December 15, 2023

Priest says change in Church from synod rooted in ‘transformative friendship’

Karla Hudacek, pastoral associate and director of religious education at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis, speaks on Dec. 6 with Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis after the priest gave a presentation on the recent meeting of the Synod of Bishops on synodality. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Karla Hudacek, pastoral associate and director of religious education at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis, speaks on Dec. 6 with Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis after the priest gave a presentation on the recent meeting of the Synod of Bishops on synodality. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Reflecting on the first assembly of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on synodality, Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe pondered whether or not it will bring about change in the Church.

“Some people came with the hope that it would bring dramatic change to the life of the Church,” said Father Timothy during a Dec. 6 presentation at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. “Other people hoped it would exactly change nothing.”

Father Timothy, an English priest appointed by Pope Francis as spiritual adviser of the synod, which met at the Vatican from Oct. 4-29, was in Indianapolis while touring various cities in the U.S. to speak about the meeting. (Related: Watch a video of his presentation)

“According to the media, the press, … no big decisions were taken. It was dismissed as a failure, a flop,” he said to an audience of about 100. “But Pope Francis always insisted that it’s the Holy Spirit that is the protagonist of change. That’s quite a different understanding of change.”

From this perspective, Father Timothy asserted, the synod will change the Church “through transformative friendship” that “will leave people completely changed.”

“Any change in the structures of the Church for which we hope, for which we long,” he said, “any of these will derive because we’ve become different sorts of people, a different sort of community, a community of the friends of God.”

‘Transformative friendship’

Such “transformative friendship” at the synod is ultimately rooted, Father Timothy said, “in the divine friendship, which is the very life of God: Father, Son and Spirit.”

“Pope Benedict often said our religion, Christianity, is not a religion of the book,” he said. “It is a religion of encounter, transformative encounter.”

To further such encounters, Father Timothy said, the synod meeting did not meet like past synods, in an auditorium centered around the pope, cardinals and bishops.

Rather, the participants—ordained, religious and lay Catholics—sat at round tables where they listened to and looked at each other.

“You could see faces being changed, people learning to smile at each other,” Father Timothy said. “Christianity is a religion of the face. A lot of what was happening at the synod, at this first stage, was learning to see each other’s faces, learning to befriend them.”

In reflecting on the work of the Holy Spirit in the synod meeting, Father Timothy recalled how, when he ministered in Rome as the general of the Order of Preachers, he watched a nest of hawks outside his office where the mother and father hawks urged their nestlings to fly out of the nest.

“Fly or die,” Father Timothy said. “That’s what the Holy Spirit does. It propels us out of where we are comfortable. A similar thing happened at the synod, and its consequences are potentially enormous.”

‘Citizens of the kingdom of God’

Part of going beyond “comfort zones” in the synod, Father Timothy said, was its participants seeing value in the priorities and experiences of fellow participants from different countries and cultures.

This, he said, is especially important in contemporary society marked by a growing “militant nationalism all breathing to war” that “often goes with fundamentalist forms of religion.”

“But in the synod, we began to glimpse how we are called to be more than citizens of our country,” Father Timothy said. “We are baptized to be citizens of the kingdom of God. Vastly more significant than any identity we may have as citizens of any country is that we are citizens of the kingdom [in] which, as St. Paul said, there is neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, male, nor female.”

While the Holy Spirit takes believers beyond the comfort zones of their countries and cultures, Father Timothy said that it also binds people of great diversity into the truth.

“The Spirit leads us into all truth,” he said. “On the night before he died, Jesus promised the Spirit, the Spirit of truth. Human beings live by the truth. We need it to thrive. Birds need air. Fish need water. Human beings need truth. Without it, we perish. And we live in a society in which … the instinct for the truth is being undermined.

“Detachment for the truth is subversive of the human community, as we can see all over the world. It leads to polarization, violent language and conflict, here in the United States, at home in Britain and everywhere in the world. This detachment from reality is fundamentally dangerous.”

‘The hardest lesson of all’

Looking forward to the concluding meeting of the Synod of Bishops on synodality in October 2024, Father Timothy said that it needs to go beyond the “conversations in the Spirit” that marked the first meeting.

“To go further, we need theologians to help our dialogue with each other, our dialogue with the Gospel, our dialogue with the [Church’s] tradition,” he noted.

In particular, Father Timothy said, the synod needs the kind of theology that he said Pope Francis promoted in a motu proprio he issued on Nov. 1, “Ad theologiam promovendam.”

“We must move toward a theology of dialogue, a theology of conversation, a theology in which we engage with others with different views with whom we disagree,” he said. “That’s what we need in the synod. That’s what we need in the Church. And that’s what we need for every one of you.

“We need to dialogue with people who are different, to release us from our little bubbles so that we may journey toward the truth together. We must be unafraid of argument. I think we only took the initial steps towards that in this first session of the synod.”

A challenge in moving the synod and Church as a whole toward this kind of dialogue and change, Father Timothy said, is “to bring on board the priests.”

“If we do not do so, the synodal path will get us nowhere,” he said. “It was remarked that the priests around the world—I don’t think in this archdiocese—but around the world the priests have been those most resistant to the synodal path.

“I think that if we are to move forward, we have to find ways of cherishing the priesthood, of accepting it and seeing its beauty in a good way, of seeing how people are ordained to be ordered to the people of God.”

Looking more broadly, Father Timothy also saw a challenge in the way that competition marks so much of contemporary culture.

“How do we become a non-rivalrous people,” he wondered. “It’s the hardest lesson of all.”

This aspect of society has an effect on the Church, Father Timothy said.

“I think for us the great art is how we learn to live without competition with each other,” he said. “Because essentially, more authority, more voice for the laity does not mean less authority for the priests. More authority for priests does not mean less authority for bishops.

“If we learn to live together well in the Holy Spirit, poured upon us by the Father, then we will become less and less competitive and mutually empowering.”

Accepting the ‘ministry of unity’

During a question-and-answer session after his presentation, Father Timothy was asked whether the way issues in the Church were being discussed at the synod might lead to a devaluing of obedience and a corresponding growth in the influence of relativism in the life of the Church.

Noting that this was “a concern that was widely shared” at the synod, Father Timothy noted that it can be overcome by fostering unity in the Church.

“We have to be held in the unity of the Church as we seek,” he said. “And the bishop, according to the teaching of the Church, is the minister of unity, holding us together. So, one way in which we respect and honor the bishop—at the local level, our priest, at the level of the whole Church, the pope—is by accepting that ministry of unity.”

Father Timothy emphasized that the dialogue about the Church at the synod “can’t drift into relativism.”

“There is one truth,” he said. “But it’s beyond the grasp of all of us. You see, the temptation of some people is to say, ‘There’s one truth and I’ve got it.’ The opposite temptation is to say, ‘I’ve got my truth, and you’ve got your truth.’ Those, I think, both lead us astray.

“The middle way, which I think is the healthy way, is that of course of

St. Thomas Aquinas, who taught us that there are truths that we know, such as God is good and God is true, the truths of the teaching of the Church. But what they mean—we’re always on the way of understanding.”

‘Deeply eucharistic all the way through’

Another questioner asked Father Timothy about the synod meeting on synodality happening at the same time that the Church in the U.S. is taking part in a three-year National Eucharistic Revival, for which the archdiocese is preparing to host the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July 2024.

Father Timothy noted how the October synod meeting “was profoundly prayerful.”

“It was filled with silence,” he said. “After every four or five interventions, we’d have four minutes of silence, four minutes of prayer. And so, you could say—and the pope said this many times—the whole event was eucharistic.”

Father Timothy recalled a trip he made to Rwanda in 1993 when tribal violence began taking its toll on the eastern African country that would soon descend into genocide.

After visiting a hospital filled with children who were victims of this violence, Father Timothy said he “couldn’t think of anything to say.”

While he was “robbed of all words” by the violence swirling around him in Rwanda, Father Timothy knew he could do something, “do this in memory of me.”

“Then I think I understood, in a way, the Eucharist a little bit better than I’d ever done before,” he recalled. “Do this in memory of me.

“It took us back to that last crisis [for Jesus and his disciples], the last night, when there was no future, apparently. All that lay ahead was betrayal, torture, failure, and death. And at that moment, he performed ... an act of radical hope. This is my body, and I give it to you. This is me. I give myself to you.

“Ever since then, every Eucharist for me is an expression of radical, immeasurable hope. When there seems to be no future, when things seem to be going nowhere, at that moment we celebrate the Eucharist, and that gift of the future we cannot imagine.”

Although the participants in the synod came to the meeting with vastly differing hopes and expectations, Father Timothy said, they were united in the Eucharist.

“Which is always beyond what all of us can imagine,” he said. “It’s beyond all that we could dream. So, for me, that’s why every synod is profoundly and deeply eucharistic all the way through.”

(To watch a video of Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe’s presentation on the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on synodality, visit

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