Whenever I have taught the Epistles of Paul or instructed lectors on these texts, I emphasize that one must read these letters as if they were addressed to oneself and to a Christian community gathered to hear them. They should be read aloud as to an assembly that has come to hear them. Each letter that Paul writes presents a summons to create a church that embraces our Christian beliefs and invites a mutual moving forward. He offers advice as well as discipline. He encourages formation and growth. Paul takes seriously the challenges of forming a community and he insists on its importance.
As Catholics, we continue to take seriously Pope Francis’ call to “synodality” (or as I prefer to render it for myself “journeying together”). The teachings of Paul can offer a helpful catechism.
Ordinary time for 2022 begins in these weeks and the second reading of our Sunday liturgies flows from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In these selections, Paul provides a rich reflection on “journeying together.” One week, he speaks about the gifts of the Spirit for the Christian community; the following week, he invites some thinking on the mystical body of Christ; then, love takes center stage as the heart of Christian virtue; and so on.
Pope Francis teaches how the centrality of the Spirit in the synodal process must be held firmly:
“Synodality is an ecclesial journey whose soul is the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit there is no synodality.” (Addressing the International Theological Commission on its 50th anniversary at the Vatican, Nov. 29, 2019)
The connection is clear. As we journey together, the Spirit shows the way; as we assemble, the Spirit directs the conversation; as we set out on mission, the Spirit provides the gifts to accomplish our goals. Calling the Holy Spirit the “soul” of our effort emphasizes the role of the Spirit as the enlivening and empowering force for our passage.
Paul repeatedly affirms the role of the Spirit in the Church:
Brothers and sisters:
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit. (1 Cor 12:4-7)
He continues this teaching by offering a brief list of the gifts of the Spirit. He suggests how members of the community receive these roles for the common good (1 Cor 12:8-11).
Within the synodal process, we must see how one member brings knowledge, while another bears wisdom. Though not the same, they are both important. One individual is capable of mighty deeds, while a second brings healing. One brother can speak in tongues, while a sister can interpret tongues. Both the holder and the community served need to appreciate the value and purpose of the gift. We go forward together but we do so by relying upon the Holy Spirit who accompanies and invigorates us. Both Paul and Francis know this truth. It embodies the soul of our journey.