII added, acknowledging that it’s hard work requiring effort and patience, the “types of presentation must be introduced which are more in accord with a teaching authority which is primarily pastoral in character.”
What is happening in Rome at this very historical moment is the continued unfolding of Vatican II. In our more than 2,000-year history, 60 years is still a very short time in relation to the monumental shifts the church undertook in calling the Body of Christ to a renewal of her head’s commission to preach the Gospel to all peoples.
The first lines of the introduction to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first constitution released by the Second Vatican Council, on the sacred liturgy, said, “The sacred Council has set out to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call all mankind into the Church’s fold.”
It seems clear that we’re all still working on that, but with a dynamism of the lay faithful that Vatican II itself set in motion, and Francis is enhancing with the inclusion of a broader set of voices at this current synod.
The Catholic Church is not a club for the like-minded; we are a family of pilgrims moving towards heaven in a world that constantly tries to distract us from that goal. Hopefully we go beyond reactions to responses – first in our own lives and then in our parishes and from there further beyond.
Having covered the synodal process that began in parishes, regionally and in the Diocese of Superior as a whole, the Holy Spirit is definitely at work. It is especially apparent that he was already working with the Maintenance to Mission planning that the Synod has served to vivify. We can be confident because we are not in charge, it truly is God continuing to guide and protect us.
Pope St. John XXIII, as he concluded his initial remarks on the opening of Vatican II said, speaking of the intention of the council, “While it focused the Church’s chief energies and earnestly strives to have people accept more favorably the message of salvation, it is, as it were, preparing and consolidating the path that can bring about that unity of the human race which is the necessary foundation if the early city is to be ordered into a likeness of the heavenly city, ‘whose king is truth, whose law is love, and whose length is eternity.’ (cf. St Augustine, Epistle 138, 3).”
Lastly, let’s be sure to pray the Prayer for the Synod on Synodality. It is the same Adsumus Sancte Spiritus – “We stand before you, Holy Spirit” – that was prayed to begin every session of the Second Vatican Council. This prayer has been used in the church for hundreds of years and the Holy Spirit has proven himself over and over and over again more than capable of fulfilling his mission.