By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Cardinal Mario Grech, the General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, has addressed a letter to the men and women called to the monastic and contemplative life, as the Church begins its journey in a synodal process that opens in local Churches in October 2021 and concludes with the celebration of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023.
In his letter, the Cardinal recalls that Pope Francis has often reminded the entire Church of the need to walk together on a synodal journey, which involves “every level of the Church’s life” because “it is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.”
“On the threshold of this decisive step for the Church of our time,” the Cardinal said, “I turn to you, dear brothers and sister, with your precious vocation that enriches the entire ecclesial community, because you are custodians and witnesses of a fundamental reality for the synodal process that our Holy Father invites us to realize.”
Cardinal Grech held up three words that are central to monastic and contemplative life, which the monks and nuns safeguard in the life of the Church: listening, conversion and communion.
The experience of listening, Cardinal Grech notes, “has always been central to monastic and contemplative life, so much so that often monastic rules from different traditions are collections of Biblical and Gospel expressions, affirming that monastic and contemplative life is an ‘incarnation’ of the Word of God that has been listened to, meditated upon, and interiorized.”
More so, Pope Francis affirms that “a synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing'.”
Listening, he continues, permeates the lives of contemplative men and women, “from the listening to the Word of God in the Sacred Scriptures” to listening to their “brothers and sisters in community, as well as the men and women of our time.” In fact, the “Rule of St. Benedict”, the father of western monasticism, begins with the words: “Listen carefully, my son!”
To listen, therefore, beyond physical hearing, “is to learn,” Cardinal Grech says, because the lives of contemplative men and women “is a gymnasium” in which diligent listening to Scripture educates one in “profound listening to oneself, others and God.” This is visible in the hospitality that is common in monastic and contemplative communities, which is an experience of welcome that has its source in Scripture, the lectio divina, and other spiritual approaches to the Word of God.
“A true synodal journey cannot disregard our willingness to be converted by our listening to the Word of God and by the Holy Spirit present in our lives,” the Cardinal stresses.
On this, Pope Francis also underlines that journeying together is “an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.”
Cardinal Grech notes that monastic and contemplative life reminds the Church that the invitation to conversion was at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation as he went through the villages of Galilee (Mt 4:17). In this regard, baptism – the fundamental vocation for all the Lord’s disciples – “is the first conversion worked by the Holy Spirit within our hearts” to which Christian life must remain open, in a journey of conversion to God and his Word.
Furthermore, true listening requires reciprocal conversion that invites us to leave our insecurities behind in order to enter into “the difficult but indispensable terrain of dialogue.”
Drawing from the model of monastic and contemplative life, he notes that in the experience of community life, in which synodality is a fundamental element, they know the “beauty” of walking together, as well as the “inevitable difficulties and possible wounds.”
It is for this reason, Cardinal Grech says, that the Holy Father suggests monastic and contemplative communities as “experts” in the dignity of conversion in both its positive and difficult aspects – aspects that should not discourage, but should rather be “lived in a true spirit of faith and hope.”
“The goal of listening and conversion is communion,” he affirmed, touching on the third theme of which monastic and contemplative communities are custodians. In these communities, “communion is the ultimate criterion for discernment by which the synodal journey is verified.”
In this regard, Pope Francis insists, even in reference to his service as the Bishop of Rome, that the Synod in its actions “is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity.”
Recalling the story of the two Emmaus wayfarers in Luke 24:13-35, Cardinal Grech highlights the “ecclesial verification” at the center of the story when they returned to Jerusalem and found the eleven, and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” (Lk 24.33-34).
“Ecclesial communion is discernment's true seal, confirming the synodal journey,” he affirms. Through communitarian life, he adds, monastic communities “testify to the truthfulness of this affirmation that we harvest from the Emmaus story” as they also experience how much communion – which is not the same as uniformity – “is effectively the verifying criterion of an authentic, shared journey in faith.”
The importance of prayer
The Cardinal goes on to seize the opportunity to highlight the importance of prayer, which “belongs to the deepest chords” of the vocation of monastic and contemplative men and women, and is profoundly linked to the three themes of listening, conversion and communion.
He asks the communities to “pray for the Synod” as the synodal process opens in October, because “if the synodal path is not, above all, an ecclesial journey of love to the Father.” Prayer, he continues, “is the dynamic encounter of love in the Trinitarian God, in the pluriform unity that urges us on to be living witnesses of this love.”
Pointing to monastic communities, the Cardinal notes that there is a ministry of praise and prayer of which they are a living sign in the Church. “You have the task within the community of carrying out the ministry of prayer, intercession, and blessing,” he says.
He further urges the communities “not to pray in the place of other brothers and sisters” at this phase of the synodal process but rather “to keep everyone’s attention on the spiritual dimension of the journey we are undertaking, to know how to discern the action of God in the life the universal Church and of each local Church.”
“You are for everyone, as were the Levites and the priests in the Psalm, “ministers of prayer” who, through praise and intercession, remind everyone that without communion with God there can be no communion among ourselves,” he says.
Finally, Cardinal Grech urges the men and women of monastic and contemplative communities to be custodians of the “deep breath of prayer” as the Church undertakes the synodal process.
He says their contribution in the various stages of the journey will surely not lack in other aspects, but will help the Church, even if only by their presence, to be a Church “which listens to the Word, capable of permitting the Spirit to convert her heart, persevering in the communal life […] and the prayers.”