Discerning and deciding together

South African Catholic activist Noluthando Honono describes the hope she finds in the Synod.

Human existence entails the continued capacity to make decisions in view of growth and progress.

Decision-making is an exercise that we undertake daily but often with limited consideration of the value it plays in our lives and how it shapes our habits.

We often make life-altering choices on the spur of the moment because at face value they seem rather insignificant relative to the grand scheme of things. The rush of daily life, the materialistic nature of a mostly capitalistic world, and the pressures of existing in it have made the art of decision-making superficial and driven by thoughts of acquisition and consumption.

Against this backdrop, discernment becomes pivotal to effective decision-making. Discernment is the process of giving conscious attention to our thoughts and feelings in relation to particular choices we are making. To make good decisions, we must consider all information made available to us and process it in a way that is factual and considerate of our feelings.

This delicate balance between facts and feelings requires the use of spiritual exercises to guide the process of discernment. This is even more important during this Synod, which takes a form somewhat different from what the Catholic Church has made the norm over centuries.

This Synod is unique because all the faithful are called to engage in the synodal process in three complementary ways – communion, participation, and mission. Synodality encourages a real involvement on the part of each and all. This reflection seeks to explore the importance of discernment to decision-making in a synodal church. I will consider the following concepts:

1.The correlation between the nature of the Church and the synodal process

2.Discernment as a means of renewing the Church

3.The role of the laity in discerning and deciding in the synodal process

The Church and the synodal process

The form, style, and mission of a synodal church rely on the reality of all having something to learn from one another. It is rooted in the ability to listen with intent and to engage with no malice. The process of discernment is not a mechanical exercise of gathering data for debates or meetings. It entails listening to one another, our faith traditions, signs of the times, and the Holy Spirit in an active quest for the will of God.

The Church by definition is a fellowship of the people of God and the sacrament of salvation established as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. This definition emphasises the communal nature of the Church, whose essence is rooted in the people who make up the body that is the Church.

The emphasis on people means there is no exclusion of anybody from the mission of service in the Church. All its members are endowed with a dignity and a significance that match that of the next, be they clergy or laity.

In this context, an inclusive exercise of discerning and deciding is integral to the form, style, and mission of the Church. Discernment and decision-making in common are essential dimensions of a synodal Church.

There are several implications to this process of discerning and deciding in common. It calls for a shared desire to listen to the Holy Spirit, the abandonment of hierarchies, and a recognition of the worth and contribution of each member of the Church. Authentic discernment and inclusive decision-making allow the Spirit to breathe new life into the traditions, beliefs, and practices of the Church.

Discernment as a means of renewing the Church

The renewal of the Church is a matter of importance not only to its members but also to people who do not share or who disagree with the beliefs of the Church. Oftentimes, those in this latter group are easily condemned by the former.

Synodality calls for a different approach that discerns beyond the rigid rules and laws that have an exclusionary effect on people who, for one or another reason, cannot abide by them. It calls for an approach that imitates the way of life of Jesus, who dined with tax collectors, sinners, and outcasts. It is an openness of heart to embrace differences and celebrate diversity in a way that ultimately calls forth the people of God as one family.

It is thus imperative that in building the vision of a renewed Church, the necessary steps are taken to be inclusive of believers, civil society, and other denominations and faith traditions.

The act of openly engaging beyond what have been the acceptable ecclesial boundaries will enable the Church to broaden its perspective and discover new ways of being the sacrament of salvation in a religiously and culturally diverse world.

Pope Francis has reminded us of the need to create a different Church rather than a new Church. The Pope further urged all to invoke the Holy Spirit and listen with even greater intent. This listening requires putting the Holy Spirit at the fore and journeying together in seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church of Christ.

Pope Francis stresses that without the Holy Spirit, there is no Synod. The success of the Synod and the renewal of the Church rely on listening to the Holy Spirit. This fits the description of true discernment, as set out by Pope Francis, as a condition for the success of the synod, as well as the much-anticipated renewal of the Church.

The role of the laity

Synodality leads the faithful toward God as disciples. It requires the direct engagement of all stakeholders at local, regional, continental, and universal levels.

It means facilitating those engagements without being intrusive and welcoming all contributions with no prejudice. It further requires forming lay people in the spiritual exercise of discernment so that they can attain a level of spiritual maturity that will empower them to become actively and meaningfully engaged in fulfilling the mission of the Church.

Spirituality should be at the fore at the local level so that we can effectively guide the process of synodality by rooting it in the ability of people to discern and participate in decision-making from a perspective that is neither superficial nor rigid.

The synodal process encourages a deeper level of participation in the mission of the Church as the communion of the faithful. Pope Francis reminds us that for this to happen, we

need the life-giving breath of the Spirit, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles, and spreads joy. 

This is a call to embrace communion and seek to understand mission in a way that enables all the baptised to participate in the life of the Church.

Discernment as an essential dimension of decision-making facilitates the emergence and growth of a synodal Church, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who leads the people of God to consensus, co-responsibility, and harmony.

Noluthando Honono is a prominent voice in the South African Catholic community.

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