Evaluating the Synod, Part III: The Jesus Story Is the Answer by Gene Ciarlo

This is the third of a  three-part series on the 2023 synod. Part I, “The Church Gathers Its People,” is available here. Part II, “Catholic Catechesis and Spiritual Growth,” is available here—Ed.

The synod on synodality, entitled For a Synodal Church; Communion, Participation and Mission, is underway, in theory, during these preparatory 10 months prior to the convocation of all the bishops of the world at the Vatican in October 2023.

If the plan plays out as scripted, any significant changes in the way the Roman Catholic Church lives out its life in the coming years rests largely with Christians, committed or lapsed, who follow or have followed the Catholic way and have aired their thoughts and feelings during this 10-month period of gathering and discussion. Pope Francis wants to know what makes us the kinds of Catholics that we are, for better or worse. He wants to know why former Catholics are reneging on their membership, and why even the faithful are anxious about the direction Roman Catholic Christianity is taking in the world, and why it is not responding vigorously to present political, economic, and social realities.

The church, going forward, will not see significant and vital change coming from the men who are in positions of authority and government, as if touched by the Spirit of God they are looking deeply into the history and direction of the church and finding it wanting. If history is any indication, the Roman curia, the predominantly male clergy who govern the church in the prevailing authoritarian way, will not be in the vanguard of change in the church. They have been at the forefront of leadership for centuries, and yet in 2021 fewer and fewer Catholics are bothering to show any allegiance to this Christian body, its message and method of making the world a better place to live.

As it stands now, in my opinion, the church is failing. We are failing in our mission to make the message and spirit of Jesus, the Christ, significant in society throughout the world. The salvation of our individual souls has been outlandishly emphasized over the centuries, and as a result, evangelization—outreaching and outspeaking—have suffered. That is the background behind this convocation of the faithful and unfaithful members of the Catholic Church. It is also an insight suggesting the ideal. But what is the reality?

The Jesus story is a far cry from what is going on today in our world of politics and international relations. The West and the East are building their power structures not based on a mindset and intentionality to harness peace, mutual acceptance, and accord, but the key nations in the world are building for military, economic, and political dominance. Christianity, the largest of all religious assemblies of God’s people, hardly has a place at the table, a voice in what is happening.

Things were radically different at one time, but that was long ago in the early charismatic stages of the church’s existence. Now is the time once again for a rebirth, to let the Christian message come to the fore, to influence the direction of humanity the world over. That sounds like a tall order, unrealistic pie in the sky. Of course it is. It is the ideal. But the synod is meant to bring truth to light and make us strong to fight the good fight according to the spirit and message of Jesus, the one we call the Anointed.

The trend of the times is very often brutal and cruel, totally absorbed in the machinations of this world and its temporal order. Science is good; technology is good; progress is good. What is bad and what Christianity is meant to change might well be summed up in the words of a book published back in 1975, the subject of which seems to get truer by the day in our modern society the world over. The book is by Michael Korda, and it is titled Power! How to Get It, How to Use It. I quote: “Despite the difference in style the message is the same. Death will come soon; meanwhile, there is nothing left to believe in but success and power in a cruel world we never made.” Korda goes on to explain how “anything goes” in order to become top dog regardless of the cost and damage to other people. He is not alone in this belief, and I am sure there are tens and perhaps hundreds of books in publication these days that propose the same philosophy of life. Just take a look at our nation, our world for that matter, and its politics today. Enough said.

This trend of the times is not gospel. It is not good news. It is not Jesus and his message. What is the church’s formula for success in the world? Does a look at the Vatican and its hierarchy speak at all to Korda’s description of success? Does the church count on temporal power and authority to make its message meaningful in today’s world? Is it by decrees from on high or by imposing mandatory regulations regarding the reception of the sacraments that is going to shock our world into peace and harmony? They are static and lifeless institutional norms to signify membership in good standing. Religion, our Christian faith, has been almost totally eclipsed by the cares and concerns of a world that is inadvertently and surreptitiously destroying itself. Meanwhile, the church has fallen victim to the temporality and superficiality of that kind of power. How blind and foolish we are.

One of the principal reasons that Christians hardly have a voice in the destiny of our world is because over the centuries the Catholic Christian message has been keyed to personal salvation. The concepts of sin and salvation have dominated Christianity, and that is not the message of Jesus and the gospels. The playbook keeps asking us how we can save ourselves from damnation and avoid sin. That is the thrust of Christian catechesis and it is totally misplaced. Mature, well-educated, and thoughtful people in our time laugh at sin and damnation, heaven or hell, as they have been presented to us. It is time to change the thrust of that old catechesis, to come to understand that our state of soul evidencing our future destiny is hardly at the top of the list of what Jesus was all about in his life. He was determined to bring to earth a lifestyle built on mercy, compassion, and empathy.

Contrast the way of the world that Korda embodies in his writing with what Good News is really about in the words of Saint Paul to the members of the community at Thessalonica. These words were written even before any of the gospels. Perhaps they are the oldest New Testament writings that we have.

You must live at peace among yourselves. And we would urge you, brothers, to admonish the careless, encourage the faint-hearted, support the weak, and to be very patient with them all. See to it that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but always aim at doing the best you can for each other and for all men. Be always joyful; pray continually; give thanks whatever happens; for this is what God in Christ wills for you. . . . I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to the whole brotherhood. . . . The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you! (I Thess. 5:24–28)

These words fly in the face not only of Korda’s book on power but even in the face of the worldly and sin-obsessed church that we have known. This is at the root of Pope Francis’s call for a synod on synodality—a beckoning to people the world over who have professed their faith in Jesus as the only real power to emulate and imitate. We need the voice of the faithful to remind us all, and especially the Catholic Church hierarchy, where we have gone wrong. What we have emphasized in our catechesis over the years has chased people away because they have been labeled “sinners in the hands of an angry God” who seeks vengeance for sins. The emphasis has been all wrong.

I want you to hear the words of an atheist, a loveable atheist, who has put his faith in Jesus, the Jesus that many of us, perhaps most of us, have sidelined:

Conventional religion can no longer fill the holes for increasing numbers of us in the Western world, present company included. But maybe because he has just the right amount of malleability, maybe because he did not dictate a rigid code or manual that was doomed to become outdated after a certain amount of time, Jesus seems to have transcended the context changes that have hamstrung codified religion as we know it. Jesus lives on with surprising vitality. Jesus remains a potent and compelling source, and force. (Tom Krattenmaker, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower)

What I have been stressing thus far is that we Catholic Christians have to get back to the lifestyle embodied in the message of Christ. We have played too long with the theology of grace, salvation, and damnation to the detriment of the gospel message. So many people have abandoned the church because they don’t want to hear that they are damned because of their sins, as if that is the central message of Christianity: avoid sin, do the will of God (whatever that is) so that when you die you will go to heaven. So sophomoric. People don’t want to hear that anymore. It is primitive religion worthy only of Middle Age popular piety focused on hell and damnation. It is neither what Jesus was saying nor the way he lived. Discussion groups built around the matter of the synod have to announce that we are committed to making the world a better, more altruistic, and more peaceful place to live, with mutual respect, acceptance, and understanding.

If the synod is to be successful in the sense of revitalizing the message and spirit of Christ as embodied in the church, what, then, will be the signs that it succeeded in its mission? It can retain its rigid code of sin and grace with cosmetic modifications, or it will change radically, which is very highly unlikely—“radical change” means “from the roots,” so that the church looks more like the image of Jesus that we see in the gospels. We have two choices: the lady or the lion, a story of love and redemption. Either we satisfy ourselves that there is a significant place in the world for the kind of religion that Rome emulates in all its glory, or major changes are implemented in structure and form so that it looks more like the humble and self-giving Man that Jesus was and is in the Good News.

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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