Networks and networking as instruments, practice, and expressions of synodality

Networks and networking as instruments, practice, and expressions of synodality

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Roberto Jaramillo Bernal SJ

Networks and networking are becoming adequate instruments, a practice, and an accomplished expression of synodality in the church.

The ongoing Synod on Synodality (Synod 2021-2024) is a doctrinal and pastoral way of synodically finding a synodal answer to the questions of synodality. In the same way that “there is no way to peace, peace is the way” (attributed to Mahatma Gandhi), we believe that there is no way to synodality, but that synodality is the way.

In his pastoral practice and speeches, Pope Francis highlighted synodality as fundamental to the evangelical call to the Church. The Synthesis Report of the First Session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod (ISS), held in Rome from 4 to 29 October 2023, refers to the concept frequently.

What is certain is that among those gathered at the synod, there was consensus in confessing that they had arrived at “an understanding that now requires further clarification.” (ISS 1.b)

If we want to find answers and open paths of synodality as a central element of ecclesial nature and practice, we must use new instruments that (not because of their novelty but because of their usefulness) can open us to perspectives of being and doing not thought of before, nor even sought or tried.

Networking, what are we talking about?

Long before we began to speak of synod (and its correlatives), we began to speak of networks and networking because of learning and systematization. This is due mostly to research in the field of economic and technological enterprises and, to a lesser extent, to the field of participation and political articulation of social groups. This has at least two consequences.

On the one hand, an extraordinary technological development of the so-called ‘social networks’ which, in their abundance and capacity to penetrate the daily experience of individuals and collectivities, have become hypostases of the relationships they claim to favor and fundamentally dominated by the logic of the development of capital, to seduce, sell, win, etc.

On the other hand, we must recognize that the church participated in some of these developments indirectly (through the participation of some of its members in these ‘enterprises’) but that as a social subject, it has arrived late in the discussion (ethical, philosophical, political, scientific) and implementation (social, pedagogical, pastoral) of the networks.

Both consequences have significant implications when speaking of networks and networking as instruments, practice, and expression of ecclesial synodality.

The first warns us against the basic and immediate idea that a network or networking is reduced to the handling (simple or complicated) of technological instruments of communication: to be/live/work in social networks. However simple this observation may be, it makes this warning and the following statement necessary: when we speak of networks and networking, we are not speaking primarily or fundamentally of working in or with social networks because they are not necessary (although to some extent they may help).

The second deduction, derived from the second premise, is that in networks and networking, the Church has much to learn and everything to gain if it opens cordially and does not treat networks and networking as a secular threat to its traditional forms.

For now,network or networks mean a collective, differentiated, specific social actor, an apostolic (active) subject that assumes the work in common to reach a more significant objective unattainable by the members of the network independently.

Networking means a specific practice which requires pedagogy and a methodology but which is based on a philosophy, a raison d’être that we can express in these three other maxims: “I am because we are,” “unity prevails over conflict,” and “what is ours is as or more important than what is mine.”

Networking is a new phenomenon within the Church and still deserves much observation and discernment. For now, it is necessary to promote, accompany, and contemplate what the Holy Spirit is doing in the attempts – successful or not – to work in networks, keeping ourselves open to taste, value, and discern their specific contribution.

What networking consists of

A network is a group of people (or groups/organizations) that – from various complex memberships – gives themselves some kind of organization as a primary function of a mission that is, for all members, an expression and empowerment of their own mission.

There are networks of various forms and intentions: networks of study and research, networks of work around a problem or challenge, and networks of support and institutional development. Some are numerous and widespread, others small and restricted to a region or a type of participant. These networks can be open or closed, of institutional or of personal affiliation, among many other types.

The richness of their variety constitutes a generative space (genesis) of extraordinary value for ecclesial life, for in them, synodality is expressed in a generous way.

Every network is born, develops, and justifies its existence based on a common mission greater than the sum of the interests of its components since the “whole is also greater than the sum of its parts.” (Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, 235) Hence, one of the fundamental axioms of a network is that ‘what is ours is as or more important than what is mine.’

Networking has no future if the parties only seek their organization’s or project’s interest (“I participate to see how I can benefit myself or how I can benefit others”). If there is no clear common purpose, wanted (not just accepted) and lived (not just verbally affirmed) by all members, regardless of the number and diversity that constitutes it, the network is a burden for those who form it; it is useless.

The common purpose does not ignore or override the particularities – individual or collective – of the members of the network. Each member of the network is different: in shape, in texture, in quality, in size, in length, in resistance, in configuration, in color, in function, etc.

Figure 1

That is why when describing what a network is, the image of one of the joints of the human body (Figure 1) is much more faithful, richer, and evocative than that of a series of points, even with different qualities, colors, and sizes linked to each other in a complex way by different bands or links (Figure 2).

Figure 2

In a knee, for example, the bone tissue needs the cavity and the synovial fluid to fulfill its ultimate mission just as much as the ligaments need the head of the tibia and fibula and the distal end of the femur, the menisci need the serous sacs, the bones need the various muscles, and so on; all completely different (in extension, color, texture, consistency, size, shape, etc.), all in relation, all participating, all for the same mission impossible to achieve in any other way.

The most negligible or unnoticed elements are as crucial as the most prominent and most visible of them. The function of each member has sense and realizes its own identity when it is articulated and completed with the others. Each of the members of a network, on its own, cannot produce the results, much less the impact sought in common.

No matter how important, visible, or powerful one’s particular mission and capabilities may be – whether at the level of individuals or institutions – participation in a network implies a more essential and definitive mission. This mission can only be completed with others, who in turn also find in it a way to generate a more significant impact than that which they are called upon to produce or can produce individually.

Depending on these particularities and differences, the relationships between them are built, and it is these that make each member, in its essential specificity, and each relationship, in its strategic particularity, fundamental in the network; but, at the same time, it is these same particularities and differences that make networking indispensable to achieve the common purpose.

A network is not built according to the form of the members or their homogeneities (parishes with parishes, women with women, social centers with social centers, etc.). It is the joint mission that guides the alliances to be made. It has an objective that goes beyond the functions and interests of the individuals or collective members of the network. These functions give each member their own identity in the difference. That is precisely what each one must bring to the network, no matter the size, the form or the visibility. One of the temptations and possible causes of failure in networking is to focus on similarities instead of complementarities when imagining, forming, and building the network.

Weaving the relationships required by networking (whether of individuals or institutions) is not simply the result of a decision or an organizational or methodological strategy; it is not a formality. This type of work presupposes the installation and nurturing of a spirit that goes beyond collaboration and becomes actual complicity in the tasks to achieve the more significant objective.

That is why it is so ineffective and always disappointing to baptize any group work as a ‘network’ or to demand that a group of people accustomed to working in a certain way become a ‘network’ from that moment on. Organizational and methodological decisions are undoubtedly necessary, but more is needed.

Instruments, practice, and expression of synodality

For all these reasons, we can affirm that in an actual network (working in a network), we do more and are more. It is not only a matter of being in a network, but of ‘being a network,’ of giving oneself in a network: of becoming entangled.

When working in a network (networks), more is done, and what is done is done much better. Going beyond individual responsibility to commitment and, above all, to collective responsibility (what we have called complicity) transforms an institution’s operational culture.

In a true network, there are not only more eyes, more wills, more critical mass, and more reflection, but also the common will (a ‘complicity’) of a collective subject possible to the action of the Spirit who discerns its proposals and plans of action. It is not a project or an initiative executed by allied or aligned partners but a new collective entity, with its autonomy, creativity, judgment, and responsibility, an essential actor with its identity and purpose. This change of entity qualifies it and places it as a definitive interlocutor(s) in the ecclesial service it is called to render, not only among pastoral agents/subjects but also before the hierarchical instances of the Church.

This is one of the most significant challenges for both networks in the church and of the Church concerning networking, especially for those who exercise the hierarchical function in all its forms and levels because the exercise of authority in its generic form has not traditionally known how to consider the collective as a proper subject.

Hence, the insecurity provoked by the networks and the doubts about their autonomy and control tend to hover quickly (prejudicially) at various institutional levels, be they diocesan or religious life.

The same demand of ecclesiality that can be posed to networks (and networking) to gain/have citizenship in the church must be asked of those who exercise hierarchical functions (and the institutions they represent) to open themselves to the reality that the Holy Spirit inspires, speaks, and guides the whole of the holy people of God, as the report document of the recent session of the Synod reaffirms:

“…By the anointing of the Spirit, who ‘teaches all things’ (1Jn 2:27), all believers possess an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, the sensus fidei. This consists in a certain connaturality with divine realities and the aptitude to grasp what conforms to the truth of faith intuitively. Synodal processes enhance this gift, allowing the existence of that consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium) to be confirmed. This process provides a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the Apostolic faith.” (ISS 3.c)

Networks and ecclesial institutions

What happens at the networking level is an operational complicity assisted by the Holy Spirit in their common discernment, something that we call the ‘redarchy.’

It is a concept born in the first decade of the millennium in the collaborative and open work environment in technological networks, later redefined in talent management and leadership of complex teams. In our case, applied concretely to work in ecclesial networks, the concept expresses – by analogy with its correspondent: the hierarchy – the dynamics of internal and external organization of the networks in their search for and realization of the mission in the Church. I also emphasize the preposition ‘in’ to indicate that it is not the notion of place or time but of mode, i.e. within the Church, from within the Church: ecclesial.

When we speak of networks, we refer to the organizational dynamics – more or less autonomous – in which the networks give themselves an orientation and an organization in the function of the ecclesial mission of which they are participants in their own right.

Networking goes beyond collaboration to reach a real operational complicity in the decision, construction, implementation, and realization of the common mission, and all this – no doubt! – with the light and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to whom we must all listen and follow (obaudire /obey). This is confirmed by the words of the current Synod: “In the light of the recent teaching of the Church (in particular, Lumen gentium and Evangelii gaudium), this co-responsibility of all in mission must be the criterion underlying the structuring of Christian communities and the entire local church with all its services, in all its institutions, in each of its pastoral bodies (cf. 1Cor 12:4-31)…” (ISS 18.b)

The discernment carried out is in the Spirit and in the Church, even if some of the network members or participants in the work of the network have other ecclesial memberships or do not confess the same faith or do not confess any faith at all. In this way, the networks in the Church are also leaven in the mass, salt on earth, and light in the midst of darkness. This is also the origin of their prophetic and missionary character ad gentes.

Before concluding, it is indispensable to clarify and insist on the following: the function of the redarchy is not opposed to the function of the hierarchy, in the same way that ‘participation’ is not opposed to ‘organization.’

What is opposed to hierarchy is not the charismatic diversity of the members in their legitimate and full participation in their synodal exercise as actualization of the common priesthood. What is opposed to hierarchy is authoritarianism (power without authority) or anarchy (neither authority nor power). The responsible exercise of the hierarchical function needs is nourished, inspired, provoked, and enriched by the energy, creativity, and initiative from the redarchical function. (“…The articulation of synodality, collegiality, and primacy should not be interpreted in a static or linear form but according to a dynamic circularity, in a differentiated co-responsibility.” (ISS 20.e)

To conclude, let us remember that networking requires, both in the process of formation and in its time of flourishing, people, time, and economic and material resources. If any of these three elements is missing, a network will fail. Without people to nurture relationships and carry out the agreements and tasks already decided upon, without working time explicitly dedicated to cultivating the spirit of the network among the members of the organizations and developing their contribution to the common purpose, and without sufficient resources to achieve results and make the desired impact, no networking is possible.

All this has to be built in the networks themselves, but none of this will be possible if the hierarchy (those who are called to the function of confirming in faith) and those responsible for the institutions do not have an open and benevolent attitude of credit (betting on networking), trust (promoting with adult openness), and fraternal support (accompanying with responsibility) for what is being done in the networks.

Roberto Jaramillo Bernal SJ is the Secretary of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) of the Society of Jesus.

This is an excerpt from the article published in SJESAn edited version of this article is published in La Civiltà Cattolica on 5 February 2024, Networks and Networking as Tools, Practices and Expressions of Synodality.

It is interesting to relate this article with the results of the Global Survey on Jesuit networks undertaken from May to August 207 by Jesuit Networking that drew 10 main conclusions. The survey was launched to better understand the dynamics of collaboration when it comes to the Universal Mission of the Society of Jesus.


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