God is no Rubik's Cube

Listening to others’ opinions is vital in redefining the Church and our relationship with God, said Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ in Australia.

 SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD 

Fr Orobator at Faber House in Melbourne, during his visit to Australia for a series of public forums in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Photo: Janark Gray.

Who is God? We always begin Mass with the sign of the cross. We name God as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three is a number, but God isn’t a number. Many books have been written to explain what Trinity means, but God isn’t a problem to be solved. God isn’t like a Rubik’s Cube. 

God’s love is life-giving: God’s love transforms us; God’s love calls us to holiness – and more. Imagine the many ways that parents show their love for their children – when a child is sick, afraid, confused, sad, alone, hurt, angry. Parents are able to be everything to their children and more, in a life-giving relationship, a loving relationship and a supportive relationship. God’s relationship to us is like that of a parent: it’s self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-emptying for our sake.? 

The relevance of the Synod: From the experience I’ve had of the Synod, it is important for us to recognise precisely what it means today, in the community called Church, to be faithful and to realise that it comes with responsibility. Sadly, however, it’s not been possible for many in our wider community, because of the way the structures have worked.   

The opening morning of the 2023 Synod on Synodality in Rome. Photo: Jesuit Media

The Synod on Synodality: This is done from a place of prayer, from a place of contemplation, from a place of “interiority”. It’s not simply about coming together to have an academic or intellectual debate, but about having a significant spiritual moment in which everyone participates. It was quite striking that we began the Synod (in early October 2023) with three days of retreat, which is quite unprecedented. The retreat took place in Sacrofano, about 30km north of Rome, and this integration of prayer and listening and dialogue is what makes the Church become more prayerful, humble and listening.  

The synodal process: In 2023, Pope Francis issued his new apostolic letter, Ad Theologiam Promovendam – To Promote Theology, a 1500-word letter, divided into 10 articles. I was struck by the way he understood and presented the vocation of a theologian, as well as what theology should represent for the Church and for society. He pointed out that we should take our context seriously.   

In one sense it meant that when we engage in theology, we should not simply be about obstructions or theoretical propositions and certainly not simply about closing ourselves into ideologically exclusive situations. It should be about how we encounter others and recognising that together we form a community, in a way that we maintain what I call an “open circle” that allows us to continue to engage with one another. 

Recognising everyday realities: The other thing the Pope pointed out that I think is really interesting is that when we engage in theology, we allow ourselves to be drawn towards existential frontiers, or being attentive and engaging with the realities that are defining people’s lives – and our own lives, of course. 

Exploring new paths: Moving forward in a meaningful way is about allowing ourselves to imagine new ways of proceeding, of doing, so that we are not stuck in the familiar, the tried and the tested. The call is to be innovative and to explore new paths, to enter into a process of discerning what our hearts are suggesting, as people of faith and as theologians.  

The true vantage point: Pope Francis invites us to learn to read our situation from the vantage point of the Gospel and in doing so, to understand the situations in which people live – geographical, social and cultural environments. He calls these environments the three turnings. The one thing he didn’t mention, which I think is vital, is the synodal turn. The Pope has also invited us to take the synodal turn and I think this is important. It is a call to be more contextual in our approach to theology. 

The power of listening: This invitation to pay attention to context, to engage in the tripartite turning – to which I added a fourth, the synodal turn – is an invitation to listen. The Synod itself is about mutual listening, where the Pope says everyone has something to learn. Interestingly, he doesn’t say everyone has something to say, but something to learn. It is all about listening to one another as well as listening to the Holy Spirit. Listening becomes an ecclesial moment, an ecclesial process, that we all engage in. 

Celestial light rays at the closing Mass of the 2023 Synod on Synodality. Image: Jesuit Media.

Then and now: The way in which the Synod is designed actually tells us about what we want our Church community to be. I was going through some images of previous synods since the Second Vatican Council and you can almost tell the evolution by looking at the old images. You look at the iconic, classic photos of Vatican 2 and you see rows and rows of bishops arranged on either side of the basilica. In images of subsequent synods, you see them arranged according to seniority. But then you come to the Synod on Synodality last October and it’s a completely different look, where you have small circles of people in prayer, in conversation.  

We all have a role: Last October, there was what I call an open access configuration of the synodal space. What gives us access to this space is simply our baptismal dignity. It’s important that we realise we all have a role in defining this process called synodality. This open access configuration underscores the fundamental truth of our common baptismal dignity. It also means there will be a displacement for some, because (the space) is no longer occupied by people of privilege ascribed to them by virtue of their position in the Church. Rather, it is accessible to everyone, by virtue of their baptism.  

Not the usual suspects: The synodality experience allows us to experience the diversity of the community called the Church. That diversity is not only geographical. When I sat at one of these tables, there were people of 11 different nationalities present. We’re not like the usual suspects! This represented the true demographic of the Church – young people, lay people as well as religious figures. It was not exclusive any longer and the important aspect of diversity was there for all to see.  

Positive tension: Of course, this generates tension because we don’t all hold the same theological position, but that’s not a bad thing because we then find common ground to continue in meaningful conversation and to define what we are willing to let go of. The synodal process allows us to make room for others, instead of reiterating our own positions without listening to others. It brings us to the humble realisation that individually we don’t have all the answers. We need to cultivate the humility (to understand) that the answers will come from shared dialogue and that the voice of everyone – not just the bishops and the priests – in this space counts. 

Fr Orobator, born in Nigeria, is the first dean of the Jesuit School of Theology (JST) at Santa Clara University to have been born outside the United States. Last year, in the first few months of his JST tenure, Pope Francis invited Fr Orobator to attend the Synod on Synodality in Rome, where he was a voting member.  

Banner image by Arnit-G-Sriwichai, Canva.