A number of years ago, a priest friend and classmate of mine, Father Bob, walked the Camino de Santiago. He followed the path taken by countless pilgrims before him to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, located in northwestern Spain. It is there that the remains of St. James the Apostle are buried. In 1492, Pope Alexander VI officially declared the Camino to be one of the “three great pilgrimages of Christendom”, along with Jerusalem and Rome. My friend walked the 500 miles of his pilgrimage in 30 days.
I still recall my conversation with him when he returned to the United States. I have always known him to be a very sociable, affable person. His pilgrimage took place prior to the availability of cell phones and wireless internet and I was most interested to find out what his experience was like in being so separated from family and friends. I could not help but imagine that that he must have felt a great deal of isolation.
As we gather today, I am especially conscious of my friend’s long-ago response. He told me that he did not feel alone. For him, this was certainly a spiritual walk and therefore he was conscious of God’s presence as he made his pilgrim way. However, he added, just as significant as his private moments of prayer were his interactions with the other pilgrims with whom he walked. On many days, he found himself walking with a different person who was also making the pilgrimage. They would talk and share with each other who they were and why they were walking the Camino. They would often share some food item that one of them had bought at one of the hostels along the way. As they walked towards a common destination, he found strength in their company and he came to realize more and more how much he had in common with the other pilgrims from different parts of the world who were also making their way to Santiago de Compostela.
And so, why am I so conscious today of his response? As we gather this morning in the Cathedral of St. Peter, we join Catholics in Diocesan cathedrals and churches throughout the world to mark the opening in local churches of the 2021 2023 Synod. And what is a Synod? Very simply, it is a term that comes from two Greek words—“syn” and “odos” and it means “walking together.” In some ways, regardless of whether or not we have ever done the Camino, we as members of the Body of Christ and the human family are all on a journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. In calling for this Synod, Pope Francis is calling us to realize that as a Church we all walk together and that we are somewhat like Father Bob and the pilgrims who in walking the Camino had a common destination and are together on a journey. We are called to listen to one another and learn from one another. And as a church we go a few steps beyond Father Bob’s and the pilgrims he met as he walked the Camino insofar as we are also called to pray together, discern together and go forth together.
Examples of how the early Church journeyed together are seen in the Acts of the Apostles where we read how the first Apostles gathered together to choose someone to replace Judas who had betrayed Jesus. Or we see in Acts how Peter and Paul were “welcomed by the church, as well as by the apostles and presbyters” to discuss and discern together how Jewish religious practices fit into Christianity. In the centuries following the time of the Apostles and the first Christians, we read how local Churches gathered with their bishops to discuss matters related to their specific circumstances and how this grew to occasions when the gatherings were regional and eventually universal. With the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, St. Pope Paul VI, out of a desire to ensure that the collaboration between bishops, theologians, religious and lay faithful would continue, created the modern structure of the Synod of Bishops. And from Paul VI’s vision, the Church has held, since 1967, a Synod of Bishops every two to three years to examine an issue affecting the Church.
The topic Pope Francis is calling us to reflect upon at this current time is how we as a church are a synodal church. In other words, the Holy Father is asking us to pray and reflect upon how we as a Church are walking together, how we as a Church are able to listen and learn from one another and discern together. In a recently-published book entitled, Let us Dream, Pope Francis reflected on the goal of this and all synods. The Holy Father points out that “it’s important not to confuse Catholic doctrine and tradition with the Church’s norms and practices. What is under discussion at synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our time.”
Very briefly, I would say a word on the blueprint for the Synod upon which we are currently embarking. Over the next two years, we, as a Universal Church, will be engaging in a three-part process as we reflect on Communion, Participation and Mission in a Synodal Church. The first part will take place in each diocese throughout the world. This will entail opportunities to gather prayerfully together in regional and parish settings, in Church groups, ministries and organizations. We will look to go out to those who are not actively practicing the Catholic faith as well as those who may not even be Catholic and reflect upon how the Spirit is calling us to live and be the Church. The fruits of these gatherings will reported to our Diocesan committee and in the Spring of 2022, the Diocese of Wilmington will join dioceses throughout the world in submitting to their respective national conference of Bishops a summary of what has been learned during this first phase. The national conference will then take these summaries and in the Fall and Winter of 2022 will synthesize them and send this synthesis to Rome. In the Spring of 2023, Bishops, religious and lay representatives will gather in Rome to listen to what has been voiced in parishes and dioceses and Episcopal conferences and further discern how God’s Spirit is calling us to continue walking as a Church on our earthly pilgrimage.
As we begin the 2021 2023 Synod, today’s Gospel reminds us of something to avoid and something to embrace. St. Mark recounts for us how the Sons of Thunder, James and John, go to Jesus and request places of honor at his right and his left, how the other ten apostles are indignant at James and John for requesting this and how Jesus tells them that he who wishes to be great must become a servant and he who wishes to be first must be the slave of all. The request that James and John make of Jesus and the apostle’s indignation at the request undoubtedly have a great deal to do with their desire to be in a position of prestige and power. It is a request to be set apart, to be recognized, to be looked upon as important. Jesus responds by telling his disciples that greatness is not being above others but rather stooping down to serve others. In other words, Jesus is saying that we need to open ourselves to seeking who the other person is and what his or her needs are. We need to not only listen to what the other person is saying, but hear what the other person is saying, what is going on within them. The ability to be attentive to the other person is not always easy. An example of this is the experience we sometimes have being in a social gathering and speaking to a person who is constantly looking over our shoulder to see who else is in the room who might be important and with whom the person might go and speak. As we embark on this first stage in the process, it is essential that a priority be having an openness and attentiveness to one another.
And secondly, Jesus’ response in today’s Gospel tells us of why we journey together, and what we are called to embrace. Over the past several weeks, we have been hearing stories of Jesus teaching people the ways of God. We heard how we need to accept the Kingdom of God like a child. We heard how the rich man was invited to sell what he had and come and follow him. These encounters as well as today’s Gospel are all taking place against the backdrop of Jesus making his way toward Jerusalem where he will offer his life for us. It will be there that Jesus will fulfill the prophecy we heard in our first reading from Isaiah as he gives his life as a “ransom for many.” It is a mission from which Jesus will not be deterred. As we embark on the 2021 2023 Synod, may we be confidant that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, continues to journey with us. May we be open to the Holy Spirit. May we be resolute as a Church in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
Veni sancte spiritus. Veni sancte spiritus. Veni sancte spiritus.