A Synodal church – more than a listening exercise

Synodal church

The call for synodality has been louder than ever, but does the Church truly understand what it means to listen, especially to those who have left its pews?

Listening has become a recurring term in religious circles, particularly in discussions around synodality.

But if the Catholic Church is serious about this form of governance, it must recognise that the art of listening goes beyond merely holding an audience.

A synodal church involves a complex and nuanced interplay of culture, language, and personal experiences that many within the Church have yet to grasp fully.

We are all too familiar with the intercessory prayers for those who have “wandered from the Church.”

A more sincere prayer, however, might be one that seeks their return and the Church’s transformation.

The key is listening and engaging authentically, balancing truth and mercy, doctrine and empathy.

If the Church is serious about regaining the trust of the disenchanted, it needs to prove itself as an institution of change—starting with how it listens.

The Church has a long history of missionary zeal, but it’s time we scrutinise the methods and motives behind our ‘missionisation.’

Too often, the missionary efforts emanate from an unacknowledged sense of superiority, an assumption that it is the Church pouring spiritual wisdom into an empty vessel.

This ‘jug-mug’ model has been underwritten by an unconscious belief that God can only be present in the lives of those who conform to certain religious norms.

It’s time for a new narrative—one that recognises the inherent dignity and spiritual experience of everyone, regardless of their affiliation with the Church.

Modern Western societies are often criticised for turning their backs on God and organised religion.

This leads to a reflexive stance in Church circles to ‘save them from themselves’ through re-establishing religious norms and practices—a process I term ‘religionisation.’

This strategy doesn’t merely fail; it negates the very tenets of the Gospel.

Freedom and love become buried under layers of ecclesiastical regulations.

The Church, rather than facilitating a relationship with the divine, becomes a gatekeeper.

These tensions aren’t new.

The Second Vatican Council addressed them and continue to be the focus of theological debates.

But what is new is the urgency of these questions in a rapidly secularising world.

To rise to this challenge, the Church can no longer afford to see itself as a monolithic dispenser of truth.

It must become a seeker too—a humble inquirer in the complex quest for authenticity and spirituality.

This involves confronting uncomfortable truths, especially the growing number of people seeking a sense of the sacred outside institutional frameworks.

For all the talk of synodality and listening, the Church must reckon with the growing chasm between its teachings and the lived experiences of many of its former adherents.

This demands more than an elementary approach; it calls for a fundamental reimagining of what it means to be a community of faith in the modern world.

The Church must not only listen but also be willing to be transformed by what it hears. Otherwise, it risks becoming an echo chamber, increasingly irrelevant to the lives it seeks to touch.

In essence, the Church’s synodal journey must be more than a public relations exercise.

It has to be a genuine search for common ground, where the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ can meet and enrich each other.

This is a formidable task, but also a holy one. And perhaps, in taking it on, the Church will not just listen, but truly hear.

  • Dr Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. He is currently on Sabbatical and writes from near St Symphorien, on the outskirts of Lyon, France.
  • His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

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