October 2023

Can God’s will be beyond a yes or no? Reflecting God’s will in a synodal Church

The Synod of Bishops is underway and as we dive deeper into seeking a synodal approach to religious interaction, and explore means in which the various parts of the Church can come together in synodality, the end goal can remain nebulous and intangible. We are striving to be a synodal Church, but for what ultimate end, asks Nimmi Candappa.

Documentation on the Synod of Bishops offers this by way of explanation: “The path of synodality seeks to make pastoral decisions that reflect the will of God as closely as possible, grounding them in the living voice of the People of God (ICT, Syn., 68).”

Yet, what is the “will of God” and how do we know when we have reflected this will accurately?

Some might say it is within role of the Magisterium ultimately to define God’s will. The teaching authority of the Church is recognised by many Catholics as having the last, or even the only, say on defining God’s will, mostly encapsulated in the various doctrinal teachings of the Church. Others say discerning the will of God lies with the priests.

However, neither understanding bodes well with the synodal concept of deep listening to all within the Church. The Synodal document states that “… synodality enables the entire People of God to walk forward together, listening to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, to participate in the mission of the Church in the communion that Christ establishes between us.”

If a synodal Church is to encompass pastoral activity and views grounded in the living voice of God that reflect the will of God, but this ‘will’ is defined and officiated only by a very select number in the Church, can we say there is engaged listening to the living voice of the people, in all aspects of creating a synodal Church? Or are we proposing a synodal approach for the exploration of pastoral decisions, but restricting the discernment of God’s will solely to the ordained?

In Excel software, this would be referred to as a ‘circular reference’, where a formula refers back to its own cell directly or indirectly. That is, in the Church proposing a synodal process that looks to include the discernment outcomes of others into the overall outcome but refers to the hierarchy as the sole authority in deciding the relevance of this outcome, potentially it generates a form of circular reasoning.

This raises the bigger, broader question of what God’s will entails. Is it possible that two people with different views on God’s will are both accurate? Is it possible that human intellect, understanding and language prove inadequate to capture the will of God in a complete manner thus, from our end, God’s will goes beyond a simple yes and no answer?

The use of parables by Jesus in answer to questions by his disciples intimates a desire by God to avoid the simple response to our hungry need for clear-cut responses and well-defined boundaries. Jesus, like any skilled teacher, might have used parables in the hope of encouraging a deeper listening within us, to draw out a response within us that is not easily articulated.

How does a God that operates in multi-multi layers and dimensions explain to us the ‘divine modus operandum’ in a way we can comprehend, when as human we are still at a level of learning the divine alphabet?

Instead of maintaining an underlying focus on issues that divide, might the first steps to effecting a synodal Church include a lowering of the ecclesiastical centre from an intellectual, analytical, ‘battle focus’ to a gentler, more open, reflective, ‘centred’ stance. A stance that might gradually allow answers to contentious spiritual issues, future directions and faith decisions to surface from a God-centred focus rather than a reactive or territorial or political stand-point; or a self-referential and contumacious stance.

Self-reflection though, is not something commonly introduced by the Church as a means of growing in holiness, even among clergy. Currently, many a priest in some capacity acts as a psychologist; listening to the troubles of their parishioners, discussing and advising on life issues and personal struggles. This advice would then be heeded unquestioned by a significant proportion of parishioners simply because it was from their priest.

Yet, it appears many priests have not completed any notable length of therapy or self-analysis to distinguish between advice that is relevant to the individual, and advice that might be stemming from long-held reactions or projections.

We do well to recognise and acknowledge how our own defects and woundedness influence our receptivity to the prodding of the Holy Spirit. We cannot be fully open to the Spirit and to pure discernment of the Spirit if we are entangled within ourselves, and still unaware of this.

An attempt to better understand oneself and identify any contributing factors to personal views, such as a need for continuation and a dislike of change, or a dislike of authority and psychological reactance, would help those discerning the steps to a more synodal Church.

Exampled by the hierarchy, particularly those in the Synod, an intentional effort to introduce more quiet time and contemplation and self-reflection into faith practices will do more for achieving synodality than intellectual argument and debate.

A broader awareness of our own woundedness will trigger growth in compassion. A growth in compassion, a softening of the heart, and then, finally, an opening of the heart and suddenly, we are receptive to the God in the gentle breeze.

We are able to silence our historical war cries to better hear the admonishment of Jesus, “if they are not against us, they are for us” or “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Just maybe, there are fewer yes and no answers, and far more opportunities to agree with one another if we look deeply enough.

Relinquished of the need to spar, we are able to give ourselves permission to imitate the one whom Jesus loved, and simply rest on the bosom of Jesus in order to hear the heartbeat of the all-loving and all-mighty resonate within us.

From this space, we are better able to listen and speak to each other and make decisions that build a Church which creates opportunities to grow in faith, expand the heart, and heal the wounds in us and around us.

Nimmi Candappa

Dr Nimmi Candappa was a member of the recent Australian Plenary Council. As an academic and engineer with a passionate faith, she takes great interest in exploring reasons for the widening gap between the heart of society and the heart of God.

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