Pilgrims together - Madonna Magazine

Pilgrims together

Fr Chris Gleeson SJ 27 August 2023

When I heard that the theme for this edition of Madonna was that cumbersome term ‘Synodality’, my editorial heart sank. It sounds like a disease of some sort, and not one to inspire our support for Pope Francis’ decision in 2021 to prepare the Catholic Church for a global synod. Previously, synods were meetings exclusively for bishops, but thankfully this one will involve lay people in its discussions and conversations about the Church becoming more inclusive in its government processes. Accordingly, it would be no surprise and quite ironical if ‘Synodality’ were not to be found within St Augustine’s description of words as ‘precious cups of meaning’.

Having got that off my chest, it is important to point out that the obscure term ‘synodality’ has rich lineage. It derives from two Greek words syn meaning ‘together’ and hodos meaning ‘a way’ or a ‘journey’. Synodality should be all about journeying together, about companionship and accompaniment. A better title than ‘synodality’ might have been ‘Pilgrims Together’.

The metaphor of the pilgrim is helpful for all of us journeymen and women in life. Somewhere in his prodigious writings, English Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian and the author, the former (1991-2013) Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Jonathan Sacks made a helpful distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist.

‘Pilgrims are those people who want to engage with the world and not be mere spectators, people whose goal is less to reach a particular destination than to be transformed in the journey itself. A tourist goes somewhere to see something new, while a pilgrim goes somewhere to become someone new. Indeed, tourism protects tourists from becoming someone new by insulating them from the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable.’

In an excellent article, ‘Humility – a pilgrim’s virtue’ – Professor Emerita of Moral Theology, Lisa Fullam points out that the pilgrim is a risk-taker. ‘The mark of a pilgrim, then, is vulnerability but also receptivity, openness to the gifts offered along the way. A pilgrim’s journey is a vote of confidence that God will look out for the wandering stranger as God cared for Israel in the desert . . . Humility begins with the acknowledgment that we are vulnerable.’

Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel, that wonderful story of the walk to Emmaus, is all about transition and transformation. It provides us with a paradigm or pattern of what this current process of ‘synodality’ or preferably ‘Pilgrimage together’ should look like. Jesus is now the Risen Lord and he is accompanying on the road to the little village of Emmaus two bamboozled and disoriented disciples, who are trying to make the transition from their shattered expectations to a new life without their hoped-for hero.

It is worth watching Jesus as he models for us what companionship and accompaniment really mean.

First of all, he just walks with these two slow learners. Then he listens carefully to their story. From there Jesus, the consummate teacher, does what all good teachers do, he offers the back story, a bigger story to help them understand the mind-boggling events of what we know as Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Then, importantly, he indicates he will move on – never imposing himself on their company, but maintaining that fine balance between familiarity and distance as good teachers do. The two disciples then press him to come inside for a meal, and when blessing the bread they suddenly recognise him as the Risen Lord. Every blessing of whatever kind is a sign that we are always on a journey from God to God. Their response finally is to take the good news back to the Community: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the road?’

Good teaching in whatever forum – the home, the classroom, the tutor group – brings us life.

To be a pilgrim we have to travel light, we cannot carry too much baggage. Those of us who carry extra weight like fears, prejudices, angers, resentments and failures to forgive, will struggle to move far in life at all. Pope Francis echoed this advice in his homily at the Mass to open the synodal process: ‘Let us not soundproof our hearts; let us not remain barricaded in our certainties’.

One can only hope that all participants in the synodal process have the light-hearted freedom to follow Sandhurst Bishop Shane Mackinlay’s advice following the Australian Plenary Council:

‘A synodal Church is one that listens, listens to all the voices in order to listen to the Holy Spirit. It does this in a spirit of prayer grounded in the Liturgy and the Word of God. It’s a way of being Church, the adjective works much better, or an adverb if you like, a way of being Church.’

Our concluding prayer might be that synodal participants across the globe will have the spirit of true pilgrims, at home in being risk takers. May they embrace the wisdom of St John Henry Newman: ‘To grow is to change, and to become perfect is to have changed many times.’