What is fundamental about synodality is that it is grounded in the culture of fellowship (koinonia). Fellowship must never be understood as a form of agreeableness. Rather, it involves a deliberate turn to the Holy Spirit, who invites the church to embark on deep listening and an embrace of the discomfort that arises when different perspectives are held by its members.
The choice to embrace discomfort in the face of difference, and the pneumatological turn to deep listening, allows the church to see clearly the bonds of life that hold its members together—with the risen Christ as the object of their gaze.
A synodal church is always a church on a journey. It embodies the ecclesiological vision found in the “Road to Emmaus” encounter with Jesus and two disciples (Lk. 24:13-35). With the risen Christ at its center, the church discovers its purpose and its identity not by a turn to archival statements. But through its constant orientation to Christ, who makes a home with those at the margins, the church comes to the realization of its own identity—an identity that is always oriented towards otherness.
Because Christ is in solidarity with those at the peripheries, any discovery of who Christ is in the world (and what the church is to embody) must be mediated by the witness of those marginalized people.
Reading Luke’s Gospel narrative closely, one notices this on full display. In Jesus’s time, women were among the inhabitants of the peripheral world. Throughout his ministry, Jesus chose to befriend women and to participate in their hospitality of life. Even the risen Christ continued this bias for women. Women were the first witnesses to the good news of the Resurrection. This statement of faith is the reason for the church’s existence.
The story of the two disciples journeying with the risen Christ to Emmaus begins with recounting the witness of Christ’s female followers. Given the cultural context, it is not surprising that the two male disciples found it difficult to believe the words of women. Too often, the voices of those at the margins tend to be ignored or delegitimized, unless they are backed up by people with socioeconomic, political or ecclesial power. The risen Christ chose not to follow this common praxis of erasing voices. Rather, he chose to embrace a synodal praxis of fellowship. He held in place the statement of the women, while challenging the hegemonic doubt of the two male disciples.
As they journeyed together, embracing the praxis of deep listening in the face of differing perspectives, the nascent church, represented by the two disciples, arrived at its identity in Christ when he broke the bread of life with them. Interestingly, this nascent church understood that its identity as a witness to the truth of the Resurrection called it to share the same good news the women first proclaimed. The Lukan account offers us a glimpse into what synodality is about: a pathway of hope. As the two disciples spoke with the risen Christ about all that had happened to Jesus, they were downcast and without hope. Yet, the account informs us that the women shared the news of hope and aroused them from their depression.
Currently, more than 360 delegates are meeting in Rome to embark on the ecclesiological praxis of synodality, aimed at addressing some pressing issues affecting the church. Though some in the church are openly against this process, a fidelity to the Emmaus story, as it pertains to people on the peripheries, can be a source of hope for the church. LGBTQ people have long inhabited the peripheries in the church. There are two areas that LGBTQ persons can help the church grow in its journey with the risen Christ of Emmaus.
Too often, the church has lost control of its rich and nuanced understanding of life. Research has shown that depression, social stigma and even suicide have greatly affected the lives of many LGBTQ persons around the world. This is the result of cultures of exclusion that shape how society relates to the LGBTQ community. The church has also struggled to articulate a healthy theology of accompaniment for this community.
A holistic embrace of life by the church ought to include these communities. As the Synod members discern together, it is important to ask what the church can learn about God’s gift of resilient life, which its LGBTQ members embody. If synodality is about deep listening and centering the Holy Spirit as the church journeys with Christ, then this question cannot be ignored.
It is true that the church defines marriage as a sacramental union between a man and a woman. However, this understanding does not exclude ecclesial hospitality towards the church’s LGBTQ members. As Pope Francis recently noted: “Pastoral prudence must adequately discern if there are forms of blessing [for same-sex couples], solicited by one or various persons, that don’t transmit a mistaken concept of marriage.”
The pope’s response demonstrates fidelity to a rich vision of life that defines the ministry of Jesus. Jesus went about being a voice of inclusion and second chances for all who had been pushed to the peripheries. If the church is to fully embody its discipleship in Christ, it cannot run away from the presence of its LGBTQ members. When the letter of the law is exclusionary, the spirit of the law, which is itself rooted in a turn to generosity and inclusion, ought not to be ignored. The praxis of epikeia demands that the church seek other ways of celebrating the unions of its LGBTQ members.
One week into the Synod, dissent from some cardinals is already distracting from its focus. Rather than fret, the Synod ought to turn to the Holy Spirit, who gifts the church with the virtues of courage and resiliency. Resiliency, in the face of distraction, is a proper pneumatological response. The Synod has a duty to perform, one that will help to expand the vision and horizon where the church encounters all of God’s people.
To do this well, the Synod ought to take seriously the practice of having an empty chair in the room. This chair is for dissenters and those who currently live at the peripheries of church and society. By engaging all perspectives, the Synod can come to a new awakening and help the church engage the unfolding realities of our time. The wisdom, anxieties, hopes and aspirations of its LGBTQ members ought to also a play a role in this process of discernment.