Synod is about listening to the Holy Spirit, speakers say

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Pope Francis smiles as members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops approach the end of their work Oct. 28, 2023, in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The most important thing to come out of the first Vatican session of the Synod on Synodality was an understanding of what it means to proceed together on the path of listening for the Holy Spirit, according to four people who were in Rome for the Oct. 4-29 meeting.

The synod is to continue with delegates gathering again at the Vatican in October 2024 after a year of reflection and conversation.

Catholic Theological Union’s Nov. 12 panel discussion, called a “Synod Debrief Conversation,” brought together Sacred Heart Sister Maria Cimperman, a faculty member at CTU who is also working with the International Union of Superiors General; Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, journalist and fellow of contemporary church history at Campion Hall, Oxford University; JoAnn Lopez, director of Faith Formation, St. Basil Catholic Parish at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto; and Jesuit Father James Martin, author and editor-at-large of America Magazine.

Martin was among the more than 360 delegates to the synod, while Cimperman served as a table facilitator and theological expert and Ivereigh served as a theological expert. Lopez participated in a pilgrimage of young adults who were in and around Rome as the synod began, attending an ecumenical prayer service before the synod began.

This was the first of 29 Synods of Bishops since the early 1970s that included non-bishops as voting members, the participants noted, and Martin said that it is important to understand that everyone — bishops and cardinals, priests, men and women and religious and laypeople — was afforded the same opportunity to speak in table discussions during synod meetings, and everyone had to listen to what their tablemates had to say.

It was also an extraordinarily diverse group, with representation from all over the world.

At the beginning of each session, Martin said, “each person would speak for three minutes and no one could interrupt, so a 22-year-old college student from St. Joseph’s University could speak for three minutes and everyone would have to listen to what they had to say.”

The issues discussed are recounted in the synod’s synthesis document, Martin said, noting that the topics that seemed to draw the most energy were conversations about whether women could, at some point in the future, be ordained as deacons, and about the status of and ministry to LGBTQ+ Catholics.

The discussions were not aimed at finding consensus, he said, and they often did not. The groups at each table would report areas of convergence, divergence, questions and tensions each day.

It was not easy, he said, especially for some prelates who were more used to being listened to than listening.

Facilitators such as Cimperman had the job of making sure everyone had an opportunity to be heard, and just as important, to hear everyone else.

“The role of the facilitator was to hold the space, to allow a space for us to be brothers and sisters,” she said. “We found a way of not just dialogue, but conversation in the spirit. It wasn’t polarization. … I literally saw transformation.”

Much of that transformation happened when, after people spoke, the tables had time for silent prayer and reflection, she said.

“It was a profound experience of being church and what that means,” Cimperman said. “I have worked often with international groups, and this was larger and deeper. I really believe we can do this in the places that we are. We can do it in our parishes. We need to do this way of being church in schools. This can and will impact our way of being in religious life. There’s something really of the Spirit that’s moving. … I found myself often in awe of what the Spirit was doing. I found myself saying, ‘Only the Spirit can do this.’ I was watching wonders happen.”

Ivereigh agreed that the focus of the synod was not so much on doctrine as on the process of listening to one another and listening to the Holy Spirit.

“It was learning about creating a new kind of vehicle, a new way of being church that will be capable of taking the church into a new era,” he said. “It’s something that we have to learn.”

Asked a question about what it means that some observers were disappointed by what they perceived as a lack of movement on the status of women in the church, Ivereigh suggested that anyone who is “disappointed” has missed the point.

“‘Disappointment’ is when you haven’t got what you wanted,” he said. “What we’ve learned is that this process is not about getting what you wanted. It’s about opening yourself to the Spirit.”

Lopez, who traveled with a pilgrimage organized by a group that advocated for the church to discern whether women can be deacons, said that listening to the Spirit can help groups find new ways to proceed that they never expected.

Lopez said she and her fellow pilgrims offered to pray for the many synod delegates they met, and they were impressed with their diversity.

“There is no ‘us and them,’ but ‘us and we, walking together,’” she said. “We have to listen and expand to whom we listen and how we listen. We don’t have to wait until next October. We can start now.”


  • catholic theological union
  • synod

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