Synod must be rooted in prayer

Synod must be rooted in prayer The lack of lay-consultation before key decisions were made in the Church was a grievance aired by the respondents in the Diocese of Ossory.

Shannon Campbell

The View

We hear views we disagree with all the time, but do we really listen to them? How do we approach difficult conversations in a way that ensures everyone feels fully heard? These are questions my peers and I have been wrestling with over recent months as we’ve been expressing our views in our school system in Northern Ireland. I have been taking part in the ‘Crossing Divides around the Globe Project’ run by the British Council in partnership with the BBC.

The project is part of a programme of initiatives to celebrate 100 years of the BBC. More than 1,000 young people in 100 countries took part.

My conversation partners were, like me, in their 20s and all of them work or volunteer in education.

There was general agreement that we should try to educate young people of all backgrounds together. However, there are differences of opinion about how best to do that. Do we need more formally-integrated schools, and what should the role of the Churches be in education?

We all presented our perspectives on our school system and also deep listened to each others views. We found our differences of opinion were nuanced – on a spectrum, but not on opposite ends of it.

No one won the argument, but then that wasn’t the point.

The aim of the project was to train young people to listen and understand those with very different perspectives. It hoped to encourage deep listening which is to learn and practice skills of empathy, silence and suspending judgement.

The three of us – all women – spent time at explaining our positions to each other at length and we also connected and listened to others across the world as they debated different subjects, important to them.

It’s not often that we listen to someone else without interjecting or questioning, but that is one of the keys of deep listening.

Conversation partners

According to a study in Israel, this enables conversation partners to feels safe, less defensive and therefore more open to seeing both sides of an argument. Seasoned negotiator Douglas Stone trains Harvard Law School students in the technique. He first used the technique in the 1990s with 40 non-political leaders from Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. He says that deep listening involved being genuinely curious about someone else’s story, with a strong desire to understand them. It’s about connecting to them as an individual and establishing trust. In a case study of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one mediator who had spent decades resolving disputes concluded that critical to successful deep listening (and deep learning) is cultivating the skill of being present.

My recent experience of deep listening reminded me of a conversation I once had with a Jesuit who had to leave my company early because he was headed to take part in the election of his superior. I was fascinated by the process involved and I wonder, does my experience of deep listening find its correlate there? In the constitutions, St Ignatius insisted that the election of the general takes place in an atmosphere of prayer and discernment, which makes room for the Holy Spirit. There is no room for a ‘them and us’ mentality, lobbying for one or the other. No parties for possible candidates.

Of course, delegates must be able to inform themselves about the persons whom they might judge suitable. They do this by a unique method called the murmuratio. Over a period of several days, electors exchange information among themselves about persons they consider capable of becoming a superior. They talk with one person at a time only; breaking up into groups is out of the question at this stage. Between moments of sharing, each, as he thinks appropriate, goes to the chapel with what he has retained from these encounters. These days of murmuratio take place confidentially. You are not able to ask the electors how they are doing or what they have retained from their exchanges which, under the sign of the Spirit, will lead them to vote for such and such a Jesuit.

I suspect Pope Francis, when he called our Church to a more synodal way of being, was inviting us into a process of deep listening: letting go of control, respecting the other, and making room for the movement of the Holy Spirit. Some, I think, (mis)interpret our synodal processes at local and universal levels as a move towards ‘democratisation’ of Church governance. Anyone who has tuned in to Prime Minister’s Questions from Westminster, the mother of all parliaments, would struggle to discern that process to be a ‘spiritual conversation.’ For us to be ‘synodal’ we must be grounded in a commitment to prayer that leads to an environment that is conducive to personal discernment and authentic conversation. This implies a holistic way of living that enables us to enter into communion with the only body whose head is Christ.


Deep listening, it would seem, owes much to the Ignatian tradition, with its emphasis on discernment. It has great potential to understand and adapt to the challenges facing the contemporary Church, helping us to discern the signs of the times. It offers a unique view of the radically different vision of relationship between God and humans that is at the core of our faith. If we were more attuned to the process of deep listening, and the spirituality which informs it, we could generate a lively contemporary Church environment.

But enough of my talking, time to listen. I’ll leave the final word to Pope Francis: “Humility is born when, instead of talking, one listens, when one ceases to be at the centre…It’s the way of humble service, which Jesus followed. It’s always important to listen to the voice of all, especially of the little ones and the least. In the world those who have more means speak more, but among us it can’t be that way.”