In April 2021, Pope Francis initiated a synodal journey of the whole People of God, to begin in October 2021 in each local Church and culminating in October 2023 in the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, with the theme: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, participation and mission.” Reading through the 60 paged handbook published by the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican City in September 2021, was quite interesting and captivating. The handbook (vademecum) gives both an introspection and expectation of where the Holy Spirit is guiding and leading the 21st century church to. In the first place, it defines Synodality as representing the “path by which the Church can be renewed by the action of the Holy Spirit, listening together to what God has to say to his people. It is all about journeying and walking together in mission and for mission, where EVERYBODY is invited on board”.The International Theological Commission (ITC) describes it as the “path along which the People of God walk together.” Jesus himself is this path, just like he says; I am the Way… (Jn. 14:6), and we all are his disciples, called to follow the Way.
During this period of the synod, the entire People of God is called 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.” The Holy father, Pope Francis is expanding the scope and nature of this synod to not only remain a gathering of bishops with and under the authority of the Pope, but also to one in which the Church in her wisdom, has increasingly realized that Synodality is the path for the entire People of God. Hence the Synodal Process is no longer only an assembly of bishops but a journey for all the faithful, in which every local Church has an integral part to play. This Synod is an invitation for the entire People of God to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church (Rev. 2:7). And while listening to one another, and especially to those at the margins, discern the signs of the times. It is meant to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission. We are called to listen to God and to the people.
As we listen to one another, we then discern through prayers, reflection, paying attention to our inner disposition, listening, and talking to one another in an authentic, meaningful, and welcoming way and participating. This would require “humility in listening and courage in speaking”, where everyone has the right to be heard, just as everyone has the right to speak. This point needs some more emphasis. Not all leaders have the humility to listen to the views and opinions of other persons, especially their subordinates, subjects, and followers. Some could be unnecessarily aggressive in their reactions and dispositions to contrary views and opinions. Such views are often misconstrued as rebellious and unreasonable. When people find themselves in this kind of structure and environment, they may likely lack the courage in speaking, for fear of intimidation, harassment, and emotional blackmail. However, the document is quick to warn; “listening to those who have the same views as we do bears no fruit. Dialogue involves coming together across diverse opinions.
Indeed, God often speaks through the voices of those that we can easily exclude, cast aside, or discount. We must make a special effort to listen to those we may be tempted to see as unimportant and those who force us to consider new points of view that may change our way of thinking” On the question of who is to participate in this synodal process, the document reiterates the fact that Pope Francis is “inviting all the baptised to participate in this Synodal Process that begins at the diocesan level”. All the baptized are the main subjects of this special experience including those persons who may risk being excluded: women, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, the elderly, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith, children, and youths alike. I will also include the abused, traumatized, victimized, oppressed, voiceless, minorities, strangers, marginalized, neglected, and those living at the fringes of the church and society.
I am particularly and personally attracted to the processes and methods adopted for this synodal encounter i.e., ‘listening, discernment, and participation’. As the church walks together, we are called to authentic listening, and discernment.A “listening that supports openness in sharing as well as hearing. An authentic discernment where there is time for deep reflection and a spirit of mutual trust, common faith, and a shared purpose”. Therefore,special attention must be given to our own cultures, contents, contexts, resources, challenges, peculiarities, and constraints. A synodal church in Nigeria implies a church that is willing and ready to listen. This is very crucial. According to Tania Israel, Professor of Psychology, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this listening requires “non-verbal attending, reflecting, and dialoguing”.
When two or more people come to a round table to meet, discuss, and dialogue, what makes their efforts towards lasting peace and reconciliation fruitless and futile is when one person comes with a superiority complex, making the other feel inferior. It could also be as result of one person’s unwillingness to listen and understand what the other person is saying, going through or feeling. It could also be because of the judgemental, all-knowing, and authoritarian posture of one person. I hope none of these will be the case in this synodal experience. I am not least surprised that Pope Francis, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is urging the church and her leaders to embrace the disposition of listening, discernment, and participation during this sacred moment of walking together. He has frantically called for dialogue and authentic listening among the people of God.
He warns against the ‘Babel syndrome’ which means’ “not listening to what the other says and believing that I know what the other person is thinking and what the other will say.” He calls this a plague, because at the end of the day, somebody feels excluded, cheated, marginalized, oppressed, and estranged. If the objectives of this synod must be realTowards a synodal Church in Nigeria: A psychological perspective ized and attained, which is “to provide an opportunity for the entire People of God to discern together how to move forward on the path towards being a more synodal Church in the long-term”, then as much as possible, no one must be deliberately made to feel excluded and sidelined. Avery Cardinal Dulles, a Catholic theologian writing in the shadow of Vatican II, mentioned what he called “models of the church.”
There, he described the church using terms like, Institution, Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Herald, Servant, and Pilgrim. He contributed immensely to laying the foundation for subsequent discussions on what the ideal image or model of the church really is. That notwithstanding, a question one may want to ask is, beyond this synod, what model and image do we envisage for the Nigerian church? My candid opinion is that it must be a model or image that captures and addresses the stark reality that is staring at the average Nigerian Christian. Not necessarily an imported model but a home-hewn model that speaks to the ‘heart, hand, and head’ of the Christian worshipping and praying to God in the Nigerian church and climate. The Nigerian church has no doubt grown and expanded in leaps and bounds over the years.
The presence of schools, hospitals, orphanages, hospices, and numerous institutions that render services that affect and impact on human lives positively cannot be over-emphasized. However, she is likewise also at present experiencing a fair share of challenges, difficulties, and problems. What affects the country rightly affects the church and her people. Today, Nigeria, more than ever before, is bedeviled by insecurity (caused by terrorism, banditry, and kidnapping), religious intolerance, poverty, corruption, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual abuse, child labour, gross inequality, tribalism, nepotism, bad leadership, and poor infrastructure. We now live in a country where a majority of the people are poor, poverty stricken, hungry, almost hopeless, oppressed, marginalized, and discriminated against. Where people live in abject poverty, feel insecure and unsafe.
Where people lack access to decent housing, quality health care facilities, education, and potable water. Where human rights and dignity are abused and denied without repercussions, and the majority do not even have a say in how they are governed and led. It is this same people who constitute the Nigerian church. The Nigerian church is part of the Nigerian state. Members of her congregation are the same citizens of the country. Thus, the church is a church for the poor and of the poor. A traumatized and depressed church. An abused and victimized church. This synod on Synodality affords the church herself an opportunity to listen to herself. To listen to the stories, experiences, and tales of her members who are depressed, traumatized, victimized, and abused emotionally, mentally, physically, sexually, and spiritually. It is my earnest hope that this synod will challenge and engage existing attitudes, cultures, practices, and structures that promote and encourage the above-stated ills in the Nigerian church and state. The document, therefore, encourages openness to conversion and change. It states that, “we can often be resistant to what the Holy Spirit is trying to inspire us to undertake.
We are called to abandon attitudes of complacency and comfort that lead us to make decisions purely on the basis of how things have been done in the past.” May this synod, at the diocesan, national, continental, and intercontinental levels, truly create a conducive space for a humble listening, courageous speaking, authentic discernment, and equal participation, where no one will feel personally hurt for listening or haunted for speaking. Where burning issues bordering on poor leadership in the church, leading to abuse of authority, power and conscience, non-negotiable option for the poor or option of the poor, the place and dignity of women in the church, problem of Catholics leaving the church, relationship with fellow Christians and non-Christians, tribalism and nepotism, spiritual and psychological healing for a terrorized, traumatized, and oppressed people, different forms of abuse, poverty, corruption, and insecurity could be outlined and discussed. Truly, may this synod not end up as a well-organized talk show and exercise in futility.