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Bishop Luis Marín: “The synodal Church is not an invention of the Pope’s”

Bishop Luis Marín de San Martín OSA is one of the undersecretaries for the Synod of Bishops. Together with the Secretary-General of the Synod, Cardinal Mario Grech, and the French religious Nathalie Becquart XMCJ, this Augustinian friar from Madrid the visible nucleus of the Secretariat of the Synod that coordinates and animates the whole Church in this synodal journey.

Maria José Atienza·9 de septiembre de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 11 minutos
Luis Marín

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

Bishop Luis Marín de San Martín, OSA in the garden of the parish of San Manuel and San Benito in Madrid.

To walk together, united, to rediscover the essence of the Church, its own synodal way of being. This is the objective of a Synod that has begun in parallel in Rome and in all the dioceses of the world, and about which we speak here with Bishop Luis Marín de San Martín: about its keys and risks and, especially, about the need for the participation of all in order to recover the essence of the Church from the very life of each Catholic. 

—How do you experience a Synod from the inside?

My experience is that it’s lived with contrasting emotions, knowing that you’re facing something very big.

In the first place, you live it with a sense of wonder, of gratitude to God, because it really is a crucial moment in history, a time of the Spirit that makes you a participant. 

Secondly, you also live it with a certain fear, especially at the beginning, when doubts arise as to how you can manage it all. But this question is immediately resolved with enormous confidence. I have enormous confidence, and so you put yourself in God’s hands and let yourself be carried along with all the enthusiasm possible.

Thirdly, you live it with great gratitude. Gratitude because, even though we’re small, the Lord does his work. 

So you live it with all these feelings… and a lot of work. The Synod is a work that has involved us a lot. Those of us who collaborate in the Synod secretariat have worked, and are working, a lot, but we do it with the conviction that it’s worth it. Besides, the more you get involved and get to know it, the more enthusiastic you become. 

—What is the work of the undersecretaries of the Synod?

For the first time, we are two undersecretaries and, also for the first time, we are both religious, with two complementary spiritualities: mine is Augustinian and Sister Nathalie Becquart’s is Ignatian. Our task is to collaborate with the Secretary-General, Cardinal Mario Grech, and to accompany him in his functions. It’s not only a question of preparing for the Synod of Bishops, but especially of promoting synodality in the Church: to make the Church synodal. We form a team in which we must be the first to live this synodal style: collaboration, communion and dialogue with Cardinal Grech and among ourselves. 

—‘Synodal Church’: you mention a term that has entered our vocabulary in recent months, but what is the synodal Church? 

Until now, traditionally, it was the preparation for the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which, from time to time, met in Rome to deal with certain topics. Now, the Pope has opened this up much more. It’s about going to what is the Church itself. This isn’t an invention of the Pope: the Church is synodal, just as she is communion or missionary. It belongs to the essence of the Church. 

What does the synodal Church mean, what is this ‘walking together’? To be a Christian is to participate in what Christ is. Through baptism we’re incorporated into Christ, and this means that we make our own and participate in that salvific reality that is the reality of Christ the Redeemer. We’re missionaries through baptism, we bring the salvation of Christ to others. because we Christians don’t live our faith in solitude, but in community: the Church is family, it’s this ‘together’, walking together. This is what the Church is. 

As Christians, united to Christ and to others, we go forward giving salvific witness in the midst of the world until the fullness of the end of time. 

Thsi is what it is to live the Church: to live the Church is to live synodality. Promoting this synodality is the task of all Christians. This synodality is manifested in various ways: the Synod of Bishops is the way in which synodality is manifested for the bishops, but it isn’t the only way. There are pastoral councils, parish councils, episcopal councils… and there can be other manifestations and specific modes of synodality. We have to discern and see what the Lord is asking of us to live communion, participation and mission as Church.  

—Both the Holy Father and the supporting documents published for this Synod point to the move from an ‘event’ to a process.

We don’t have to identify ‘Synod’ with Synod of Bishops. What’s important is the journey. In October a Synod was opened, not a preparation. The whole Church has begun the journey and we’re advancing along this path of listening, of discernment, seeing how we can participate, what the Holy Spirit is asking of us at this moment in history, what our mission is. 

This journey is made from below: all Christians, parishes, dioceses, episcopal conferences, continental episcopal conferences, the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, and then we’ll go back again to all the faithful, because the decisions and ideas and so on will return to the dioceses. 

The Synod isn’t an administrative issue, it isn’t a project to reach an agreement or to ‘share power’, it isn’t a matter of ‘doing’.

—Are we talking about what we could call a change of mentality? Do you think it will be possible?

I think it’s the beginning of a path, but we do have to reach a change of mentality. The basic essential change is to recognize that we’re facing an event of the Holy Spirit.

The Synod isn’t an administrative issue, it isn’t a project to reach an agreement or to ‘share power’, it isn’t a matter of ‘doing’. 

The Synod is a time of the Holy Spirit, with all that means: that is, it’s what Pentecost meant for the early Church. What did Pentecost mean? To change mentalities, to break down walls, and fears, to launch us to preach to the ends of the earth. That’s why putting ourselves in the hands of the Spirit is the fundamental change. From there we’ll discover the way, the things that need to be changed. 

There will be changes, yes. Sometimes fundamental and basic changes; they won’t lead us to anything outlandish, but simply to live the essence of our faith, to what the Church is. 

With the passage of time, in the Church we’ve got into a routine, we’ve lost our enthusiasm, our enthusiasm,… we don’t reach everything. In short, we’ve become stagnant. 

We’re in a moment of awakening with a great impulse from the Holy Spirit that will lead us truly to be what we are. The bishop and the priest to be truly a bishop or a priest, and the layman to be truly lay.

The beauty of the Church lies in the fact that each one brings his or her charism, brings his or her vocation, in unity with everyone, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. The laity aren’t ‘granted’ certain tasks ‘so that they’ll be happy and so they’ll help us clergy.’ It’s not about them ‘helping’, it’s about the fact that the laity have to participate in the Church, and do it as lay people, without being clericalized. We can’t clericalize the laity or laicize the clergy: each according to his function in the Church. 

The Church isn’t a system of power, but of service. We all have the same rank, neither above nor below, but we have different tasks. That’s why in the logo of this Synod we all appear walking equally. 

The laity ‘helps’ in certain tasks of the Church. The lay person has to participate in the Church and do it as a lay person.

—All changes are scary and in the Church too…

The Pope often refers to the danger of ‘it’s always been done like this’, to avoid change, because we’re afraid of novelty, of losing our security… This is a time of change, of novelty, of losing our security and putting ourselves in God’s hands. 

We have to trust in the Spirit, who ‘makes all things new’ and who will make us happier, because he’ll make us more coherent… We have to shake off our fears, it’s a time of renewal from within. 

Indeed, fear is one of the problems we have in this process. Fear is very human and we have to open ourselves to the divine, to the Spirit who transforms us. I think that this synodal time is a time of God, because it’s a time of authenticity. It isn’t a time to think ‘This is how it’s always been done’, but rather ‘What is God asking of us?’ That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about discernment. Let’s listen to one another and also listen to the Holy Spirit. In this synodal journey, the prayerful dimension is indispensable. Without a prayerful dimension we won’t be able to move forward and overcome our fears and insecurities.  

—In the world of closed schedules and haste, how can we recover this necessary prayerful dimension?

Obviously, this requires a conversion and, above all, a beginning. Recently, a major difficulty was put to me: Why is it that the Christian message doesn’t get through? We produce very good documents that stay on the shelf, wonderful gestures that don’t reach the people. Although it may seem paradoxical, this is a time to stop, and to move forward. To be silent, to stop the noise and rediscover the value of prayer. 

At times we realize that we’ve lost not only the ability to pray but also the taste for prayer, and, as a result, we give ourselves over to activism, to ‘doing things’ or to ‘knowing things’. But Benedict XVI said that we’re Christians because of our personal encounter with Christ, not because we say or do a lot of things. This is what it’s all about, our personal encounter and friendship with Christ. Without this encounter and this friendship, nothing we do or say will have any meaning. 

We have to go back to this personal encounter with Christ, because that’s where we begin our journey. Sometimes we want to tell the Lord what to do, we want to control, to follow a program… The beauty of this process is that we don’t know where it will lead us. Sometimes I’m asked, ‘What is the end of this Synod going to be?’ And I answer: ‘Ask the Holy Spirit, because I don’t know.’

What are we to put in the light of the Holy Spirit? Our world of noise, of doing, of power… those constructions that we’ve made for ourselves and of which we have to see what we have to change in order to return to what is essential, to rediscover the foundations of our faith. 

We Christians must be a seed of hope. To bring the salvation that is Christ into the middle of the world. It’s very beautiful to see that this synodal process is arising in the time of the pandemic, at a time when the Church is marked by scandals, at a time of emptying churches, of a crisis of secularism… We’ve all asked God to help us in these moments, and here we have an answer: the synodal Church, going to the essential, listening to the Holy Spirit, united among us… And we’re going forward. 

It’s a response from God and a great responsibility for all of us, because this response of God in history passes through us. If we don’t participate, if we think that this ‘complicates our lives’, we may be frustrating the action of the Holy Spirit. It’s a very important moment for which we need a lot of humility, a lot of trust and a lot of love, and we will receive all this in prayer. 

—There are Catholics who say that they don’t feel that they belong to the Church or that the Church doesn’t listen to them…

Every Catholic is part of the Church because he is part of Christ. There’s no Christ without the Church. The risen Christ is Christ the Head of the Church, united to her, inseparable. Uniting yourself to Christ unites you to the Church. It’s true that we live in an age where there are many Christians who don’t participate in the life of the Church, who are on the margins due to various circumstances. For this reason, the Pope encourages us to reach out to those on the margins, to go out to meet them. We have to listen to everyone, not only to those who come to Mass or are with us, but to everyone: to offer these people the possibility to participate, to speak and to listen to them, uniting them to us. This moment of listening is also a very beautiful moment of evangelization.

How can we begin to do this? By beginning. We learn to swim by swimming. We learn to walk together by walking together in the Holy Spirit. And we experience that they are coming, that they’re asking: How can I participate? By approaching their parish, asking the pastor. Going to the simple, which is to live our Christian faith that is community, listening to the Spirit and united to Christ. 

Of course, we have to be patient. Our times aren’t God’s times. Christianity spreads by contagion, by the enthusiasm of the first Christians. I believe that every Christian must be an apostle, in the sense of being an enthusiast about his faith, because he knows Christ by experience and carries Christ in the midst of the world. By living the authenticity of our faith, we’ll ‘infect’ and integrate more people, even those who insult us, as the Pope has told us.

Listening to everyone and, from there, discerning and making the necessary decisions, which will be indicated by the Holy Spirit, not by the will of each one. Many things will have to be changed and renewed, yes: and it will be a path of hope for all. 

We have to listen to everyone, not only to those who come to Mass or are with us.

—How can we carry out this discernment, knowing what God is asking for and not falling into fads or ideologies?

Discernment requires openness to the Holy Spirit, the vertical axis that puts us in communication with God, and the participation of our brothers and sisters, of everyone, the horizontal axis. This is the way to trace the path together that will lead us to discern what God is asking of the Church today. 

The motto of the Synod places us before three themes that God asks of the Church: communion, participation and mission.

The first is communion. We have to ask ourselves how I personally live it when in the Church itself there are opposing groups, when ideologies are imposed, etc.

Communion means that together we’re enriched. It’s very good that we don’t have the same personality, the same sensitivity, the same culture… because otherwise life would be impoverished. Sometimes we forget that we’re brothers and we behave like enemies, like members of a kind of political party. Christianity isn’t an ideology: there are as many ways of following Christ as there are people in the world.

Next, participation. Each one has to participate according to his condition and his charism, as I pointed out before. We can’t have a passive or clericalist attitude: that is, that the clergy do everything and know everything while many lay people are passive or want to become ‘little clerics’. The structures of participation in the Church must be developed much more.

And finally, mission. In this difficult world, do we bring the good news to others or do we create a kind of ghetto where we speak a language that no one understands? Do we go out to the peripheries, that is, to all areas of life? These are the questions of the Synod, the challenge. We can’t reduce the Synod to looking for some recipes or four points of examination: it’s a movement of the Spirit, it’s something deeper.

—How has this new Synod been received throughout the Church? 

I have to say, and I’m very happy to say that, in general, it has been very well received, with great enthusiasm. From the Secretariat of the Synod we’re in contact with Bishops’ Conferences around the world, with assemblies of religious and lay associations. There’s a lot of expectation, eagerness and, I would say, enthusiasm. We’re also aware that in many areas there are doubts, about how we’re going to do it, where we should go, how to start… there has been a very strong initial impulse. In the vast majority of dioceses it’s been accepted as what it is: a time of God and an extraordinary opportunity for Christian life. 

The Pope told us that we had to prepare ourselves for surprises. The Holy Spirit is going to surprise us. In our society we like to have everything ‘all tied up’, but right now we’re asked to be open to the surprise of the Spirit. For example, the Secretariat of the Synod has sent us a preparatory document that is a help, but if it doesn’t work… that’s fine. We have put down ten themes. At the beginning there were ten clear, broad questions… and then someone pointed out to us that it looked like an exam, that it ran the risk of being reduced to answering a series of questions; and what we want is an experience of listening, not closed answers. That’s why we changed it to ten thematic nuclei, which cover a greater possibility of reflection. If they’re useful, fine; if not, we’ll have to look for others.

From the Secretariat of the Synod we’re trying to have a connection of materials, of help… so that we can all help each other in this journey. That’s why the different materials are available on the web. The key is that the whole Church is involved in this listening and discernment and that it serves.

In addition, the Synod Secretariat is in very intense contact with the Bishops’ Conferences round the world. For the first time we’ve had large online meetings, divided by language. There have been two, and in the next one we want the Synod referents and coordinators of all the episcopal conferences to participate as well.

We’re meeting with the presidents and secretaries of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia. We’ve also met virtually with the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, and with the union of superiors of religious institutes, and we’re in contact with the communities of contemplative life and lay associations. It’s an intense work, but it has created a great connection with Churches all over the world.

—Has the Roman Curia also initiated this synodal process?

If we say that the Church is synodal, everything that is Church is synodal; so the Holy See is Synod too. So yes, in the Vatican Curia too we’re in this process of thinking, of seeing what the Holy Spirit is telling us at this moment and how we can respond to it.

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