This is the second of a projected three-part series on the 2023 synod. Part I, “The Church Gathers Its People,” is available here—Ed.
Pope Francis sees the need to call together the universal Catholic Church in an attempt to discover and try to remedy the terrible loss of active participation in the life and work of the Christian faith, Roman Catholic style. It is no secret that millions of disaffected Catholics, born and bred in the Catholic faith, no longer find the religion into which they were baptized to be a source of guidance for their personal and social lives and the health of our nation and, ultimately, of the world. As a result, a synod on synodality, entitled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission,” will witness a general assembly of the worldwide corpus of bishops gathering in Rome in October 2023, bringing with them the results of 10 months listening to the people of God, active members as well as those who have chosen to step aside from active participation in the Catholic faith and all that membership entails.
Why is such a convocation necessary? In addition to the above, there are multiple reasons for this assembly, and they all have to do with the mission of the church to live out and spread the kerygma, the Good News, the gospel message of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. The mission is limping badly in modern society and has to be infused with new life and vigor. The way to do that, as seen by Pope Francis, is to listen and act upon the voices, be they happy, sad, glad, or indifferent, that speak to us in our increasingly secular and irreligious world.
I see two principal reasons for the disintegration of Catholic life in our people to the extent that they no longer own the Roman Catholic Church as their touchstone with God and the life of the Spirit. First of all, the tenor of the times militates against religion, since scientific advancement and technology have, in many instances, taken its place. Secondly, and perhaps even more important, Catholics and perhaps Christians in general are ignorant of what their faith is about.
It started out early in life. The religious instruction, or catechesis, that children receive from their earliest years has been, in my view, extremely superficial and often poorly imparted. This leads to an adolescence and adulthood that is sorely lacking in a true understanding of what Christianity (and, more specifically, Roman Catholic Christianity) is about. I see this as a foundational element in assessing what has happened to the faith and practice of Catholicism.
A major part of the problem may lie in a doctrinal approach to imparting the faith, the rules and regulations, types of devotions, and content of prayer that are far removed from the gospel message of Jesus, his mission and ministry. The necessary sociological structures of sustaining and advancing the Roman Catholic faith may have gotten in the way of encouraging—and, yes, even compelling—young and old to live the spirit and message of Jesus. We call the resulting defectors “fallen-away Catholics.” But maybe it is the church that has fallen away from the nucleus of the Christian faith as Jesus himself would recognize it.
We have been cheated in our early catechesis and religious education by the way the gospel message has been handed on to us, not only perhaps at home by our parents, sad to say, our first teachers in the way of the Lord, but also by the catechists who were entrusted with imparting the Christian message to us in those formative years of elementary and high school. I see this as one of the main reasons why teens and young people coming of age and creating their own value system decide that their religion is not something that they want to hold on to and foster. They recognize it as overtly unrealistic and superficial, unrelated to their lives, loaded with superstition and “pie in the sky when you die,” placing the wrong emphasis in the wrong places as they grow into individuals and social beings.
As they start to think for themselves, adolescents will discover that what they have been taught relative to God in their lives—and, more specifically, what the Catholic Church proposes to them as a good life—does not fit in with the reality that surrounds them. They will then roundly and thoroughly reject what they have been taught during those years of catechism classes, beginning in elementary school leading to the sacrament of confirmation and beyond.
The result is sad to say the least. Behold the status of Christianity and the Catholic Church in this age of secularism, technology, and the rise of human ingenuity reaching for the stars: There has been a major decline in belief and practice because the instruction of children and adolescents was not centered on Jesus and the scriptures; it was more about definitions and fidelity to the church and its teachings, which may or may not have included lessons that Jesus taught or that would make him the focus in the development of the Christian life.
When young people reach adulthood, with its independent thought, decision making, and action, the church is often rejected in favor of life as it presents itself in a world of glamour, glitz, and material well-being. Exit Jesus and his lifestyle and message, which were never really imparted in a way that helped young people understand his values as a person incredibly worthy of emulation. Consider the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, a magisterial document of the Second Vatican Council, dated November 1965. I quote from chapter 1, section 2, under the heading “Participation of Laity in the Church’s Mission”:
In the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission. To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical and kingly office of Christ; they have therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God. In the concrete, their apostolate is exercised when they work at the evangelization and sanctification of men [sic]; it is exercised too when they endeavor to have the gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order, going about it in a way that bears clear witness to Christ and helps forward the salvation of men.
It is high-flown language but the message comes through. The reason why we Catholics find ourselves in these circumstances, with a faltering Christianity, after over 2,000 years since Jesus walked this earth, is largely due to the fact that we grew up in an environment that put forth its best effort trying to preserve, nurture, and grow a very temporal and hierarchical organization that happened to be a religion, a spiritual entity above and beyond this terrestrial domain.
Sociologically speaking, there was hardly a choice. Every body of people or corporation that wants to stay alive and develop must put into place directives that will propel it into the future. For the Roman Catholic Church, a Code of Canon Law had to be written; structures including all the pomp and ceremony that we associate with the Vatican had to be designed, not only to keep the movement alive but to sustain it and allow it to grow as an earthly power. Did it really have to happen that way? Rather than men and women imbued with the spirit of the Gospels and the mind of Christ Jesus, we have been taught to live by a structure of laws and rules intended to lead to our salvation and life in the world to come. In sum, the rules and regulations that all the churches have put in place to ensure their existence and development have often overwhelmed the message of Jesus and the Gospels. It is not peculiar to Roman Catholicism.
As a result, we have not created a Christian society in spite of the overwhelming number of Christians that populate our earth. The powers that be have worked to guarantee an organization that too often contradicts the spirit of Christ and his message. Just one look at Saint Peter’s in Rome, at Vatican City and the clergy who populate it, and you know that there is something amiss relative to the Gospel of Mark or Matthew, or the teachings of Paul or John. It has all been done to keep the message alive, and the message is overwhelmed by the structures of temporality and not eternity.
Tom Krattenmaker, communications director at Yale Divinity School, sees Jesus as profoundly humanitarian, a man totally for others. He calls Jesus a humanist in his book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Will the upcoming synod be able to listen to what the people have to say and revise, revive, and revisit the gospel spirit of Christ to bring into their lives the lifestyle of Jesus, the great humanist? That indeed would make not only the church but also America great again.
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.