November 5, 2021

THE LISTENING EDGE

Michael Bayer

In a divided, exhausted world, Pope Francis offers renewal in the form of the Synodal journey

BY MICHAEL BAYER

Our country, our local communities and our Church are all divided. And that shouldn’t be a surprise when there is an entire industry whose business model is built upon telling us how divided we are and then searching for evidence to elicit outrage and inflame indignation.

School board confrontations over masks and vaccines go viral as cable networks provide incendiary chyrons and apoplectic panelists before cutting to commercial break. Carefully edited videos of protesters and police ensure clicks that lead to contempt and confrontation in the comments section. Logging onto social media to see pictures of friends and major life updates instead offer a front row seat for the real-time deconstruction of communities, dissolution of friendships and corrosion of family relationships.

It’s exhausting. And it’s overwhelming, to the point where many people feel paralyzed. All of which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — a mass casualty event that has killed more U.S. citizens than World War I, World War II and the wars in Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. We feel exhaustion mixed with grief and loss and trauma.

What can be done? Where do we even begin in addressing a polarization and tribalism that leaves nearly everyone feeling hurt, angry, and fatigued?

We begin by listening to one another. Since the outset of his papacy, Pope Francis has urged us to practice the art of listening, to commit as individuals and communities to sustained, authentic, humble accompaniment. And we are called to do it in person — to put down our phones, log off our laptops, put away our gaming devices. “The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium)

This has been quite difficult over the past two years. But if the pandemic has revealed anything, it is that there simply is no substitute for physical, in-person gathering. Pope Francis extols the power of digital technologies to bring us closer together, and we have experienced this during a pandemic in which we have been forced to rely even more on texting and gaming and video conferencing to remain in touch.

Yet we have pined for the hug of an old friend on a front porch, the high fives of fellow fans at high school football games, and the taste of a donut handed to us on the front plaza outside of church. We crave community. We crave togetherness.

And so Pope Francis has given us a blueprint for how we, as a Church, might come together in a manner that transcends our divisions and reflects the unity at the center of our sacramental theology. This process of coming together to listen and accompany is known as “synodality,” from the Greek word, synod, which means “assembly.” The modern synod process emerged from the Second Vatican Council, when the bishops of the Church recognized the need to come together regularly to discuss how we best live out our common vocation amid constantly evolving cultural trends.

In our present moment, Pope Francis wants to expand this synodal process to involve everyone, not only bishops. To be intentional about amplifying and listening to individuals and groups whose voices have been suppressed, marginalized, or excluded. To commit not merely to a one-off town hall meeting or online survey, but to a journey with one another. And so over the coming months, we will be initiating this process here in our diocese — coming together to listen and accompany, to offer support and become sources of healing to each other.

We cannot hit a magical reset button on partisan politics or culture wars. We cannot convince cable news networks to book guests who are less shouty and more gracious with one another. Instead, what we can do, what the pope is urging us to do, is to show the world a different way of being in relationship to one another — one that flows from the unity of our baptism, is sustained by the Eucharist, and offers healing through Reconciliation. If we can do that, if we can become walking, breathing sacraments of unity, communion, and reconciliation, our families, our friendships, our parishes, our communities, our country would be transformed.

 

MICHAEL BAYER is director of youth, young adult and campus ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington.