Charles A. Gillespie, Ph.D.
(This piece reposted from an online publication of Sacred Heart University, Go, Rebuild My House, 11/10/2023.)
Last week, I had the pleasure of listening to a conversation about “The Synod: What Happened? What Didn’t? What’s Next?” sponsored by “Go, Rebuild My House” and the Sacred Heart University Center for Catholic Studies. Time and again, the participants in the webinar emphasized that the process of synodality means more to Pope Francis—and to the history and life of the Church—than any product of the Synod’s deliberations, syntheses and votes.
Stories abound of people listening to people while sitting around common tables. Synodal conversations re-code assumptions by bringing together a greater catholicity of bodies, faithfulness and forms of life to what it means to be Church. The real power of synodality emerges from a more fully human conversation at the heart of the Church.
The first risk of synodality arrives in listening without anticipation. The Church, the people of God, must learn how to encounter and talk together without rushing to prediction or replication. Synodal conversation achieves something distinct from the churn of artificial intelligence driven by large language models. Synodal conversation avoids recycling the scene in the same way it has always been played. But what could synodality look like outside of the Synod’s official meetings, channels and events?
The Synod on Synodality may well be an invitation for Catholics to “untitle” what the whole pilgrim people of God think a synod of bishops should, could and can be. But a digression into revolutionary collaborative theatre-making will be shockingly necessary to explain what “untitling” means.
For over two years, I have had the privilege to work with The Untitled Othello Project in residence at Sacred Heart University. I wish a short blog post had space to name co-conspirators and share about Untitled Othello in all its confounding complexity, dramatic excitement and wondrous humanity. Professional actors spent hours sitting together reading, performing, interrogating and exploring Shakespeare’s tragedy about Othello without restricting his humanity to a title, “the Moor of Venice.” The actors and directors did this work in the company of professors and students all while being recorded and live streamed. We also had to untitle ourselves. This work asks for rigorous attention to the people in the room, including the insights into meaning brought by our different bodies and our different cultures and our different experiences. The same play can make meaning in many ways, but all voices need to be at the table even if we play different roles.
Untitling is a process that sets aside inheritances and “shows up” to a shared room, open to our own humanity and that of others. Untitling does not mean ignoring performance history in search of a “new” take or pretending that Othello (or any other text—or, indeed, any person) arrives in the room purified of the world. The work approaches Shakespeare’s script aware but not governed by the ways these words are at once revelatory and wounding, beautiful and troubling, canonical and problematic. Untitled Othello trusts both that there is a script worth performing together and that a good, just or worthy production might never be possible to achieve. We have discovered that the chief value of untitling is its process, not any potential product. Untitled Othello may or may not produce a stage version of Othello, but it most certainly produced new ways of imagining theatre practice and university learning.
I wonder if “untitling” offers a way to understand what Pope Francis meant during his intervention against clericalism. The Holy Father made his commentary with references to the model of the Church as the people of God found in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium. Synodality describes how the people of God enact the journey of a pilgrim people. Clericalism proceeds from labels and honorifics as the first principle of ecclesial conversation: the Hierarchy pronounces, the Faithful obey. But, in a move of theopoetic clarification, neither “Hierarchy” nor “Faithful” necessarily describe the whole of the people of God per se. What would it mean to understand the Church and the world through the eyes of the people of God?
At one moment, Pope Francis linked the image of a soul of the people of God to a mode of interpretation, a lens through which the real can become known: “The faithful people, the holy faithful people of God, have a soul, and because we can speak of the soul of a people we can speak of a hermeneutic, of a way of seeing reality, of a conscience. Our faithful people are conscious of their dignity, they baptize their children, they bury their dead.” Here, the Holy Father notices a capacity in the whole people of God to see reality that exceeds the capacity of prelates, clergy or even religious left on their own. Pressed further, the Pope uncovers a sense of the sensus fidelium that interprets-in-action, that performs, that moves doctrine from documentary bureaucracy into living tradition. Synodality does not diminish the authority and duty of the episcopacy to shepherd the flock, but it does challenge the Hierarchy to recognize its finitude (well, Bishops are people, too), its failures (past, present and still to come) and its spiritual vocation (rather than the maintenance of an institution, however glorious, for its own sake). Bishops (like all the clergy, religious and laity) are part of the People of God.
Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies and director of Pioneer Journey at Sacred Heart University.