The call by Pope Francis to the whole Church across the world to be involved in the Synod on Synodality is amazing. In terms of the number of people involved, it is a much bigger event than even Vatican II. However, what its impact on the future of the Church will be is something we will probably only know 50 years from now. What does this have to do with us, as Columban supporters and priests, friends, and lay missionaries?
I find it easier to think about synodality by reading Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the Council of Jerusalem. The early Christian community was growing. It had started at Pentecost and then spread. The first Christians came from the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, but as their numbers grew, they attracted the attention of people who were not Jews, but Greeks. We know about the problems this caused. Did these Greek people have to become Jews before they could be baptised as Christians? Did they have to follow the Law of Moses?
The first thing to notice is that the Spirit is acting even before the synod starts. In Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles, the “Holy Spirit comes down on all the listeners…” while Peter is preaching. The Jewish companions of Peter “were all astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit should be poured out on gentiles too”. This experience was highly important to the Synod in Jerusalem.
Peter also realised that God does not have favourites and that God wanted these Greek people to be part of the Christian community. The mission had run into a problem. It was a major question. What to do? The response: call a Synod in Jerusalem.
This story is told in Chapter 15 and we can see how the Synod was conducted. The “whole Church” was involved in the decision-making process; the focus remained on what God wanted. The mood of the meeting changed from debate and argumentation to respectful listening; a lot of attention was focused on the sharing of experience, and it was noted by St James that the Synod was a fulfilment of the Scriptures. All were connected to the Scriptures.
At the end of the Synod, a letter was written to the Christians in Antioch. After going through this synodal process, the Christians in Jerusalem were able to say, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves…”. They had discussed the whole question. They had listened to each other and recognised that the Holy Spirit was working in their midst to bring about this consensus. This was a discernment on the part of the community in Jerusalem, along with the delegates from Antioch. When the letter got back to Antioch, the community was “delighted by the encouragement” and the mission moved on and flourished.
Looking over this story in the Acts of the Apostles, we can see that synodality is a part of the mission. When the people of God are on mission, as in the early Church, problems are going to arise, and the community needs to come together to listen to what the Spirit is saying.
Sometimes we think of mission as something done by us Christians in response to a command like, “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations…”. Yes, the command is part of the motivation, but being directed by the Holy Spirit, as we can see in the Acts of the Apostles, is also very much a part of how and why we move in mission.
Discernment is critical to our listening to God, as a Church and as individuals. By paying attention to our experience, we can learn how to discern what the Spirit is doing in our lives and our world. As we follow the promptings of the Spirit, just as Jesus did in his life, we can grow as missionary disciples.
Let us all pray for each other in this New Year, and pray that we Columbans can move with each other as a synodal people for the sake of the mission of God in our world.
Fr Trevor Trotter
Regional Director of Oceania
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