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Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ

On 20 November 2021, Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, delivered the Chancellor’s Lecture at Regis College, Toronto, and received an Honorary Doctorate in Divinity. While he was in Canada, we asked the Under-Secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development in Rome to explain the Synod on Synodality that has just been announced, the role of Jesuits and their colleagues, and how everyone in the Church is called to participate.

“So it is not a question of bottom or top, it is a question of what the Church is: the people of God.”

Why is this Synod taking a more communal approach than its predecessors?

Because the Church was born as a community at Pentecost. This suggests that a communal approach is really the only choice for the Church.

Now, how do we facilitate a communal approach? That is the challenge. The Synod on Synodality is a reflection of our roots; and more than that, it is a great prayer and a great seeking of God’s will about how to be Church or how the Church can best exist and follow her mission in the world.

Why a bottom-up approach?

Vatican II defined the Church as the people of God. So it is not a question of bottom or top, it is a question of what the Church is: the people of God. Everyone is expected to participate, and among them some people are called by God and recognized by the community to play specific roles, and those are called ministries, a word that means service. Ministries are at the service of God’s people, walking through history towards the Kingdom of God.

How is the Synod truly participatory, although not a democracy?

The synod is participatory because everyone is invited to listen and to speak. And in the listening and in the speaking, the contribution of each one is appreciated and valued.

Cardinal Czerny together with collaborators and others in their work with refugees.

But it is not a question of majority opinion versus minority opinions. And it is not easy for us who are accustomed to the electoral politics of nowadays to get beyond the idea that voting is the only way to resolve things, that the majority opinion has to win.

How will the Church be able to hear the voice of everyone, including those more on the margins?

“Here in North America, the Ignatian Family can certainly help to reach out to those who are on the margins of society.”

Preparing for the Amazon Synod, 87000 people got heard, so it certainly is possible to hear the voices of many. Here in North America, the Ignatian Family can certainly help to reach out to those who are on the margins of society, and perhaps especially those who, for whatever reason, feel themselves outside the boundaries of the Church, maybe especially those who have left. Invite them to come and listen and speak.

Moreover, it is very important not to think that responses are valid only when there are masses of people involved. Going back again to political elections, a low voter turnout can reduce the perceived legitimacy of the result. I am a bit afraid that the Synod will be discounted if only a few people participate. But a Synod is not an election or an opinion poll; it is a process of listening and speaking and discerning among all who manage to participate, and the actual numbers are not a relevant metric.

So to go back to the original question, which is very important, how would people on the peripheries of the Church feel invited and involved? Honestly, I don’t know how it will work here, but I do believe that, if every person who is already somehow involved reaches out to just one other person and says, “Why don’t you come along?’, we will certainly have a good response.

How do you think the Jesuit way of proceeding—for example, discernment in common—has contributed to the synodal process?

Discernment is a very valuable instrument for personal spiritual growth, and it is also valid, important, and essential in community growth and development. The shared listening to the Holy Spirit and seeking what the Holy Spirit suggests about a question is essential to the synodal process and is something that our Jesuit tradition can help with.

Not everybody has experience in discernment in common, but anybody who does have that experience can make their contribution.  Every Jesuit work, every Jesuit community, can be a place of learning and preparation.

My real hope is that every Jesuit house, every Jesuit work—including Jesuits, lay colleagues and other religious—will offer these gifts to serve the synodal process. At the local and diocesan level, I hope they will not wait to be invited to some important meeting, but that people will look around and say: “How can I help? How can we help?” We have these gifts. We have this tradition. We have these ways and means. How can we help the local parish, the local dioceses, the Bishops’ Conference to get going and keep going in a synodal way?

Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of bishops’ conferences from around the world at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2021. The meeting came as the Vatican launches the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023. Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops,(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

What are your hopes for synodality?

“My real hope is that every Jesuit house, every Jesuit work—including Jesuits, lay colleagues and other religious—will offer these gifts to serve the synodal process.”

My hope is that after the Synod in 2023, we will understand ourselves as a Church in a more synodal way, realizing this is who we are, how we are. Secondly, I hope that there will be more people who feel at ease in this effort, that they won’t say: “Oh, this is very difficult, very confusing.” They will say instead: “This is important and relevant, this is who I truly am (a member of God’s People, a Catholic Christian), this is where I need to be engaged.”

My hope is that we will find new examples of how the Church can be synodal in a parish, in a diocese, in a whole country, even in a whole continent, or finally in the whole world. For example, a parish has ten thousand dollars and there are many refugees nearby who need help, but the roof of the church needs to be fixed. What priority will the parish choose? There are different ways of deciding how to do this: if they would do it in a synodal way, then those who participate will contribute to coming to a decision, which as best we know is God’s will for us.

One of the great fruits of such a synodal approach is that decisions are then made prayerfully and received peacefully, without winners or losers.

By Fannie Dionne

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