During a retreat for participants in the Synod on Synodality assembly this week, delegates were urged to listen to one another and to come together despite “different understandings of the Church.”

“We may be divided by different hopes,” Father Timothy Radcliffe said in a retreat meditation on Oct. 1. “But if we listen to the Lord and to each other, seeking to understand his will for the Church and the world, we shall be united in a hope that transcends all our disagreements.”

Hundreds of synod delegates are meeting in a retreat center in Sacrofano, 20 miles north of Rome, for the three-day retreat ahead of the opening of the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican on Oct. 4.

In the livestreamed retreat meditations, delegates have been urged to embrace their differences, express their doubts, and cast away their fears — whether it is the fear that the synod will dramatically change the Church or the “fear that nothing will change.”

Radcliffe began the first meditation of the retreat on Oct. 1 by saying: “I’m deeply aware of my personal limitations. I’m old, white, western, and a man. And I don’t know which is worse. … All these aspects of my identity limit my understanding, so I ask your forgiveness for the inadequacy of my words.”

He urged the delegates to “journey towards a Church” where people who “do not yet feel at home in the Church” are placed at the center.

“Our lives are nourished by beloved traditions and devotions. If they are lost, we grieve. But also we remember those who do not yet feel at home in the Church: women who feel that they are unrecognized in a patriarchy of old white men like me! People who feel that the Church is too Western, too Latin, too colonial. We must journey towards a Church in which they are no longer at the margin but at the center,” Radcliffe said.

The retreat master spent the first two meditations looking at two “sources of division” in the Catholic Church, which he described as “conflicting hopes and different visions of the Church as home.”

“Different understandings of the Church as home tear us apart today. For some it is defined by its ancient traditions and devotions, its inherited structures and language, the Church we have grown up with and love. It gives us a clear Christian identity. For others, the present Church does not seem to be a safe home. It is experienced as exclusive, marginalizing many people, women: the divorced and remarried. For some it is too Western, too Eurocentric,” he said.

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The retreat master, whose statements on homosexuality have previously sparked controversy, highlighted how the document guiding synod discussions, the Instrumentum Laboris, “mentions also gay people and people in polygamous marriages.” He said: “They long for a renewed Church in which they will feel fully at home, recognized, affirmed, and safe. For some the idea of a universal welcome, in which everyone is accepted regardless of who they are, is felt as destructive of the Church’s identity. … They believe that identity demands boundaries. But for others, it is the very heart of the Church’s identity to be open. Pope Francis said, ‘The Church is called on to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open.’”

Radcliffe described how the 365 voting members have “different hopes” and fears for the three-week assembly on synodality. 

“Some hope that the Church will change dramatically, that we shall take radical decisions, for example about the role of women in the Church. Others are afraid of exactly these same changes and fear that they will only lead to division, even schism,” he said.

“So let us begin by praying that the Lord will free our hearts from fear. For some this is the fear of change and for others the fear that nothing will change. But ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’” he added.

Each day of the synod retreat at the Fraterna Domus retreat center Oct. 1–3 begins with morning prayer and concludes with Mass. Benedictine Mother Ignazia Angelini offers two daily meditations, as does Radcliffe, with the afternoons set aside for “group meetings for conversation in the Spirit.” 

Australian Bishop Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay gave the homily for the Mass on Oct. 2 and Canadian Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme–Mont-Laurier preached at the Oct. 1 Mass.

“The world is in need to see a Church thriving to be faithful to unity. Therefore, the search for unity must be put into practice on a daily basis,” Poisson said in his homily.

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“The synod we are undertaking is like a school in which we learn to listen to one another … Let us be a Church with open arms like those of her Lord on the cross and let us become true witnesses of God’s love for the world.”

Radcliffe also underlined the need for unity in his meditations on the second day of the retreat, urging participants to “leap across the boundaries, not just of left and right, or cultural boundaries, but generational boundaries, too.”

The 78-year-old British priest reflected: “Many religious and priests of my generation grew up in strongly Catholic families. The faith deeply penetrated our everyday lives. The adventure of the Second Vatican Council was in reaching out to the secular world. French priests went to work in factories. We took off the habit and immersed ourselves in the world. One angry sister, seeing me wearing my habit, exploded: ‘Why are you still wearing that old thing?’”

“Today many young people — especially in the West but increasingly everywhere — grow up in a secular world, agnostic or even atheistic. Their adventure is the discovery of the Gospel, the Church, and the tradition. They joyfully put on the habit. Our journeys are contrary, but not contradictory. Like Jesus I must walk with them, and learn what excites their hearts,” he added.

He encouraged synod delegates to befriend one another and to openly “share their worries and doubts.”

“The foundation of all that we shall do in this synod should be the friendships we create. It does not look [like] much. It will not make headlines in the media. ‘They came all the way to Rome to make friendships! What a waste!’ But it is by friendship that we shall make the transition from ‘I’ to ‘we.’ Without it, we shall achieve nothing,” he said.

Radcliffe commented a few times on how he expects the media will interpret the synod. He said: “During our synodal journey, we may worry whether we are achieving anything. The media will probably decide that it was all a waste of time, just words. They will look for whether bold decisions are made on about four or five hot-button topics. But the disciples on that first synod, walking to Jerusalem, did not appear to achieve anything.”

The priest described the synod retreat as an experience like the Gospel experience of the Transfiguration, which he called “the retreat Jesus gives to his closest disciples before they embark on the first synod in the life of the Church when they walk together (syn-hodos) to Jerusalem.”

He said that the hope that the disciples glimpsed on the mountain in the transfigured Lord “makes the conflict between our hopes seem minor, almost absurd.”

“If we are truly on the way to the kingdom, does it really matter whether you align yourselves with so-called traditionalists or progressives?” he added.

“Let us ask the Lord to give us hope, too: the hope that this synod will lead to a renewal of the Church and not division; the hope that we shall draw closer to each as brothers and sisters,” he said.