What is the Prequel of Today’s “Synodal Process”?

by | Nov 17, 2021 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change

By 2020 the Star Wars franchise earned some $70 billion. It generated sequels and prequels. People wanted to know what led up to the Star Wars and what followed.

The Catholic church has one of the longest series of events in history. We call them Councils. There have been some 20 of them in 2000 years. They have by no means grossed Star Wars numbers. But they have shaped how the was the message of Jesus was lived in each age.

Here I reflect on a “prequel” to the very first council, the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).  I will also fast-forward to the two-year-long “sequel” taking place right now.

The “prequel” of the Council of Jerusalem

Acts 10 focuses on the heated culture war of those early years. What was essential to being a follower of Jesus? Jews, mainly centered in Jerusalem, were willing to die, as their ancestors had done, in order to not violate the cultural and dietary laws that came from Moses! If they had prevailed, we would still face circumcision and kosher.

The prequel first describes the conversion of Cornelius. Cornelius is a centurion in the army of occupation. He practices a profession based on violence and abuse. Yet he is dedicated to prayer and almsgiving.  He cultivates a relationship with God and cares for his neighbor.

An angel surprisingly enters his home, calls him by name, and tells him to send his servants to Peter.

At almost the same time, Peter receives a vision. A voice three times ordered him to kill and eat animals, some of which were unclean. His response is significant: “By no means, Lord” (Acts 10:14). To do so would demolish precepts of the Torah that seemed inalienable for his religious identity.

While he was struggling, the men sent by Cornelius arrive. The Spirit tells Peter these people from the peripheries are his envoys. Peter finally accepts to eat with pagans the food he had always considered forbidden.  Election as God’s people does not imply exclusive “nationalism”.

In listening to the Spirit, both Cornelius and Peter are called beyond their own cultural and religious categories. Both are transformed by the Spirit in encountering people from the peripheries of their lives.

This comes at an extra cost to the first Pope. He faces the hostility of those who did not read the signs of the times. “You entered the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:3).

A polarized community gathers in Jerusalem. Peter reports what happened to him and his reactions of bewilderment, incomprehension, and resistance. This helps his challengers who were initially aggressive and resistant, to listen and accept what has happened.

The spirit of this first Council was a process of discernment, listening together to the Spirit.

Peter, the first Pope, then says “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…”

The sequel – today’s two-year process of listening to the peripheries

The synod observes   “Listening is the first step, but it requires having an open mind and heart, without prejudices.”

The successor Peter asks:

  • To whom does our particular Church “need to listen to”?
  • What space is there for the voice of minorities, the discarded, and the excluded?
  • Do we identify prejudices and stereotypes that hinder our listening?
  • How do we listen to the social and cultural context in which we live?

How will you listen to these voices?

See the full series of questions as listed in the official Handbook of the Synod

Originally posted on Vincentian Mindwalk