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Dr. Austen Ivereigh speaks at the Diocesan Pastoral Center on Feb. 3 on the meaning of synodality, how it fits within the Church’s mission, and how Pope Francis’ time in Latin America helped inform his emphasis on synodality.

Dr. Austen Ivereigh, biographer of Pope Francis and a key figure in the worldwide Synod on Synodality, visited the Diocese in February for an inspiring presentation on what synodality is and how synodality fits within the Church’s mission of evangelization and encounter.

The presentation, part of the Diocese’s series of Formation Days on the Synod, was attended by Diocesan Pastoral Center employees, parish and school staff and faithful from across the Diocese. Ivereigh gave the presentation three times, twice in English and once in Spanish, on Feb. 3-4.

Ivereigh began his presentation by discussing how the Pope’s emphasis on synodality can be traced back to his time in Latin America. At the 2007 Conference of Aparecida in Brazil, explained Ivereigh, Pope Francis (then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio) and other Latin American bishops gathered to discuss the way forward for the Church in Latin America.

The conference and its process deeply affected the man who would become Pope Francis, with its humility in admitting that it didn’t have easy answers for the problems facing the Church, with its synodal process of listening to one another to discern where the Spirit was leading and with its ability to form a consensus of vision, mission and plan of action.

While a common objection to synodality is that those who embrace a synodal process are simply trying to grab power and undermine the hierarchy of the bishops, Ivereigh explained that the Pope sees synodality not as a power struggle but simply a way for the Church to discover what the Spirit is saying.

“Pope Francis put it like this to me when I sat down with him last year ... he said, ‘Look, it’s very simple. If we believe that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all the baptized, then it makes sense that when people get together to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you and to me, then that’s how we discover what the Spirit is saying.’ That’s synodality in a nutshell,” said Ivereigh.

Ivereigh went on to say that while synodality may have not been emphasized as much by the Church throughout much of its history, it is the “essential way of functioning” for the Church that was actually embraced in the early Church.

“This isn’t some crazy new idea that the Church learned from someone; this is what the Church does. It’s what it did at the beginning in the early morning of Christianity,” he said. “Jesus leaves his followers and he says, ‘I’m leaving you with my Spirit and the Spirit will lead you into the truth.’ ”

Ivereigh gave an example: in the early Church, there was a debate on whether pagans wishing to convert to Christianity should first convert to Judaism and then to Christianity, or whether they could convert to Christianity straight from paganism.

“There was a huge argument, a big division, a classic polarization, two visions of the Church. And they can’t resolve it, just as we can’t resolve a lot of the big disagreements at the moment in our Church. Because actually, you can’t resolve these things through a power struggle, and you can’t resolve them through a reasoned debate – deep divisions ultimately require us to turn to the Spirit,” said Ivereigh.

That’s exactly what the early Church did with this conflict, as described in Acts of the Apostles Chapter 15, holding what we now call the First Council of Jerusalem. “It says it very clearly – everyone took part ... everybody spoke, particularly those who were the youngest and the least senior among them. Why? Because the Spirit often speaks through the voice of the least and the outsider,” said Ivereigh.

Listening to the voices of everyone, and in a special way to those on the margins of the Church was what the Church strove to accomplish during what was called the listening phase of the Synod, which went from October 2021 to August 2022. Ivereigh clarified that this time was not like a “parliament” or mere opinion gathering, but a time of discernment as a Church.

As simple as this may sound, gathering together as a Church to speak and listen, it was a revolutionary thing for many Catholics, said Ivereigh. “The people of God remarked on the uniqueness of speaking freely and being heard in organized conversations that were open ended and attentive with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They spoke of how after decades of churchgoing, they had been asked to speak for the first time,” said Ivereigh.

Ivereigh was part of the group that created the first global synod document, which endeavored to synthesize what was heard from Catholics around the world during the listening phase. “You can’t read these reports without concluding that there is a call to renewal of the way the Church is that would allow greater missionarity, greater pastorality, greater communion, greater participation,” said Ivereigh.

Synodality can be the solution to the deep polarization in the Church, said Ivereigh. Rather than endless, vitriolic debate and discourse, synodality calls those on different ideological ends of the spectrum to come together, speak, and truly listen, not trying to immediately resolve the tension or to prove who is right, but rather to hold the tension and allow the clarity to emerge in time, trusting in the Spirit.

“This church, and especially the Church in the United States, is incapable of evangelizing as long as it is divided. Jesus says in the Gospel, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

“That is why synodality matters. Because it goes to the heart of the church’s capacity to be what Christ’s mission is to be. It goes to the heart of the Church’s mission to evangelize,” he said.

Ivereigh’s presentation was livestreamed and is available to watch online on our diocesan YouTube channel. For English, go to bit.ly/3XOREwc and for Spanish go to bit.ly/3IJPM3y.