Archbishop’s sermon at Synod launch




17 OCTOBER 2021

In today’s Gospel1, Jesus responds to James and John’s request for him to do them a favour by asking, what is it you want me to do for you? As we know, they gave a “bad” answer by asking for one to sit on his left, and one to sit on his right, when Jesus enters his glory. It was a response that was motivated by very human emotions – the desire for status and the desire for power. We are grateful to them for their question because it gave Jesus the opportunity to describe true discipleship. It is not about “lording it over others” or exerting one’s authority. It is about drinking the chalice Jesus is to drink. The other disciples, on hearing what the two brothers were asking for, displayed another very human emotion – indignation. Jesus goes on with his teaching on discipleship – it is about being the servant of others, placing oneself last and to drink the chalice of suffering. 

As we embark on this process preceding the 2023 Universal synod on synodality in the Church, it is essential that we have in both mind and heart this teaching of Jesus on true discipleship. The synod is a process of listening, of being open to hearing from the faith and experience of others. It is not about any one person or group attempting to lobby or promote their own ideologies or even ideas. It is the opportunity, at this moment of history, at this time of the kairos, that is, the appropriate time, to together pray, reflect and seek how we can become better and more sincere disciples of Jesus Christ. It is a time when, together as believers, we wish to be transformed into the Church which Christ wishes us to be, that we can indeed be the “moon” reflecting the sun2, the lamp reflecting the one true light3 who is God and Creator of all. Thus, we should all strive to be part of this process, to take it seriously for we are all a “living stone” of the Church4, the Body of Christ. The Holy Father mentions three possible dangers, or temptations5. Firstly, there is a danger of formalism which is really going through the process only to create an image of doing something while it is merely a facade. The second is intellectualism, very often ideologically driven and is an abstraction rather than a humble reflection of “the signs of the times” in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Thirdly, there is complacency – why should we change? Things have always been done like this? This last danger is one that negates the fact that times and circumstances change and it is the responsibility of our mission, as Church, to preach the one true message of salvation in ways that respond the questions and experiences of those to whom we witness.

The purpose of this time, as Pope Francis has stated, is not to collect different opinions. It is a time of searching and seeking God’s will through the Holy Spirit who was sent to God’s people after the Ascension of Jesus. We need to be still, to listen carefully for the guidance and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, for God’s Word comes to us not in a mighty wind or an earthquake, but like a gentle breeze6. We listen for the voice of the Lord through prayer, through contemplation, renewing our lives in the Sacraments, giving time to be silent before the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. It is an opportune time to renew and deepen our prayer life, to make an extra effort to be present at Holy Hours and benediction, to spend time in family prayer. Without prayer and an openness to the Holy Spirit, this time of synod cannot be successful. The focus is not on our human desires, as it was with James and John in today’s Gospel; rather the focus of our lives and the synod process is on the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, faithfully and sincerely seeking his will.

We will also listen for the voice and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit by listening quietly to others, for God’s Spirit comes to us through the experiences, the joys and struggles, the questions and insights that others have. While we will have the opportunity to speak it is more important to listen humbly to others, putting aside judgement and condemnation.

There are three main legs (potjies) to this synod cooking pot. The first is communion – communion with God in prayer, which I have already spoken about, and communion with each other. Human emotions and passions can divide and cause dissension among people – as we heard in the Gospel – and it is incumbent on every member of God’s family to preserve, enhance and establish the unity of all parts of the Body of Christ. It is a sacred duty that we have and especially urgent at this time of worldwide social media that can serve the needs of people and yet, very often, is used to divide, to poison relationships, to condemn and to instil fear. We must remember our Christianity and our call to discipleship as we endeavour to unite God’s family, and to avoid polarization through harshness of language and entrenchment of position.

The third “leg” of the synod is mission. Through baptism, each and every one of us shares in the mission of the Church to proclaim Christ to the world – Christ crucified and Christ risen. We have the mission to spread the Kingdom of God, working in this finite and imperfect world to promote that Kingdom of belonging, unity, love, peace, justice and joy. Knowing that this world can never be our “true home” and that we are only pilgrims in the journey of this life, it is nonetheless incumbent on us to be Christ’s instruments in transforming the world and calling creation back to its true purpose and its original innocence.

The second “leg”, participation, is what unites the other two. True Communion with God and with our neighbour, finds fulfilment in mission as we seek the good of others. Similarly, true mission includes preserving and creating communion among believers. Where there is division God’s Kingdom is compromised. To achieve both requires our participation, our insertion into everyday events of life with the aim of living our lives for Christ, so that it is no longer we that live but Christ who lives within us7. The communion of the Church is weakened and the Church’s mission to the world is weakened when even one of God’s faithful does not participate in communion and in mission. Each and every one is needed. It is true, too, for this process of the synod, that we all make use of opportunities to participate, and to do so not as those who would “lord it over others”, but as humble and obedient servants seeking the good of the Church and willing to listen and understand.

+Stephen Brislin

Archbishop of Cape Town

1 Mark 10:35-45

2 cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #748

3 cf. John 1:18

4 1 Peter 2:4-5

5 For this and what follows:

6 1 Kings 19:10-13

7 cf. Galatians 2:20

Posted in Bishops' Synod.