Homily of Bishop Ness Ongtioco for the Opening of the Synodal Consultation (Diocesan Phase)

October 2, 2021

We are gathered here today to formally launch, in our very own diocese, this important first phase in what is undoubtedly going to be one of the most significant events in the current history of our Church: the 2023 Synod of Bishops.

Allow me, first of all, to thank Fr. Omer Prieto, our priest-in-charge of the diocesan-wide consultation process, as well as all the members of his team. To them has been given the formidable task of making all the necessary preparations for the initial stage of a global endeavor by the universal Church.

It is, of course, an effort by the People of God to become ever more receptive to the needs and longings of those who belong to the Church itself as well as the wider human family.

As Fr. Omer and his team begin their work, let us ask the Lord to bless all of us as we, a community united in the Lord, inaugurate this important stage which will undoubtedly benefit not only the Diocese of Cubao but the universal Church itself.

The purpose of this Synod = the preparatory document tells us – “is not to produce more documents.” Our focus must be on people, not paper. And so, the goal is to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be.”

The point is “to make people’s hope flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships” with one another.

By doing so, we can “learn from one another, build bridges, enlighten minds, warm hearts, and (finally) restore strength to our hands for our common mission” as a Church.

This diocesan phase we’re launching today will run from October 2021 to April 2022. “Listening” and “consultation is important watchwords.

In the handbook or vademecum, that was given to guide this stage of the process, bishops and those helping them, have been provided with the tools necessary to truly listen and consult Catholics a well as the wider community – with particular attention to those at the margins of society – both Christians and non-Christian alike.

The handbook contains a number of questions meant to promote and inspire deep reflection as well as gather input from as many people as possible. These questions fall under ten general themes which aim to enable people to address what is most pertinent to their situation.

The goal is for them to “share with honesty and openness about their real-life experiences, and to reflect together on what the Holy Spirit might be revealing through what they share with one another.”

The questions are very practical and down-to-earth. Let me introduce you to just a few of them: “To whom does our particular church ‘need to listen to’ and ‘how are the laity, especially young people and women, listened to? What space is there for the voice of minorities, the discarded, and the excluded? How do we listen to the social and cultural context in which we live?”

But the basic and most fundamental question that guides the whole process is: “How does this ‘journeying together,’ which takes place today on different levels – from the local level to the universal one—allow the church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal church?”

The synod’s success (or failure) will depend on the magnitude of our trust and reliance on the Holy Spirit, as well as our ability to involve the entire people of God so that they can really come together and find common ground.

As such, genuine dialogue, conversation, and communal discernment are absolutely vital if we are to arrive at an authentic consensus that is rooted in harmony rather than in the simple casting of votes at the end of the synodal process.

Sincere and earnest dialogue – which involves a constant and consistent pattern of listening and speaking, speaking and listening – as well as true receptivity to the promptings of the Holy Spirit: these are the core ingredients to our effort. It is these that will allow us to truly encounter one another, listen to our faith tradition and be genuinely cognizant of “the signs of the times in order to discern what God is saying” to all of us.

Because of this widespread participation is an important part of the diocesan process. And no one should be excluded. We must therefore “reach out” to the peripheries, to those who have left the church, those who rarely or never practice their faith, those who experience poverty or marginalization, those who are refugees, the excluded, the voiceless, etc.”    

In relation to all this, our Gospel reading today speaks of two things that can hopefully serve to strengthen our resolve as we begin our consultation, inspire us to participate in it fully, and move us to generously give our energy and effort to this process.

What are these two things? First is fidelity to the commitments we make, and the second is the need to cultivate a “child-like” disposition.

As Jesus was preaching to the people, He told them to let the children come to Him and not prevent them, for it is to them that the kingdom of God belongs. What was it that Jesus wanted His disciples to see?

Children have a different way of looking at things and people. We grown-ups – we see people in terms of their looks or beauty, their educational attainment and socio-economic standing and achievements, their popularity and influence.

Children? Their sight is far more simple, innocent even. Have you ever gazed into the eyes of a child, especially very young ones? Try doing that sometime; you’ll notice something. Their eyes are fresh, their vision is unsullied, their gaze is clear, without blinders. They’re not like our eyes.

Children see people, things, and even life, in far simpler terms. People to them are just that – people: friendly people they simply want to relate to without labels, without categories, without classifications – all the things the world uses as standards for judgment.

A smile is just a smile for a child, a welcoming gesture. It’s no longer that simple for us adults. A smile can mean so many complicated things for us. It’s as if we lost something as we grow up, something important, something Jesus wanted His disciples to recapture, something He wants us to recapture.

Let the children come to me,” He says. “Do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

As we proceed with our consultation process, we need to commit ourselves, not just to the work that is before us, but to the need to regain and maintain that child-like disposition that Jesus enjoins upon His disciples, and us, in the Gospel.

But above all, we need to pray and pray earnestly. We must ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide us, to give us the disposition to always be open and allow others to truly express their feelings, ideas, experiences, hurts, wounds, and dreams.

And we must – like children – learn to accept people just as they are, without biases, without labels, without judgments. This means that we must listen, not just with our ears, but with our hearts.

Patience, thus, is an absolute must in our synodal journey: patience with the process, patience with one another, patience with ourselves, and yes, even patience with the Lord whose pace is not ours, and whose ways are different from our own.

Make no mistake about it: there will be moments of tiredness, of fatigue, of impatience; even moments when we might be tempted to surrender and simply close our minds and hearts. That is but human.

And yet we work, not with the power of human minds, hearts, but with this power and inspiration of the Spirit of God who does what He wills, in the way that He wills, in the name and pace that is totally His own.

And so we must be ready to be surprised. Because He will surprise us – with challenges, detours, even seeming dead-ends at times. Yet in the end, the Spirit of the Lord will always be there with us. He will never leave us alone on our journey. And He will prevail. He will succeed. He will bring the work He has begun in and through us, to completion.

This whole synodal process, after all, is God’s work. It isn’t ours. We merely share in it. And what an amazing gift and opportunity that is: to share in a work that is larger than all of us. It is the Lord’s work: it is the Church’s work – and because of that, it also becomes our work.

Let us, therefore, ask, in this Mass, that the Lord may truly use all of us as channels of His grace, His wisdom, and His life. Let us ask Him to make us instruments for the building of a better world, a more vibrant Church, a more welcoming community that we may share in His creative work and become builders, constructing not barriers and walls, but bridges and pathways, of love, prosperity, happiness, and peace.

As your bishop, your shepherd, and your father, I pray that all of you will participate and cooperate in the consultation process we are inaugurating today. And I encourage you to generously give your time, talent, energy, and effort in order that the preparation of our diocese for the coming 2023 synod may truly be a successful, fruitful, and blessed one.

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