A message from Father Nick 96

The Synod and the Holy Spirit

Written as a companion-piece to Luke’s gospel, the Acts of the Apostles is a precious document for believers. It has often been called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit and it begins with Jesus’ Ascension to his Father. Before he leaves his friends, he promises to send them his Holy Spirit so that they can be his witnesses “not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to earth’s remotest end.” Their expanding journey will be the story of the Church in place and time.

At this stage, Jesus’ friends – his Church – are a small group joined in prayer: the apostles, some women, “including Mary the mother of Jesus”, and members of his family. When Matthias is elected to replace Judas, there are “about a hundred and twenty people in the congregation” (Acts 1:15). On Pentecost Sunday, we are told, “about three thousand were added to their number”.

We should note the special character of those first believers. They are “united in heart and soul” and they “hold everything in common”. (Even if Luke is painting an idealised picture for us, his choice of emphasis is telling.) It is also telling that these believers are not yet called “Christians”. Rather, Saul, who of course will become St Paul, persecutes them for being “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2). Saul too was on a famous journey, to Damascus, and his future missionary travels will become a symbol of the Church’s bigger journey with the Holy Spirit.

Conversion of St Paul by Caravaggio

So, from the very beginning two great signs have revealed the Holy Spirit at work in our lives: a Christlike kind of SHARING (conveyed in the Greek prefix SYN, meaning with, together); and a willingness to accept our role in the apostles’ mission – to journey in the WAY (Greek ODOS) that Christ has walked for us. Our word SYN-OD, brings those two signs together – we journey with each other by reaffirming our faith and by sharing our most important thoughts about the Church.

For the coming synod we are asked to consider those thoughts under a triple heading: Communion, Participation and Mission, and we are invited to offer our observations and ideas unselfishly. Coming from Pope Francis, this is a genuine request. The significant feature of a synod is its emphasis on consultation.

There should be nothing new in this. It was the way the Church began. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see apostles, “brothers” (and sisters) and “circumcised believers”, discussing the baptism of Cornelius, a gentile convert (Acts 10-11); we see the missionary dynamism of the fledgling Antioch community (Acts 11ff); and we see the Council of Jerusalem, where Peter, James, the apostles, elders and believing members of the Pharisees’ party argue out requirements for gentile followers of Christ (Acts 15).

As the official Synod handbook reminds us,

“In the first millennium, ‘journeying together’ – that is, practising synodality – was the normal way in which the Church, understood as ‘People united in the unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, acted. The Church Fathers counteracted those creating divisions in the ecclesial body, with the insistence on the communion of the churches scattered throughout the world…Within this ecclesial horizon, inspired by the principle of the participation of all in the life of the Church, St John Chrysostom was able to say that ‘Church and Synod are synonymous’.”