Thumbs up or down for the Synod?

November 12, 2015 in 201511

The Synod on the Family: Success or Failure?
Brian Grogan SJ

The jury is out on whether the October Synod on the Family was a success or failure. According to Mary McAleese, “Since it was instituted by Pope Paul VI the synod has never been a ‘dynamic’ body, according to Pope Francis himself, and this one was no different” For her, nothing new or interesting has emerged. Pope Francis himself in his concluding Address (October 24) expressed a level of frustration in referring to ‘closed hearts’ which hide behind the Church’s teachings, sit on the chair of Moses and pass judgement on others, sometimes with superiority and superficiality. In his closing homily on October 25 he criticises the attitude which does not want to be bothered by the problems of others: ‘In this way we are with Jesus but we do not think like him… Our hearts are not open… We live far from his heart… We already have our schedule… Every problem is a bother.’ We await the final document being prepared by Pope Francis to see what the synod’s outcomes may be. We can presume they will disappoint some and encourage others. But it is worth looking behind the scenes to see what was really going on: my contention is that no matter what the outcomes, the very event of the synod with its open atmosphere was a massive achievement.

Vatican Two
The participants at Vatican Two, 1962-1965, opened up the Catholic Church to the reality of change and development, but they saw that structures were needed to enable the process of aggiornamento to continue. Without these they knew that the Church would continue its habit of arriving – if at all — breathless and a little late, and that it would react defensively rather than gracefully to the signs of the times. So the bishops proposed the establishment of a synod with a rotating membership which would work steadily with the Pope to secure authentic development within the Church. ‘Synod’ means ‘to walk together’ so it was to be expected that the ‘pilgrim Church’ would wend its way at a pace suited to the majority rather than to those out in front or lagging behind. Over the years since Vatican Two synods were held, but their role was advisory; debate was limited, and the final documents written by successive Popes seemed often to do less than full justice to the views of the participants.

The style of Pope Francis’ synods is radically different to what has gone before. Francis is a Jesuit, and the Jesuits were founded through a communal discernment, of which the details are fully available. The key dynamic of the synod was intended to be a communal discernment. In his November 2013 Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel the Pope uses the term more than twenty times. It is, he says, the way forward o all levels in the Church. ‘Discernment will entail allowing ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting the Spirit enlighten, guide and direct us’ (288). ‘What’s new?’ one may ask: ‘surely that is how the Church is always meant to act?’ Yes, indeed, but often the required dispositions are lacking in the participants.

Humble Searching

What is communal discernment at its best? It means that a group tries to search together for what God may want. To search is not yet to possess what is being sought. To maintain a closed mind and heart in the search is to impede the work of the Spirit. Communal discernment leaves no place for pride or dogmatism, for aggressiveness or defensiveness, for lobbying or bullying. Instead, discussion and debate have a tentative quality: ‘I wonder…’ ‘It seems to me…’ ‘Explain your idea a bit more to me…’

Good listening becomes more important than good talking. Each tries to put a good interpretation on what others offer, rather than rubbishing it. Negativity diminishes, as does hostility. The blind spots, biases and prejudices of others become obvious: but instead of despairing of the process, personal examination of conscience becomes important. Each can ask, ‘Where am I closing myself to the truth?’ The more sincerely everyone engages with the process, the more does inner freedom emerge.

Instead of arguing over opposing views, the participants begin to see themselves as a group of disciples who want to be led and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. It is not the loudest voice that carries the day, but the quiet voice that somehow carries the echo of the Spirit’s prompting and offers a revelatory moment in which the right way forward is seen. Instead of endless talking, participants give time to prayer and ask for openness to the truth in what others say, especially those they disagree with. Instead of a Government/Opposition approach, the members explore together the arguments in favour of the option under consideration, then the arguments against it. This strategy transcends opposing views and softens the debate. This is the phase where real leadership is needed, when persons with imagination manage to craft amendments that carry the best of the contributions that have been made. When there is no more to be said, members take time out to pray for light to see which side of the option brings energy and a sense of congruence, and which side seems to drain energy away and cause fragmentation.

At the close, ideally there are no winners or losers, no animosities, no dissatisfied minorities. Instead, woven out of divine and human effort, there emerges a consensus that this or that option seems to offer the better way forward as of now. This goes beyond democracy: as a participant said to me, ‘What matters centrally is not what I think or what others think but what God thinks!’


Communal discernment is a cleansing task: its reward is a disposition of openness to the truth which blows where it will. When the manifold elements in communal discernment are allowed to operate, genuine community is established: respect and love grow as the search continues, and this bonding often turns out to be of more lasting value than the particular decisions that are agreed. Groups that engage once in communal discernment will want to return to the process again and again, as their best way to move forward in challenging situations.

Was the synod a success or failure? The initial dispositions of the participants must have constituted a spectrum from the hard left to the hard right. From the scanty reports, it appears that many warmed to the discipline of communal discernment as outlined above, while others were less open. But everyone had the opportunity to speak freely, and the sincere and principled clash of views must have broadened the minds of those prepared to listen. One hopes that everyone felt heard and respected, even if strongly disagreed with. In the voting, enough wiggle room seems to have emerged so that contentious issues can be pursued further.

The Church is led slowly into the truth: it would be naïve to expect that all the neuralgic issues besetting the Church could be sorted out in a single synod. What matters is that a significant step forward has been taken and that a process that began in the early Church with the first Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD has been restored to centre stage. The synod has something to say to the wider world too: the dynamics of communal discernment can be helpful to decision makers of any persuasion: what matters is that those concerned should be willing to ‘walk together’ in searching for the best way forward.

November 5, 2015

Brian Grogan SJ lectures and writes on Ignatian Spirituality, and authored the booklet, Pope Francis: What we may expect from a Jesuit Pope.