Pope Francis on the synod: ‘Let us get used to listening to each other’

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Pope Francis meets a delegation from the Italian “E’ Giornalismo” prize during an audience in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Aug. 26, 2023. The pope asked Italian journalists to help him communicate effectively about the upcoming Synod of Bishops. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The synod process, which will hold the first of two crucial assemblies in the Vatican next month, is shaping up to be the most significant event in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.

Nevertheless, the synod has sometimes come up against a mixture of apathy and opposition. Pope Francis has even admitted that the Synod on Synodality can seem overly technical and of little interest to the general public. He made the remarks to a group of Italian journalists in the Vatican on Aug. 25, who presented him with the “E’ Giornalismo” award.

Francis explained that he usually declines awards but accepted this one due to the urgent importance of “constructive communication.” He also wanted to ask the journalists to help in telling the story of the synod process, which Francis described as “something truly important” for the church.

This pope has an instinctive gift of getting his message out to a wide audience and has given more media interviews than any of his predecessors. He is sensitive to how the church is perceived and recognizes that reaching people through different media platforms is a part of his ministry.

But Francis also knows that the synod meeting in October is already under a barrage of attack from some in the church. They use social media platforms and publish articles and books, making wild accusations against the synod as they seek to undermine the process. Some are claiming the synod will cause a schism in the church.

The synods Francis has convened — on family, young people and the Amazon region — have all come under similar attacks. At the 2019 synod on the Amazon, a climate of hostility was created that culminated in a young activist stealing statues used by indigenous groups from a church and throwing them into the Tiber River.

In his remarks to journalists, the pope summarized the synod’s purpose and why it matters. Francis stressed that synodality, with its core components of listening and discernment, is needed when “there is much talk and little listening.” It is a process that responds to growing fragmentation and division in society by emphasizing that discernment must be taken collectively by bishops and laity and that everyone is given a voice. It is in response to what Francis sees as a “culture of exclusion” in which elites disenfranchise people and vital decisions are avoided.

“It [the synod] is something the church today offers the world, a world so often so incapable of making decisions, even when our very survival is at stake,” Francis said. “There are no first, second or third-class Catholics, no.”

Second, the synod is deeply rooted in the church’s tradition. The apostles practiced communal discernment, but the practice of synodality gradually came to die out in the Western Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI then sought to revive it at the end of Vatican II by creating the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops in Rome, a structure that Francis has revamped and developed. In other words, listening to the Holy Spirit within a synod assembly is a profoundly Catholic thing to do.

“Please, let us get used to listening to each other, to talking, not cutting our heads off for a word. To listen, to discuss in a mature way. This is a grace we all need in order to move forward,” the pope explained. “Therefore, I dare to ask you, the experts of journalism, for help: Help me to narrate this process for what it really is, leaving behind the logic of slogans and pre-packaged stories.”

Francis recognizes that the synod’s success depends on how it is communicated and must battle well-funded and well-organized opposition efforts, primarily rooted in ideology. Much of the fear generated about the synod can be found in the claims that it will seek to overturn church doctrine while omitting that doctrine can also develop.

“Our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens,” the pope told a group of Jesuits in Portugal last month. “The view of church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.”

He added that such a position is built around ideology rather than “true doctrine,” which “always develops and bears fruit.” This can be seen in the church’s development on questions such as slavery, the death penalty, paying interest on loans and possessing nuclear weapons. 

The obstacles being faced by the synod find an echo in the difficulties that Vatican II faced. Like the council, which began with the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, the synod takes place with the ongoing war in Ukraine. Negativity and cynicism are strong temptations.

At the council’s opening in 1962, Pope John XIII rejected the “prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster” as he launched the church on a path of renewal and a new engagement with the world. With the synod, Francis is trying to take the same approach.



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