The following article was written before the Opening of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
As the opening of the Synod approaches, I like to think that the monastic world might have something to say about this precious ecclesial practice, which comes not from its erudition but rather from its nature of community and cenobitic life, fraternal and sororal, which has always been characterized by different and manifold forms of active and effective synodality.
In ways that differ according to spiritual traditions, one of the characteristics of monks and nuns is that they gather together to pray, understand, make decisions, welcome and discern. This terminology accurately expresses what synodality really means in daily life, and how within our homes and in the dynamics of our relationships, we attempt to live an authentic ecclesial and spiritual experience, which always implies the willingness to walk together, to share a vision, a perspective that draws us, and to identify steps and ways to spark long-lasting and effective change in every individual and in the community.
It is an experience that is dictated by the Holy Spirit, and one with a wide margin of openness and unpredictability, which are typical features of the Spirit, who blows and goes wherever he wants.
Referring to the tradition I know best, the one that looks to Clare of Assisi, I can affirm that Clare invites us to recognize everyone’s right and power to speak in our relationships, and calls us to have a listening attitude that allows each one to contribute her own thoughts in community life. Her experience teaches us that every word that draws upon the dynamism of each nun’s life and of the Gospel is precious, and that it is a gift that renews and characterizes the discernment of God’s people. Within these affirmations we find what the age-old experience of monastic life had expressed much earlier with Benedict, and which Clare transformed with these words: “Let her [the Mother] consult with all her sisters there [in the Chapter] concerning whatever pertains to the welfare and good of the monastery, for the Lord frequently reveals what is best to the least [among us]”.
It is an authentic exercise of faith and hope to remain constant and faithful to gathering together, to believing it is not a waste of time to create a space in which everyone can speak, in which all are allowed to speak and in which everyone steps up to speak! An authentic process of synodality, in the hope of an involvement that goes beyond the simple and precious willingness to serve and work together for the common good; a space in which the facade of those who conceal their own fear of exposing themselves behind excuses like “it’s impossible to speak here”, fades away; a space where the fear that allowing voices and thoughts to flow will lead to lack of discipline and confusion, falls away.
In monastic life, the spaces and times of community dialogue, of attempts to understand and make decisions together, must be defended and cared for, so that they may become an experience in which everyone can enjoy the recognition of the dignity of the word and can learn the art of expressing it, feeling that they are a useful part of a journey. This of course is neither simple nor easy, and it requires longer and more complex processes, made of the inclusion of diversity and the settling of differences, in places where sometimes, community paths are fragmented by the slowness caused by “other” opinions, by ideas that are not fully aligned with the Gospel, and that are expressed in a tiresome way, at times indelicately, and/or by personal recriminations. But this is precisely the challenge to the journey of continuous conversion to synodality, to that “together” that, for Clare, constantly arises from the original experience in San Damiano.
In religious and monastic life, it is not rare to experience a sense of disappointment and frustration with the struggle to practice sharing. I believe that part of our mission might be to safeguard, as part of the Church and as a monastic community, a space for relationships and exchanges that make this exercise possible, and that embodies what we sing in the Psalmody: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”.
We hear from different parties that synodality cannot occur with only one structure, with one form of government (“I, authority”, allow you to speak), with events that seek to embody it; nor can it be understood purely as an interior attitude that runs the risk of not making an impact.
In the experience of monastic life we dare say — hoping not to be proven wrong — that our way of life and its structure continue thanks to the “synodal structure” that permeates and animates it. And if it continues to hold itself up, it is thanks to the tireless and laborious will to keep Jesus Christ and his Gospel at the centre, bringing everyone back to the right distance from what truly counts, in a relationship of reciprocal obedience in which the service of authority is deliberately limited by the practice of co-responsibility. Our small and limited experience dares to say that there is no synodality, if not within power that is limited. By what? By the community’s responsible freedom to do not what it wants, but rather, what it believes, what the Spirit entrusted to it, what gives meaning to its mission in and for the Church.
And in this sense, each person’s poverty becomes the guarantee of freedom for all; not a naive and superficial freedom that believes it is not influenced by anything or anyone, but a freedom that, with pain and effort, at the cost of constant journeys of conversion and convergence, has understood and understands what to be influenced by.
Limited power truly becomes authority, in the sense that it takes the position of generating and growing, and it responds not to an act of virtue of a particularly holy person, but to a norm of good sense recognized also by the law, when it recalls that “what touches all, should be approved by all”.
Within a community — as within the Church — there is a plurality of functions which corresponds to a plurality of gifts: these cannot be managed individually, but rather require everyone’s participation. What’s at stake is not the democratic management of the community — different pages of the Gospel put the modern notion of democracy into crisis, favouring instead the biblical notion of justice, in which each person is given what he or she needs, not what everyone else is given — but the exercise of community discernment, which is one of the aspects of limited power, whose primary task is to set into motion dynamics of dialogue and of listening which can lead as close to unanimity as possible. The various experiences of monasticism in the Church tell us that this is possible in both male and female communities, as long as all the brothers and sisters recognize the need for conversion to dialogue, to discussion, to debate, to dissension when necessary, without this necessarily being a sign of insubordination towards the constituted order. In the great challenges and issues we face, deciding and choosing together is a guarantee of fidelity to the Lord, and of communion.
*Capuchin Poor Clare
Sr Chiara Francesca Lacchini*