The Synod on Synodality is a two-year consultative process that engages the faithful to evaluate the Church’s adherence to her mission through the pillars of communion, participation, and mission. Unlike a council starting in Rome and then promulgated to the faithful around the world, a synod commences at the local level and is communicated back to Rome. At Saint Matthew, we implemented the synod survey through the direction of the Diocese of Nashville and made the survey accessible to all members. We provided both synod listening sessions and access to the survey through various digital platforms. As the Synod on Synodality has completed its parish-level phases within our parish, the following report synthesizes the various responses from the laity of Saint Matthew noting trends and commonalities, areas of discrepancy, outliers, unique opinions, and areas of consensus. As the Synod was intended to accomplish as a whole, this report seeks to understand and proclaim the laity’s current situation, needs, and calls for action for both Saint Matthew on a parish level and Holy Mother Church at large.
While the Synod on Synodality was communicated and outlined prior to its launch, the purpose and understanding of the synod have been a confusing initiative within the Church for many of the laity. For some, it seemed to be a simple “survey” the Vatican called for in order to proclaim a “State of the Union Address” at its completion, to use an American political analogy. Or, that its results would be compiled to create a democratic popular vote as to the next “steps” the Church should take into the future.
The Catholic Church can be a puzzling entity to describe, living as Americans in a democratic republic. Often the Church has been likened to a ship, which can certainly be a helpful analogy, but this too can be misunderstood as a ship that changes direction whenever there is a captain and crew turnover, as there may be in a polity. There is no perfect analogy for our understanding of the One True Church, but one of the most helpful is that of a tree. Jesus Christ instituted it Catholic Church two thousand years ago and planted an acorn, budding its first few leaves, with Peter as its trunk (see Matthew 16:18-19). Indeed, in different eras of history, the Church responds and even adapts as a tree might to water and light sources, but it is always the same tree. It is better to say the Church “grows” rather than “changes” since it is always the same Church guarding and proclaiming the same Gospel Christ did on the Sermon on the Mount. As Christ does not artificially change (Hebrews 13:8) so too His bride, the Church, cannot be altered. In councils and synods, the Church may deepen her understanding of something—as a tree may grow a new branch—but she never changes, such as planting an entirely new acorn. This fundamental departure from the Church’s dogma is what we call heresy, and it is often councils and synods that address these issues and clarify the Church amid a given era’s challenges.
While the Church has not and nor ever will fundamentally change—such as planting an entirely new tree—the Church is called to proclaim the Gospel to every generation. The Church’s mission, and our mission as the lay faithful, is to always propose the Gospel in the world, lovingly and with open arms, without altogether altering what the Gospel is and becoming “of the world” (cf. 1John 2:15, John 18:36, Phil. 3:20). It is in this spirit that began the Church at Pentecost proclaiming the Gospel to the masses then that we are now still called to grow the Church, starting with our own interior conversion and then through welcoming in new members to Her body. The Synod on Synodality is a process, now two-thirds completed, where we as the faithful reflect on how we are living out this mission in our current world. How are we, individually, in our interior conversions and prayer lives? How are we accompanying those outside of the Church or those who have fallen away from the Church?
These are the questions and reflections the Synod on Synodality has called us to ponder so that we may grow in deeper conversion, illumine areas we can strengthen our own “branch” of the oak tree here at Saint Matthew, and lastly ponder how we can better serve as faithful Catholics in the Church as a whole in the modern world. While the Church is not and never has been “of the world,” She has always been “in it,” and the Synod on Synodality is a process in which the laity can prayerfully discern how we can continue to shine light in this dark and broken world always in need of the Church’s light, hope, and comfort. Put in another way, the Church’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
As we draw our conclusions, we see where the synod has shed light on what the Church is, her mission, and how the synod brings together the faithful to this mission. As well, The Church asserts that the faithful are fully embedded in living out the call of the Church. The faithful play a vital role in the Church’s objective to save souls. Yet, the synod revealed the spiritual adage that St. Ignatius proclaimed, “You cannot give what you do not have.” That is, we, collectively as a parish, cannot effectively engage in the process of helping save souls until we first focus on our interior souls and need for salvation.
The underlying theme that surfaced during our synod was that in order for the parish to flourish, the faith of the laity needs to be set ablaze. While enriching ministries and improved programs may move the needle closer to a spiritual conversion, the teachings of Christ clearly illuminate that one first needs to foster an interior encounter with Christ for the faith of others to expand. We see such teaching exemplified in Jesus’s exchange with Mary and Martha (see Luke 10: 38-42). Here, Jesus went to the house of these two sisters to teach. Mary chose to sit quietly at Jesus’s feet and receive from His teachings while Martha chose to work tirelessly to serve Him. Martha, being slightly annoyed at Mary’s inactivity pleaded to Jesus for her help. But, Jesus’s response to Martha revealed that quiet contemplation and open reception of Jesus takes precedence over the busyness of actively serving. In fact, Jesus’s response insinuated that too much activity without silent reflection will take one off his or her mission. This story also reveals that these two components of silent contemplation and active service will work in harmony with each other only if the initial focus is on the former rather than the latter. Thus, the emphasis needs to be on the interior spiritual encounter precisely so the exterior functions of active ministries can thrive. From this reflection and the overall synod responses, we can conclude that Saint Matthew must fixate on the spiritual encounter in the sacraments in order to enhance our mission. In short, we need to strive to be Mary’s instead of Martha’s. As we do this, we will become effective at doing the work of Martha – precisely because we’ve sat at the feet of Christ before doing our work. St. Vincent de Paul noted that in doing God’s work we must first align ourselves to the interior life rather than the exterior acts when he says, “It is necessary that we be more inactive than active.”
At Saint Matthew, we continue to endeavor to provide a spiritual encounter with Christ in the Sacraments as well as offer a wide variety of ministries to nourish and expand the faith to others. We have been blessed with having members that embrace the sacramental life and help cultivate our ministries. Pope Francis has given emphasis on the importance of listening during this synodal process. As we have listened the synod has now allowed us to ponder our efforts as a mystical body in lovingly doing the work of evangelization. As we reflect on this synod let us go forth into the sacramental life and our ministries to allow this endeavor of the synod to produce fruit for the kingdom.