Peace, Participation, and Passing the Assisi Test: The Synod’s Theory of Change

By: Maryann Cusimano Love

October 25, 2023

Synod of Encounter? Addressing Divisions in the Global Catholic Church

Saint Francis of Assisi is attending the Synod on Synodality, and he has a test for us. Those who are surprised by the Synod have not been paying attention. Pope Francis has been very clear from the beginning of his papacy that following Jesus’ and St. Francis of Assisi’s call for a culture of encounter and dialogue, within the Church and around the world, is his just peace plan and the key contribution of his papacy.

This key theme of his pontificate has been central since day one. When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected the successor to St. Peter over 10 years ago, he told the world that he chose the name Pope Francis to model his papacy on St. Francis of Assisi—who helped the poor, the planet, and peace—through building pastoral relationships via dialogue and encounters with people and creation. St. Francis answered God’s call to “rebuild my church.” He discerned that this meant restoring and building up the relationships and people who make up the Church, rather than the external walls.

Over 800 years ago, St. Francis recounted how he was tested by God. He encountered a leper and experienced revulsion at the sight and smell of him. Yet he moved beyond his fear, separation from, and disgust with the marginalized other, and he embraced and kissed the leper. Soon after, St. Francis looked around and he could no longer see the leper. Francis believed it was Jesus whom he had encountered, whom he had just kissed. Both Francis and the leper were transformed and led into deeper ongoing relationships. This was not a “one off” encounter. Franciscan ministries extended to lepers, to others whom society rejects, to creation. As St. Francis noted, “When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”

This “Assisi test” also extended to people from other faiths and identities. While others were fighting the Crusades, St. Francis literally cast off his armor and went to talk with, not fight, the Islamic leader in Egypt, Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. In the encyclical Fratelli Tutti (FT), Pope Francis notes that the incident showed St. Francis’ “openness of heart, which knew no bounds and transcended differences of origin, nationality, colour or religion…Francis was able to welcome true peace into his heart and free himself of the desire to wield power over others. He became one of the poor and sought to live in harmony with all. Francis has inspired these pages” (FT, 3, 4).

The Synod continues the Church’s movement toward just peace. In my research, I find the following principles and practices of just peace: inclusive participation, restoration, respectful right relationship, reconciliation, and truth telling, to build a more sustainable peace. The Synod puts all these just peace principles into practice, modeling just peace at a time when the warring world needs the example. We have more people and more countries on the planet than ever before, thus we need greater cooperation than ever before. We face global existential threats, from climate change to nuclear weapons. The world and the Church are changing rapidly, as the population declines in the wealthy global north and surges in the poorer global south. Yet, by many metrics, the world is failing the Assisi test. Wars rage in Gaza, Ukraine, and Ethiopia. And democracy is threatened, even in the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, the United States. We need the Synod’s model of journeying together with our differences, praying and working together, and not demonizing the other. We need to pass the Assisi test to improve our communion and participation, in order to fulfill our mission of love and build a more just peace.

Pope Francis consistently follows this just peace through line. The outlines of the current synod are clear in Pope Francis’ very first apostolic exhortation issued a few months after he became pope. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis laid out his just peace plan for the Church and for the world. In sum, he urges dialogue, dialogue, dialogue—within society and the church, among states, with other faiths, with reason and science—to build a people of peace through reconciliation. Peacebuilding is people building and relationship building, Pope Francis tells us, and every person is called to be a peacemaker. Inequality and exclusion breed conflict, so inclusive dialogue and encounter are paths to peace, allowing us to break through differences to meet Jesus through and in each other. “How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us… Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.”

Encounter and dialogue are not “politically correct” exercises at the margins; they are the other-shaped openings through which God enters in and transforms us. The encyclicals which followed continue these themes; they invoke, and are named after, the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Laudato Si!” and “Fratelli Tutti.”

Pope Francis released Fratelli Tutti on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. In case anyone should miss the point, he also traveled to the city of Assisi. There he signed the encyclical on the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi after saying Mass in the crypt church of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi with members of the Franciscan orders who are followers of St. Francis of Assisi, while reminding the world that he took the name of Francis in order to follow the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who served the poor, the planet, and peace, engaging the other even during dangerous conflicts.

On the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 2023, Pope Francis issued an urgent call to environmental action, Laudato Deum, a follow-up to his previous encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, in which he reminds us of our interdependence with creation and each other. “No one is saved alone.”

The Synod on Synodality likewise opened on October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, opening the Assisi test for us all.

The theory of change is Jesus’. Creating a culture of encounter—of loving, honest dialogue through differences and common action toward the common good across identities—will create more sustainable social peace, bringing us closer to God and each other. This respectful engagement yields “reciprocal gifts,” “a fruitful exchange,” and “a better kind of politics,” based on more inclusive love that integrates and unites. Pope Francis urges not mere “tolerance” of differences, but embracing the other through expanded encounter and long-term participation among people from different backgrounds and identities, including those previously marginalized. He also praises the peacebuilding work of the Church around the world (FT, 214).

Pope Francis’ theory of change is plain in his encyclicals, in his name, and in the Synod process. Pope Francis routinely says that he does not want bishops, priests, and clerics who behave like little princes. He wants the Church to be made up of practical pastors who know and “smell like the sheep.” The Synod’s inclusion of women, lay people, young people, and Church critics ensures that Church pastors get to know their sheep.

Reforming and rebuilding the Church is an inside job, not dependent on changing externals, but changing our hearts and perspectives from the inside out. Through loving encounters with those with whom we differ, we encounter God and move closer to building peaceful relationships, building his community here on earth.

At the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis is offering us all the gift of the Assisi test. Can we get over ourselves, truly encounter and dialogue with the other, and through these deepened relationships, meet God and rebuild his Church?

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