From the Cardinal: Images of Synodality |  November 17, 2023

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Vol. 5. No. 5 

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I have been back in northern New Jersey for more than two weeks now, but I am still processing the experiences of last month’s Synod working sessions. It was truly a first-hand learning experience that involved prayerful listening and respectful dialogue among women and men, clergy and lay faithful with a deep desire to help the Church we love grow in the Holy Spirit so that we might be better witnesses to our risen Lord.

Toward the conclusion of the final week, I offered some video reflections about this deeply spiritual journey. In case you didn’t see this, here are the video and transcription for your consideration.

During the coming months, I will share further reflections on the Synod Report and on the conversations that will be taking place throughout the year in our archdioceses and in dioceses throughout the world in preparation for the concluding session of this historic Synod in October 2024. Please pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide us as we strive to discern God’s will for our Church.

Next Thursday, November 23, is Thanksgiving Day.  Please know that you are on my Gratitude List and that I thank God for you every day, but especially on this day when we publicly express our gratitude as a nation blessed in so many ways by a generous and merciful God. 

Sincerely yours in Christ the Redeemer, 

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R. 
Archbishop of Newark  

A Message from Pope Francis: Words of Challenge and Hope  

(From the Holy Father’s address to participants in the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” Vatican City, Wednesday, October 4, 2023)

I like to recall that it was Saint Paul VI who said that the Church in the West had lost the idea of synodality, and that was why he created the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, which has held numerous meetings, many Synods on different topics.

Still, the expression of synodality is not yet mature.  I remember when I was a secretary in one of these Synods, and while I was preparing for the voting the Cardinal Secretary – a very good Belgian missionary – would come and look.  “What are you doing?” – “Getting ready for what will be voted on tomorrow” – “What is that?  No, we won’t be voting on that.” – “But it’s synodal” – “No, no. No voting on that.”  We were not used to letting everyone express themselves freely.  So slowly, almost sixty years later, the path has gone in this direction, and today we are able to arrive at this Synod on synodality.

It is not easy, but it is beautiful, it is very beautiful.  A Synod that all the bishops of the world wanted.  In the survey of preferences taken among all the bishops of the world following the Synod for the Amazon, the theme of synodality came in second place.  In first place were priests and in third place, I believe, there was a social issue.  But synodality came in second.  Because all the bishops of the world felt a need to reflect on synodality.  Why?  Because they all understood that the time was ripe for something like this.

It is in that spirit that we begin working today.  I like to say that the Synod is not a parliament; it is something else.  The Synod is not a gathering among friends to resolve some current problems or to give opinions; it is something else.  Let us not forget, brothers and sisters, that we are not the protagonist of the Synod: it is the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit is in our midst to guide us, it will be a good Synod.  If there are other ways of going about things, based on human, personal or ideological interests, it will not be a Synod, but more of a parliamentary meeting, which is another thing.  A Synod is a journey that the Holy Spirit makes.  You have been given a few patristic texts that can assist us in the opening of the Synod.  They are taken from Saint Basil, who wrote that fine treatise on the Holy Spirit.  Why?  Because it is necessary to understand this reality, which is not something easy.

When, on fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the Synod, the theologians prepared a letter for me, which I signed, it was a good step forward.  Now, however, we have found the explanation of that process.  We are not the protagonists of the Synod; it is the Holy Spirit, and if we leave room for the Holy Spirit, the Synod will go well….

The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of the Church’s life: the plan of our salvation is worked out by the grace of the Spirit.  He is one who takes the lead.  If we have not understood this, we will be like those people mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles [who said]: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” – “What is the Holy Spirit?  We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (cf. 19:2).  We need to realize that He is the protagonist of the Church’s life, the One who carries it forward.

The Holy Spirit sets off a profound and varied process within the Church community: the “commotion” of Pentecost.  Something odd happened at Pentecost: everything had been organized, everything was clear…  That morning there was an uproar, everyone speaking in every language, and everyone understanding…  A variety in which it was not clear what everything meant…  And after this came the great work of the Holy Spirit: not unity, no, but harmony.  The Spirit unites us in harmony, the harmony of all differences.  If there is no harmony, the Spirit is not there.  That is how He works.

The Holy Spirit is the harmonious composer of salvation history.  Harmony – we need to be careful – does not mean “synthesis,” but “a bond of communion between dissimilar parts.”  If, in this Synod, we end up with an identical statement, everybody the same, without nuances, the Spirit is not there, He is left out.  He creates that harmony, which is not synthesis, but a bond of communion between dissimilar parts.

The Church: a single harmony made up of many voices and the work of the Holy Spirit.  That is how we should think of the Church.  Each Christian community, each individual is distinctive, but this distinctiveness must be included in the symphony of the Church, and that symphony is made “just right” by the Spirit: that is not something we can do.  We are not a parliament; we are not the United Nations; no, we are something else.

The Holy Spirit is the source of harmony among the Churches.  

The Holy Spirit takes us by the hand and comforts us.  The presence of the Spirit is – may I say – almost maternal.  Like a mother, He leads us and gives us this comfort.  He is the Comforter; that is one of the names of the Spirit: the Comforter.  The comforting action of the Holy Spirit is represented by the innkeeper entrusted with the man who had fallen among robbers (cf. Lk 10:34-35)….

The One who watches over the Church is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit exercises his work of “comforting” in a multiplicity of ways.  We have to learn how to hear the voices of the Spirit: all of them are different.  To learn how to discern.

Then too, it is the Spirit who makes the Church.  He makes the Church.  There is a very important connection between the Word and the Spirit.  We can think about this: the Word and the Spirit.  Scripture, the liturgy and the ancient tradition speak to us of the “sadness” of the Holy Spirit, and among the things that most sadden the Holy Spirit are empty words.  Empty words, worldly words, and – to descend a bit to a certain human habit, but not a good one – gossiping.  Gossiping is the “anti-Holy Spirit”; it goes against him.  It is a very common disease among us.  And empty words sadden the Holy Spirit.  “Do not sadden the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed” (cf. Eph 4:30).  What great evil it is to sadden God’s Holy Spirit.  Do we even need to say this?  Gossip, backbiting: this saddens the Holy Spirit.  It is the most common disease in the Church: gossiping.  And if we don’t let him heal us of this disease, it will be hard for this synodal journey to be a good one.  At least in here, if you don’t agree with what that bishop, or that sister, or that layperson says, tell them to their face.  That’s what a synod is for.  To tell the truth, not for talking behind people’s backs.

The Holy Spirit confirms us in faith. He is the one who does it continually… I repeat:  This is not a parliament; this is not a meeting about the Church’s pastoral activity.  This is a syn-odos: journeying together is the program.  We have done so much, consultation with the people of God.  But the one who takes this in hand, who guides us is the Holy Spirit.  If He is not here, this will not lead to a good outcome.

I insist on this: please, do not sadden the Spirit.  And in our theology, make room for the Holy Spirit.  And in this Synod, discern the voices of the Spirit from those that are not of the Spirit, but worldly.  In my opinion, the foulest disease that we see in the Church today – it has always been there, not just today – is what goes against the Spirit: the spirit of worldliness.  It is a spirit, but not one that is holy: the spirit of worldliness.  Pay heed to this: let us not yield the place of the Holy Spirit to worldly things – even good things, like common sense; that is helpful, but the Spirit goes beyond that.  We must learn to live in our Church with the Holy Spirit.  I urge you. 

Then, I want to say that in this Synod – also to make room for the Holy Spirit – the priority should be to listen.  This is the priority.  We have to give a message to the press, to the journalists, who do very fine, very good work.  We have to provide a communication that reflects this life in the Holy Spirit.  This requires an asceticism – pardon me for speaking this way to the journalists – a certain fasting from public speech in order to ensure this.  Let whatever is published be in this vein.  Some will say – and are saying – that the bishops are afraid and that is why they don’t want the journalists talking.  No.  The work of journalists is very important.  But we have to help them so that they can also speak of this journeying in the Spirit.  

More than speaking, the priority is that of listening.  I ask journalists to please make this known to people, so that they realize that the priority is to listen.   During the Synod on the Family, public opinion, the fruit of our worldliness, [thought] that communion was going to be given to the divorced, and in that spirit, we began the Synod.  When we had the Synod for the Amazon, public opinion, pressure, [thought] that viri probati were going to be [ordained], and we went in under that pressure.  Now there is speculation about this Synod: “What are they going to do?”, “Maybe ordain women” … I don’t know, those are things they are saying out there.  And it is often said that the bishops are afraid to talk about what is going on.  For this reason, I ask you, members of the press, to do your work well, fairly, so that the Church and people of good will –other people will say what they will – can understand that also in the Church, listening has priority.  Communicate this: it is so important.

Thank you for helping all of us, as the Church takes this “break.”  The Church is taking a break, as the Apostles did after Good Friday, on Holy Saturday, behind closed doors, but not, like them, out of fear.  Still, the Church is “taking a break.”  It is a break for the whole Church, as we engage in listening.  This is the most important message.  Thank you for your work.  Thank you for what you do.   Thank you.

In the section "My Prayer for You", Cardinal Tobin is standing with his hands together in prayer.

My Prayer for You  

Please join me in praying this prayer for Synod Unity:

Heavenly Father,
as the Magi journeyed towards Bethlehem led by the star,
so by your heavenly light, guide the Catholic Church to walk together
with all Christians during this time of synod.
As the Magi were united in their worship of Christ,
lead us closer to your Son and so to one another,
so that we may become a sign of the unity that you desire for your Church and the whole creation.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.