Evaluating the Synod, Part I: The Church Gathers Its People by Gene Ciarlo

By now, readers of this journal will know that Pope Francis has called for a “synod on synodality.” The formal title is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” My impression is that both of these titles betray an attitude contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church ought to look like in the 21st century, something foreign that the world no longer understands and that even her members do not fully grasp. Perhaps a better title would have been “A Universal Gathering of the People of God.” Further, there is an even more direct way to characterize the synod on synodality, and it is this: We live in a secular age. Religion is dying. Our church is dying. What are we Roman Catholics going to do about it?

The word synod is indeed foreign to most people. It is not a word common to what is classically known as “elaborated speech code.” Rather, it is a word in “restricted speech code,” meaning that it is specialized, not in the language that most people would readily understand. So, unfortunately, an interpretation is in order.

This synod is a gathering, a calling together of all people who presently consider, or at one time considered themselves, Catholic, to wonder and ponder, search, think deeply, and lend their ideas so that once again in the 21st century the church might feel the warm stirrings of life and become meaningful to those who were baptized in its waters and who confessed, albeit through parents and godparents, fidelity to God through Jesus and according to the prescriptions of the Roman Catholic Church. The results of 10 months of what Rome calls “listening sessions,” from October 2021 to August 2022, will then be given to the bishops, who will, in turn, gather in synod and convocation at the Vatican in 2023. That is a rough sketch of the synod that Pope Francis is calling all the faithful and unfaithful to be part of.

What, in fact, has happened during the many weeks that have transpired since the launch of the synod in October of this year? The 10-month worldwide diocesan phrase ending in August 2022 is meant to be a listening time. Perhaps it would be more correct to call it a probing and discussing period. Listening sounds passive, as if participants are unassertive and conclusions are therefore arrived at without discussion, ultimately presenting ideas to a hierarchy that is simply gathering static data. I don’t think Pope Francis had that in mind when he conceived the idea. I hope there is plenty of debate and tension, displays of impatience and emotion, differences of opinion, testimonies of dissatisfaction, maybe even tears at times. I hope that soon there will be excitement in the parish or worshipping community that claims you as one of its members.

The present situation in the Catholic Church is dire. Faithful Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday, look around you. Where are all the people who used to fill this church? Within the 196 diocesan communions of the United States and military, what has happened? How many parishes have closed for lack of people to occupy the pews on a weekend? As for the priest leaders in worship, teaching, preaching, and evangelizing, where are they? These men used to know their people, and the people used to know their pastors, because they were present to them in their parish, available to them because they belonged to each other. Now the remnants of the priesthood might be described as itinerant preachers going from church to church on weekends, filling slots and not knowing when, where, or how this gathering of faithful people will ever come to know again what a vibrant, identifiable Christian community is all about.

The clarion call for new life and inspiration, the breath of the Holy Spirit, came in 1959. What had started with a transformational call for aggiornamento, literally “bringing up to today”—the word that Pope John XXIII used when he convoked the Second Vatican Council—is now pale and stale with a halfhearted call for a synod on synodality. The process needs enthusiasm. Thus far the energy that has been expended on the part of Rome and its synod planners has been well organized with plenty of reference material and how-to information in the vademecum and preparatory document, offering practical support to the diocesan persons or teams in charge. However, in spite of the commendable preparatory work, the follow-up is sorely lacking in excitement, inspiration, enlightenment, and awakening prompted by the Spirit of God. Many dioceses in the United States have not yet informed their parishes and people in their charge that such an event is underway.

I want to use the word transformative to characterize what needs to happen, what absolutely must come forth from this synod. Can anything transformative come from an apparently lethargic beginning and a laissez-faire “We have plenty of time” attitude? Is there really plenty of time? If it does not happen now and with excitement, a golden opportunity will have been lost, and it may never be recaptured.

Personally, I am anxious to hear the thoughts and feelings of so-called lapsed Catholics—and there are millions of them. I want to hear their answers to questions like “What do you want from religion, from what once was your church?” and “What has caused you to part ways with the church that you once owned and whose teachings you followed?” My own answer would be that the story of Jesus—his life, his teaching, his theology and philosophy of life—had not been presented well at all down through the years by any of my teachers and instructors in the faith. Institutionalism and all that it entails has overshadowed and replaced the centrality of the Christocentric kerygma, the story of Jesus the Christ, his lifestyle and theology that are at the heart of Christianity. Technology and science in our time are not to blame for the secularism that now permeates America, a country that was identified as Christian. The lack of focus on Jesus and the gospels due to poor evangelization from infancy into adulthood heads the list.

The conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 presented us with an impressive array of documents on every aspect of church life, not legislative and legalistic like the results of the post Reformation Council of Trent, but pastoral and theological in nature. The constitutions and decrees manifested a church that cares about its people and wishes to get back to its roots, to embody once again not the pomp and circumstance, the political and terrestrial power of Rome, but the humble and Christocentric reality of discipleship in Christ. We need to return to those documents and review them, to revisit the progress we have made, our successes and failures, but also to acknowledge the road yet to be traveled in order to create the church that the council envisioned.

It comes as no surprise that the church continues to lean heavily toward autocracy, with instructions and orders coming from the top down. Even while we talk about the “new” church being an inverted pyramid with the vast throng of people at the top and the pope at the bottom, in fact, since the Council of Nicaea in 325, the church has not been structured as a democracy or a republic. However, one very important outcome of that council was that bishops were to be seen and understood as the successors of the apostles, with authority and jurisdiction in their own dioceses. This synod on synodality takes it a step further. It very clearly leans toward recognition of the Spirit of God among the laypeople and therefore hints at democracy. This is a giant step forward, summoning the thoughts and ideas of those who have become known as the “people of God.”

Among the bishops of Rome who have succeeded Pope John XXIII, there has been an increasing realization that the pope is primus inter pares, first among equals, that all bishops have teaching and governing authority in their own right according to a certain understanding of apostolic succession. Now an enlightened awareness of the vox populi, the voice of the people, in the Body of Christ, must assert its status as church in this process of growth. They are summoned by the Spirit to truly be “ekklesia,” a called-together assembly. It is time for something transformational to happen in the whole church through the active participation of the faithful.

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.

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