Pope Francis is making waves yet again by requiring all bishops to consult with lay people (i.e. not clergy) in their dioceses during the ongoing synod. This begs two important questions: What on earth is a synod, and what does any of this have to do with real life?

What is a Synod?

A synod is a gathering of bishops to discuss questions about Church teachings and how to minister to people in the Church. After a synod, the bishops often make recommendations to the Pope, who might write a letter based on their conclusions.

These gatherings have occurred throughout the Church’s existence, but they’ve been a permanent fixture in the Church since 1965, when Pope Paul VI created the Synod of Bishops to facilitate more regular discussion of pressing issues among Catholics.

The word “synod” is derived from two Greek words: syn, meaning “together” and hodos meaning “road” or “way.” It’s perhaps in this spirit that Pope Francis has asked every bishop around the world to hold listening sessions in their dioceses and bring feedback to their gathering at the Vatican. It’s an effort to move towards greater collaboration among all baptized Catholics, not just priests and bishops. 

A Posture of Listening

Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of listening, something each of us can appreciate. Who hasn’t had moments of feeling unheard or marginalized, especially as women in the Church? Who hasn’t experienced the wonderful gift of having someone truly hear us and respond with love?

In this synod, Pope Francis is asking the Church to not be afraid of the unknown or of new challenges. He’s asking them to be open to asking questions and to not fall into old habits simply because “it has always been done that way.” He’s inviting the bishops especially to make space to listen to every person in the Church - whether they’re regulars at Mass or people who feel rejected by the Church and pushed to the outskirts. And most importantly, he is asking the bishops to be open to feedback, even when it challenges them and causes discomfort.

We can take this moment to incorporate a posture of listening in our own lives. In our friendships, work relationships, and families, we have opportunities to ask questions that go deeper than a cursory “How are you?” We can silence our phone the next time we’re catching up over coffee and ask thoughtful questions to understand more about others’ lives, fears, and aspirations. We can seek out those in marginalized communities and listen to their stories with an open heart that’s willing to be uncomfortable, even when these stories challenge the way we’ve always looked at the world. 

Like Jesus himself, we can allow ourselves to be interrupted by those in need of someone who will see them and show them love. By seeing our time and attention as ways to be a gift to someone else, we can accept Pope Francis’s invitation to use this time of the synod to become “experts in the art of encounter.”

We might not be bishops who will bring our feedback to the Vatican, but we can lean into the spirit of the synod by being better friends, family members, and neighbors. Let’s use this time to love better, to listen more, and to walk together along the way.

To participate in the synod itself, check local parish or diocesan communications or contact them directly to inquire.

Shannon Wimp Schmidt

Shannon Wimp Schmidt is a pastoral minister, co-host of Plaid Skirts and Basic Black Podcast, and author of the upcoming book Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s (Ave Maria Press, February 2022). She lives near Indianapolis with her husband, Eric, and their four children. Follow her on Instagram @teamquarterblack and Twitter @teamquarterblk.

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