Last Sunday, Pope Francis presided over a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to inaugurate a Synod of the Universal Church, which will take place over the next two years on the themes of Communion, Participation, and Mission.

By Father Raymond Lafontaine, Director of the Office for English Pastoral Services (OEPS)

In his homily, citing French theologian Yves Congar, he challenged us to create “not another Church, but a different Church.” A Church open to the newness God is seeking to inspire through the Holy Spirit, a Church that goes out to encounter people, that takes time to listen and dialogue, that invites the participation of all the faithful, so that inspired by the Gospel and by the Holy Spirit, we can discern the way forward together.  

In this way, Pope Francis suggests, we can move beyond the comfortable church we have become used to, steadily declining through lack of renewal, by choosing to become a church that responds with Jesus to the challenge of today: the hopes and dreams, the joys and sorrows carried by the world around us.  

By deepening our communion, through the active and prayerful participation of all God’s faithful people, we will be able to more fully embrace our mission: to make God’s love in Jesus Christ known in the world through our teaching, our witness, and our example.  

Pope Francis identifies at least three pitfalls along the way we will do well to avoid.  The first is formalism – just going through the motions, making a few token gestures of consultation but not putting into place the means and structures to facilitate an authentic journey of spiritual discernment. He compares this to admiring the magnificent façade of a church but never bothering to actually step inside.  

The second is intellectualism: turning the experience into a debating socie-ty of competing ideas, or even worse, a parliament of lobby-groups and par-tisan divides, lobbying to ensure that their particular group or ideology wins the day. If it’s about winners and losers, us vs. them, Pope Francis sug-gests, then we are all losers. 

The last is complacency: the belief that nothing is going to really change anyway, so why bother trying to improve?  We are dying anyway, the world has turned against us, so let’s just hang on as long as we can. But don’t ask us to change, because we don’t really believe we have anything to offer to the world. 

Jesus does not call us to formalism, intellectualism, or complacency.  He wants us to become a listening church, a vibrant church, a church with open doors, open minds, open hearts, open hands.  We cannot get there over-night.  We have to start from wherever we are.  But no matter how bad things seem around us, no matter what crises we have to negotiate, we can have confidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work within us, guiding the Church on this path of encounter, listening and discernment.   

Let us choose to place ourselves under the standard of Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  And let us, in this stirring prayer with which Pope Francis concluded his opening address of the Synodal path, invoke the guidance of the Spirit:

Come, Holy Spirit! You inspire new tongues and place words of life on our lips: keep us from becoming a “museum Church”, beautiful but si-lent, with much in the past but little future. Come among us, so that in this synodal experience, we will not lose our enthusiasm, dilute the power of prophecy, or descend into useless and unproductive discus-sions. Come, Spirit of love, open our hearts to hear your voice! Come, Holy Spirit of holiness, renew the holy and faithful People of God! Come, Creator Spirit, renew the face of the earth! Amen.