By Patrick Schmadeke
“Keam.” “Keam.” “Keam.” These were the sounds from our 22-month-old daughter. First, we looked at her, sitting in her high chair, and then we looked at each other. Still puzzled, we looked back to her. This elicited a more emphatic, “Keam!” Only this time, the sound was accompanied by a finger pointing to the freezer. There was a brief pause, followed by an idea. In a wondering tone I said, “ice cream?” “YEAAAAAA!!!” was the reply.
In the Synod on Synodality, we are called to be a listening Church. This is listening in order to understand, not in order to respond. This involves meeting people where they are at and desiring to understand their experience of the Church at a deep, personal level. In the words of Pope Francis, we must “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (The Joy of the Gospel, no. 169).
For the Synod we are asking this question: “based on your personal experience, what fills your heart and what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church?” This question attempts to avoid abstractions and to get at the core of people’s concrete experience of the Church. It is only in light of concrete experience that we can discern how the Holy Spirit is calling us to be Church at this moment in history.
A few lessons emerged from our experience with our 22-month-old that can be applied to the Synod.
First, hearing is not the same as understanding. Our personal interpretation of someone’s audible expression can fall in the wide range between understanding and misunderstanding. The human act of understanding is complex. It is not as simple as sensorial perception. Rather, it involves many implicit or explicit questions, assumptions and conclusions that drive towards clarification. Understanding the religious perspectives of others can be particularly difficult because religious perspectives are so personal. This means we must approach the religious perspectives of others with a certain delicacy and respect, especially if we disagree with our dialogue partner.
Second, we long to be understood. This is a most fundamental human desire. When others don’t understand us, it is a terribly isolating feeling. When others do understand us, it grows the bonds of kinship. Even if there is disagreement, the shared foundation of mutual understanding can hold us steady. To be understood is necessary for trust, love, collaboration and community life. Like flourishing relationships, flourishing faith communities involve people proactively seeking to understand one another. This requires intentionality.
Third, there is value in listening to every voice. This is not because every voice is going to come up with the next greatest idea or is going to have the key insight that enhances the life of the Church. We should not expect that of others or ourselves. Rather, the symphony of voices in a faith community becomes an expression of the presence of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, we must intentionally include all voices, including the young, homebound and most marginalized among us. Each of us is made in the image and likeness of God. The voice of each person has something to offer the Church.
Finally, after hearing people’s voices, we can move forward in an informed way. The Synod is not an opinion poll. It is not about taking votes and making decisions based on majority or minority opinions. It is something much deeper: communal discernment. An opinion poll would tally the competing perspectives expressed and declare a majority winner. Communal discernment, on the other hand, is a process where the fruits of dialogue are greater than the sum of the individual voices represented. Communal discernment almost always concludes with a decision that is beyond the original horizon of what any individual would conceive.
If we don’t seek to understand each other, then we are just a cacophony in the kitchen. Our daughter was elated in our moment of mutual understanding. Imagine how joyous she was when we actually gave her some ice cream. If you lend a listening ear, you might bring such joy to someone. Their joy will become your own.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)