Reports and Commentary, from Rome and Elsewhere, on the Synod on Synodality: “For a Synodal Church – Communion, Participation, Mission”
Edited by Xavier Rynne II | Number 3: October 6, 2023
THOUGHTS ON “CONVERSATIONS IN THE SPIRIT”
The name of the methodology being used in Synod-2023’s small-group discussions, “Conversations in the Spirit,” prompts some thoughts on what listening to the Holy Spirit involves – and doesn’t.
Bishop William F. Murphy, emeritus bishop of Rockville Centre, New York, spent a considerable amount of time this past summer reading Yves Congar’s massive work, I Believe in the Holy Spirit; there, he found a wealth of useful material that he summarized in a memorandum he shared with me. Yves Congar, O.P., was one of the most influential theologians at the Second Vatican Council and was named cardinal by John Paul II in 1995; the French Dominican’s understanding of how to assess what may (or may not) be genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit is especially relevant at this moment in Catholic history, and amidst this “synodal process.”
That the Holy Spirit does in fact offer particular gifts to individuals – including gifts of insight – is not in doubt. The question is, how does the Church discern the difference between a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit and a misconception (or worse)? This is not a new challenge for the Church; it is in fact quite ancient, as we learn from First Thessalonians 5.18-20: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything.” That Pauline injunction, as interpreted by Congar and reported by Bishop Murphy, involves a judgment based on three criteria.
First, does what is thought to be a gift of the Holy Spirit build up discipleship in the community? Second, can the community understand this gift as Spirit-given? Third, does the recipient accept it as an expression of supernatural love, not as a personal privilege?
In short, gifts of the Holy Spirit, which include those gifts of insight by which the Church deepens its self-understanding and thus enhances its mission, are not simply claimed or announced or proposed; they are “discerned” to be such by the Church. Which means that any such gifts must be consonant with divine revelation and the Tradition of the Church.
As Professor Hans Boersma noted in LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2023, #2, traditio – the Church’s Tradition, its “handing on” of the truths by which it lives – begins within the Holy Trinity: the Father hands everything over to the Son, who, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, empowers the Church as his Mystical Body to continue that “handing on” in the world over time. Thus in his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes that he was given the kerygma – the basic Christian proclamation of the lordship of Christ, raised from the dead – before handing it on to others: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…” (1 Corinthians 15.3, emphasis added). The Church’s Tradition, then, is grounded in divine revelation: the truths given us by which we measure all authentic development of doctrine.
Which suggests three lessons for Synod-2023’s “Conversations in the Spirit.”
First, the Holy Spirit cannot teach the Church as true today what the Spirit once taught the Church as false.
That is, the Holy Spirit, having once taught the Church that X makes for righteous living, happiness, and eternal beatitude and Y does not, will not and cannot teach that Y is now a source of grace. This should be self-evident; if God does not repent of, or renege on, his gifts and promises (cf. Romans 11.29), then neither does the Spirit, the Third Person of the Thrice-Holy God, teach that Y is not-good in one historical-cultural moment and good in another. To suggest otherwise is to adopt a quasi-Islamic concept of God as sheer willfulness, which is not the biblical concept of God. In light of present controversies, it must be said that this self-evident truth – that the Holy Spirit never contradicts what the Holy Spirit previously taught the Church as the truth – applies to our being created as men and women, and to the authentic expression of human love (cf. Genesis 1.27-28).
Second, discernment of the authentic promptings of the Holy Spirit is a matter of ideas as well as feelings, for God created us with brains as well as hearts.
The discussion-methodology of “Conversations in the Spirit” relies heavily on the solicitation of feelings, as facilitators ask: “How did you feel when A said ‘B’?” and “How do you feel about that?” Now there is surely a place for feelings in a genuinely ecclesial process of discernment. (An interesting myth – or perhaps true story – from synodal history involves Bishop Nicholas of Myra expressing his feelings at the First Council of Nicaea via the application of his fist to the jaw of Arius, the Cyrenaic theologian and heresiarch.) But the Holy Spirit does not speak through feelings alone, and the constant appeal to feelings in any discussion is usually a means for dodging hard but necessary arguments and debate. And debate is the normal means by which the Church discerns an authentic development of her self-understanding from a spurious one: or, to put it more bluntly, doctrinal truth from heresy. Populist anti-intellectualism is no aid to a discernment of what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today.
Third, authentic “Conversations in the Spirit” must reckon with the fact that the Holy Spirit is a polyglot.
“Communion, participation, and mission” (the subthemes of this Synod on Synodality) began two thousand years ago, when the Holy Spirit spoke in such a way that the basic Christian kerygma – “Jesus is Lord” – was heard by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and Libyan Cyrene, as well as Romans, Cretans and Arabians (cf. Acts 2.9-11). Yet in the documentation produced in preparation for the Synod, the Holy Spirit seemed to have become monolingual, speaking only to the concerns, and in the vocabulary, of North Atlantic progressive Catholicism – and with a certain Teutonic accent at that. Isn’t there something here of the neo-colonialism of which Pope Francis has inveighed many times?
Authentic discernment through “Conversations in the Spirit” must therefore reckon with the biblical witness that that the Holy Spirit is not a monoglot. Today, as in Jerusalem two millennia ago, the Holy Spirit is a polyglot.
One other biblical image sheds light on “Conversations in the Spirit.”
When the Spirit descended on the apostles and Mary in the Upper Room, as recorded in the aforementioned second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, those who had been touched by tongues of fire did not sit around marveling at what a nifty experience that was, and discussing whether they might experience it again. No, they left the shuttered and locked room of their fears and went out boldly in mission. Here is a biblical paradigm for the Church in all ages and in every culture.
In his address to the General Congregations of Cardinals before the conclave of 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., who had helped call the Latin American Church into mission through his work on the 2007 Aparecida Document on the New Evangelization, made a powerful impression by warning his brother-cardinals about the dangers of the Church become self-referential – a warning he has repeated as Pope Francis for more than a decade. Yet the “synodal process” up to now has often been a Long March through the Bogs of Self-Referentiality: a slog that seemed to continue in the first “Conversations in the Spirit” yesterday. If those conversations are authentically Spirit-led and Spirit-inspired, they will quickly turn to issues of mission in a world that needs a Catholicism that speaks confidently and with compassion about Jesus Christ as the revelation of the truth about God and about us.
So as the synodal “Conversations in the Spirit” unfold this month, it would perhaps be helpful if the entire Church prayed daily the great Sequence for Pentecost Sunday, the Veni Sancte Spiritus, here in its classic English translation by John Mason Neale:
Come, Thou Holy Paraclete,
And from Thy Celestial seat,
Send Thy light and brilliancy:
Father of the poor, draw near,
Giver of all gifts, be here:
Come, the soul’s true radiancy:
Come, of Comforters the best,
Of the soul the sweetest guest —
Come, in toil refreshingly:
Thou in labor rest most sweet,
Thou art shadow from the heat,
Comfort in adversity.
O thou Light, most pure and blest,
Shine within the inmost breast
Of thy faithful company.
Where Thou art not, man hath nought;
Ev’ry holy deed and thought
Comes from Thy Divinity.
What is soiled, make thou pure;
What is wounded, work its cure;
What is parched, fructify;
What is rigid, gently bind;
What is frozen, warmly tend;
Strengthen what goes erringly.
Fill Thy Faithful, who confide
In Thy pow’r to guard and guide,
With Thy sev’nfold Mystery:
Here Thy grace and virtue send;
Grant Salvation in the end.
And in Heav’n felicity.
[The traditional Gregorian chant setting of the Sequence may be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6hqAfsHURo. A fine contemporary setting of the
Veni Sancte Spiritus by the American composer Morten Lauridsen may be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBVibL6TfLM.]
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the biographer of Pope St. John Paul II