Synod on Synodality delegates meet in round table discussion groups Oct. 21, 2023. / Credit: Vatican Media
Rome Newsroom, Oct 24, 2023 / 15:00 pm (CNA).
Synod on Synodality delegates in Rome this month are participating in something called “conversation in the Spirit,” a method of communal discernment based on prayer and listening.
“Synodal listening is oriented towards discernment. … We listen to each other, to our faith tradition, and to the signs of the times in order to discern what God is saying to all of us,” says an official handbook for the first, diocesan phase of the yearslong synodal process, which began in 2021 and will conclude in October 2024.
The Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, for the first session of the assembly held this month says: “In its concrete reality conversation in the Spirit can be described as a shared prayer with a view to communal discernment for which participants prepare themselves by personal reflection and meditation.”
What is synodal listening? Where did it come from? Is it an effective method for discernment?
Father Anthony Lusvardi, a Jesuit priest and professor of sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told CNA that communal discernment was first developed several decades ago by Jesuits in Canada, which is why he calls it the “Canadian model.”
He clarified that while it was pioneered by people formed in Ignatian spirituality, it does not go back all the way to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order who developed the discernment of spirits.
Lusvardi, who said he has been familiar with the communal discernment method since he first entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, called it “helpful in some situations, less so in others.”
The idea of communal discernment, Lusvardi said, is that “instead of just launching into a discussion of an issue, as might happen at any business meeting, those who are participating will take time to pray individually in silence. Then they will come back together, and each person will share the fruit of his or her prayer, while all the others will listen without interruption.”
“After everyone has had a chance to speak, there can be a second round of sharing, where people describe their own reactions to what the others have shared,” he explained. “This isn’t a discussion of the issues — so it’s not a time to air disagreements — but a sharing of one’s own interior movements. The emphasis is on understanding each other before seeking a ‘solution’ to issues.”
Listening during Synod on Synodality small discussion groups, or “circoli minores,” involves three rounds.
According to Father Ivan Montelongo, a priest of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and a delegate to the Oct. 4–29 synodal assembly, “everyone gets to participate [with this method]. There’s a facilitator who makes sure everyone gets to share and no one is left behind.”
In the first round each person shares his or her “own experience, their own perspective,” he told CNA.
He explained that in the second round synod members share again based on what resonated with them from what others said in the first round.
And during the third round, the group explores “convergences, divergences, questions to be explored, actions to be taken perhaps.”
This process also involves moments of silence for personal prayer and reflection on what was heard.
Advantages to listening
“One of the distinguishing characteristics of the method [of communal discernment] is the emphasis it puts on listening,” Lusvardi explained.
Since everyone gets a chance to speak and be heard — something that can be unusual in a very noisy world — the effect can “almost be therapeutic,” the priest said.
“Since people are sharing the fruit of their prayer, conversation often is more patient, open, and respectful,” he added. “You get to know the other people and their lives of faith in a deeper way than you would at most meetings. The emphasis is on understanding before evaluating.”
He said the method can be very helpful for setting a good tone among participants in a meeting. And in a parish or diocesan setting, dedicating time to praying about an issue before sharing the fruits of that prayer — “before plunging into the gritty details” — could also be helpful, he said.
Limits of the method
The Jesuit explained that he also sees some disadvantages to the method. While it is great for helping people understand one another better, “it is not well-suited for careful or complex theological or practical reasoning.”
“Doing that requires thinking that is critical, that weighs the pros and cons of what people say. It also requires a degree of objectivity that this method is not well-suited to provide,” he said. “Sound theology needs to always ask the question, ‘That may sound good, but is it true?’”
The method of communal discernment emphasizes mutual understanding, so it may be harder to pose the question about whether what someone says is true, Lusvardi argued.
“Sometimes people have harmful ideas; while it can be helpful to hear them out, at some point it is irresponsible and uncharitable not to correct the harm. I’ve found the process isn’t always well-suited to that in practice.”
And the method cannot be substituted for empirical evidence, revelation, or Church teaching, he added, recalling that St. Ignatius was “very clear that not all things are the proper object of discernment.”
“If something is a sin, you do not discern whether to do it or not,” Lusvardi explained. “If you have made a commitment, you do not discern whether to be faithful to it or not. You only discern between things that are good.”
“If whatever occurs to you in prayer contradicts what has been revealed by Jesus Christ, then it is not the work of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
The Jesuit explained that Ignatius also knew the evil spirit can masquerade as an angel of light and that the saint’s rules for discernment of spirits “are meant to help us avoid being fooled.”
He cautioned that “because the method produces a positive experience of faith sharing, it can sometimes lead to naive decision-making. Just because something occurs to us in prayer does not mean that it is the will of God. It needs to be tested by objective truth and reasoning, and sometimes we need to be self-critical.”
St. Ignatius, the priest said, also “did not foresee communal discernment as a characteristic of the governance of the Jesuit order, which is hierarchically structured.”
“So this method can be used as a way of helping a superior understand the men that he is leading and to bring out some of the feelings and concerns that surround the issues under discussion, but it is still the superior who makes the decision,” he said.