During a Sept. 12 lecture at Georgetown University, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, talks about Pope Francis’s model of leadership. His talk was part of the university’s Dahlgren Chapel Sacred Lecture series.
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY PHOTOS BY PHIL HUMNICKY During a Sept. 12 lecture at Georgetown University, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, talks about Pope Francis’s model of leadership. His talk was part of the university’s Dahlgren Chapel Sacred Lecture series.

The process of “journeying together” during the Catholic Church’s Synods of Bishops examining contemporary challenges to marriage and family life that formed the basis for Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) reflects not only the pontiff’s pastoral approach, but also offers a template for how priests and lay people can accompany others to help them understand and live the faith, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said in a Sept. 12 talk at Georgetown University.

Washington’s archbishop, who spoke on the topic “Pope Francis: Fresh Perspectives on Synodality” as part of the university’s Dahlgren Chapel Sacred Lecture series, explained that synodality refers to coming together or journeying together, which he said is how those gatherings of the world’s bishops tackled issues facing married couples and families.

The cardinal noted that Pope Francis emphasized the importance of dialogue as those discussions unfolded. “We can recall his advices to the bishops… to speak with openness and clarity, to listen with humility and be open to the Holy Spirit.”

Cardinal Wuerl said that the pope’s understanding of synodality, that journeying together, involved not only dialogue with bishops who teach and transmit the faith, but also drew upon insights from married couples and families in dioceses around the world.

“We have to listen to people living the faith,” the cardinal said, who added that journeying together toward the love and truth of Christ then involves all members of the Church – clergy, religious and laity. The two synods on marriage and family, the cardinal added, were preceded by consultations of local churches throughout the world on the lived situation of families, their challenges and experiences.

That approach, he said, resulted in Amoris Laetitia being a “consensus exhortation,” with its elements drawn from the bishops’ discussion and the worldwide consultation of Catholics receiving approval from a significant majority of the participating bishops.

“I have been present in some capacity for 11 synods and as a bishop member for seven. The last two, the 2014 and 2015 gatherings were, in my opinion, the most open, engaging and reflective of episcopal collaboration and consulation,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

That same approach, he said, has marked the preparation for the upcoming 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. In the Archdiocese of Washington, a “Share with Francis” initiative preparing for that synod involved gathering feedback from 661 participants in listening sessions at parishes, in young adult groups and on college campuses, and nearly 1,000 online responses from young people.

“Pope Francis understands the process of listening to the faithful and to his brother bishops to be a key part of his own teaching and pastoral ministry,” the cardinal said. “It is a part of the ‘synodality’ or ‘journeying together’ which he sees as essential to the very life of the Church.”

Washington’s archbishop also noted that Pope Francis demonstrates that witnessing to the faith involves not just words, but actions.

Cardinal Wuerl said Amoris Laetitia reaffirmed Catholic doctrine on marriage and family life and highlighted the teaching of recent popes on those subjects. The document also underscored the importance of discernment  and helping people form consciences guided by Church teaching, the cardinal said, adding that journey of faith also requires support and accompaniment from pastors and other members of the Church, so those having difficulty understanding or following that teaching can be helped to accept and live the faith.

That effort to go out, encounter and accompany others is at the heart of Pope Francis’s call for today’s Catholics to be evangelizing disciples, journeying with others to draw closer to Christ on the path to heaven, Cardinal Wuerl said.

“Just as Jesus said to his disciples as he prepared to return to his Father in glory: ‘You will be my witnesses’ so Pope Francis is calling the whole body of disciples together in a process of discerning the richness of the proclamation of the faith, accompanying one another as we try to embrace and appropriate the faith, and to announce it to the world today as much by our actions as by our words,” the cardinal said at the conclusion of his talk.  “What Pope Francis is doing is helping us all understand that to be true witnesses to Jesus we have to walk together in witnessing (to) and supporting one another.”

At the beginning of his talk, Cardinal Wuerl explained that in the Church’s history, there have been 21 gatherings of the world’s bishops in ecumenical councils, like the most recent, the Second Vatican Council convened in Rome between 1962-65 in an effort to renew the faith in the modern world. Synods, he added, reflect that spirit of collegiality but involve smaller, representative groups of bishops from around the world called together by the pope to examine specific pastoral issues.

Before the cardinal’s talk, John DeGioia – Georgetown University’s president – said the concept of a sacred lecture reflects a tradition begun by the early Jesuits to help inform and inspire those seeking to grow in their faith. Other speakers in the series have included writer Alice McDermott, a Catholic who won a National Book Award for her 1998 novel, “Charming Billy.” Last year at Georgetown, she spoke on the topic, “Where There is Sorrow, There is Holy Ground.”

In a question and answer session after his talk, Cardinal Wuerl was asked how the concept of journeying together is shaping preparation for the 2018 Synod on Young People, and he said that the Church wants to bring Jesus’s Gospel to today’s world, and needs to hear from young people, “How do we do that today?” The pope, he said, is asking Church leaders to engage young people in that process, to find out what their aspirations are, and what issues are important to them.

Afterward, Sinmi Tinubu, a senior studying business at Georgetown who is a member of St. Joseph Parish in Beltsville, Maryland, said, “I loved how he (the cardinal) emphasized a synod as a coming together, a collaboration, a walking together. What touched me is that collaboration doesn’t exclude the greater Church, locally or globally.”

Describing her hopes for the 2018 synod, she said, “I hope the Church can figure out a way to connect with people of my age and revive that faithfulness… The Church I know is open and welcoming of all people. The Church needs to communicate that.”

Valeria Sanchez, a Georgetown freshman from Venezuela studying finance and industrial engineering, smiled and posed for a selfie with Cardinal Wuerl as he greeted students outside the chapel.

Moments later she praised the cardinal’s talk, saying, “He talked about including young people in the conversation… He made me feel my opinion mattered.”

Sanchez hopes that after next year’s synod, “We continue to grow not only as a religion, but as a people looking out for each other.”

Armando Regil-Velasco, a former student at Georgetown from Mexico who was visiting the university that day and attended the lecture, said, “I really like how he talked about the humility of Pope Francis. I think humility is the most important characteristic of leadership. I think this is a great moment to redefine leadership.”

Regil-Velasco, 32, is the founder and chief creative officer of the i2Co School of Transformative Leadership in Mexico City.

He too hopes that next year’s synod has a positive impact. “I hope a lot of young people feel inspired and renew their faith,” he said. “I think faith and hope is something we really need nowadays. In order to navigate such a turbulent moment, that keeps us strong and focused.”