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Synod of Bishops discuss the different councils that promote shared discernment among parishes and dioceses

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Priests work in an English-language small group April 30, 2024, with facilitator Sister Maria Cimperman, a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as part of a meeting of parish priests from around the world gathered at Sacrofano, outside of Rome, to share their experiences and contribute to the ongoing synod on synodality. (CNS photo/Courtesy of the Synod of Bishops)

VATICAN CITY — Synodal assemblies and listening sessions are not a new Catholic invention; gatherings of the faithful to pray, discuss divisive issues and seek a solution together are as old as the Hebrew Scriptures, a Canadian theologian told an international group of parish priests.

The Bible is filled with references to the “assembly” of the faithful at crucial moments in the history of the Israelites and again as the newly formed Christian communities dealt with growing numbers, increased diversity and signs that the community was neglecting the widows and orphans, the theologian, Father Gilles Routhier, told the priests May 1.

Gathered at a retreat center outside of Rome, the parish priests were sharing their experiences of ministry and collaboration to provide input for the second assembly of the Synod of Bishops on synodality, which is scheduled for October. The brief introductory reflections offered to participants before their small-group meetings were livestreamed.

Their focus May 1 was on structures like pastoral councils, finance councils and other bodies that promote shared discernment in parishes and dioceses.

Father Routhier said that in situations marked by tension, there is a natural temptation “to try to take possession of all spaces of power and self-affirmation” when what is needed is time, patience and a willingness to let the Holy Spirit speak to the assembly.

Father Tomáš Halík, a Czech theologian, elicited laughter when he told the priests, “There are still places where the parish priest sees himself as the pope of his parish.”

“But the church confers the gift of infallibility on only one of its members, and then only under strictly limited conditions,” he said. “And if even a pope relies on several consultative councils to help him make his decisions, how much more should a parish priest listen to those he has been sent to serve?”

“We must not approach others with the pride and arrogance of the monopolistic owners of truth,” Father Halík said. “Truth is a book that none of us has yet read to the end. Only Jesus can say, ‘I am the truth.’ We are not Jesus. We are only disciples and followers of the only one who is allowed to say, ‘I am the truth.'”

Father Halík told the pastors that the synodal practice of listening to one another without interruption or immediately trying to change another’s point of view can benefit their parishes, communities and the wider world, even in situations of great diversity and differences.

“The church was born at Pentecost as a sacrament of understanding,” he said. By the power of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost the Apostles were able to address people of different cultures and languages “with clarity and conviction. Let us offer this healing power to the wounds of the church and the world.”

When St. Francis of Assisi heard a voice calling him to repair the church, he initially thought it was a call to fix up a building, Father Halík said, but eventually he understood it was a call to help renew the entire church.

“Perhaps Pope Francis and the whole Catholic Church is only gradually realizing that the synodal renewal is a process that does not concern the Catholic Church exclusively,” he said. “It is about much more than the transformation of the clerical mentality and rigid institutions of the Catholic Church into a dynamic network of mutual communication.”

Synodality, he said, can be a school teaching people how to exercise solidarity, cooperation and ecumenical communion “in the broadest and deepest sense,” embracing not just the Christian churches, but “all human beings and all forms of life on earth.”