A publication of Sacred Heart University
Dubia(s) Faith
Synod: Unpause—What happened here and what the next 11 months hold

A Journey Faith

In speaking of synodality, there is no word that Pope Francis deploys more frequently than “journey.” After all, as he likes to say, synodality means “journeying together.” Pope Francis clearly relishes the adventure of this way of being church—“I think this is truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history together with their Lord who walks among us!” And yet not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Where, they wonder, is this journey headed?

Many times over the last ten years, I have returned to the extraordinary interview Pope Francis gave to the Jesuit press some months after his election as pope. There he shared his understanding of the church (“a field hospital”); his views on the confessional (“not a torture chamber”); his feelings about a gay person who sincerely seeks God (“who am I to judge?”); his love of opera, the films of Fellini, the art of Chagall; and his “dogmatic certainty” that “God is in every person’s life.”

But among the nuggets buried in this revealing interview, there was an image that clearly identified the difference between Pope Francis and many of his critics. That was his distinction between what he called a “lab [or laboratory] faith” and a “journey faith.” He said, “There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory. Ours is not a lab faith, but a journey faith, a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.” In a way that distinction points to many of the tensions and fears that have surfaced in the lead-up to this synod, a tension between those who adhere to a “lab faith” and those who embrace the adventure and uncertainty of a “journey faith.”

         What is the difference? In a “lab faith,” everything is certain and mathematical; the greatest threats come from relativism, doubt and uncertainty. (Compare Cardinal Ratzinger’s speech to the conclave of 2005 wherein he identified the “dictatorship of relativism” as the greatest threat facing the church; Bergoglio, in contrast, identified that danger in ecclesial introversion, a hesitancy to go out to the peripheries.) But such a faith can be inflexible—ill prepared to deal with the messiness of life or the nature of reality, which is not all black and white,  yes or no (as demanded by the authors of the most recent “Dubia”). Presuming that all the answers are theoretically knowable in advance, a lab faith may leave us impervious to the surprising promptings of the Holy Spirit.

In contrast to a “lab faith,” a “journey faith” is at home on the frontier; starting with experience rather than with abstract truths. It is constantly open to uncertainty and risk and to new, unexpected information. If a “lab faith” prizes certainty, a journey faith values trust, patience and a capacity to endure or even embrace uncertainty.

In a journey faith, we don’t know all the answers in advance. We have to pray, to practice discernment, to listen to how God is speaking to us through the events of history or the circumstances of our own lives. As Pope Francis notes, “Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us … God is encountered walking along the path.”

Clearly, for Pope Francis, the significance of the synodal path does not lie in any particular outcomes. It is a way of being church that is comfortable with uncertainty, that travels by the light of faith, that is open to new insights, that is incomplete and always engaged in the “adventure of the quest for meeting God.”

Is there a way of reconciling these two styles of faith—that of the “lab” and that of the “journey”? Both styles have always been present in the church—though typically it has been the “lab faith” that held official sway, while those of the “journey” persuasion were consigned to the margins. Here, in contrast, the balance has been reversed. The difference is that those on the “journey” tend to be more tolerant of diversity, while their “lab” partners sound alarms at anything that seems to stray from the well-worn path. Nevertheless, Pope Francis believes that it is possible to walk “united with our differences. This is the way of Jesus.”

Concluding his homily for the opening Mass of the Synodal Path, he issued this invitation: “Dear brothers and sisters, let us have a good journey together! May we be pilgrims in love with the Gospel and open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit. Let us not miss out on the grace-filled opportunities born of encounter, listening and discernment. In the joyful conviction that, even as we seek the Lord, he always comes with his love to meet us first.”


Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books. His most recent book isDearest Sister Wendy. . . A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.

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