The Divided Church and the Next Phase of Synodality by Robert Mickens

This piece originally appeared in the January 10, 2022, edition of Go, Rebuild My House, a blog dedicated to constructive discussion around meaningful church reform sponsored by Sacred Heart University. Several of the blog’s contributors recently participated in a Zoom event on the possibility of schism within the church that is well worth viewing. Here, Robert Mickens highlights the central place of contemplative prayer in the ongoing synodal process. It puts one in the mind of a Carthusian writer’s acclamation of Saint Bruno: “How we need people of his contemplative weight to stabilize the volatile church!”—Ed.

A new calendar year, just like significant milestones in the life of a person or institution, is a moment for us to reflect on the most recent phase of our personal and collective human journey and to prepare for the stretch of road that now lies ahead.

All aspects of our life on planet earth this past year were once again marked by the ongoing challenges (and hardships) posed by the coronavirus pandemic. We now begin year three (!) of this global health crisis.

And what has become painfully clear during this long travail is that we earthlings are more deeply divided than many of us had ever feared.

In almost every country in the world, people are sharply at odds with one another politically. And in many places around the globe, the unity that should bind Roman Catholics together has been further fractured.

Depending on which side of the divide they find themselves, believers will blame this aspect of their Church’s long, ongoing crisis (which is much more complex than disunity) on something or somebody different.

Pope Francis tends to be the main reason for all the current woes of Catholicism, according to traditionalists and socio-political conservatives.

The obstinance of traditionalists and socio-political conservatives, on the other hand, is the reason for the Church’s problems, according to reform-minded Catholics and socio-political progressives.

How can the divisions between these two groups, members of the same community of believers, be overcome?

It is unlikely that the synodal process, which Francis asked dioceses around the world to launch last October, will bring healing. At least in the immediate future.

One of the reasons is that many bishops—especially in the United States, but also elsewhere—are clearly not interested in this audacious project. Most of them seem terrified that the synodal process will only produce chaos and likely deepen the current divisions.

What else could one expect to happen if, as officials at the Synod of Bishops’ secretariat in Rome have urged, all Catholics—even those who contest certain teachings and rules or those who no longer even attend Mass—are invited to come forward and have their say on the Church’s path forward?

Other bishops (and presbyters) apparently see the synodal process—which is extremely different from any diocesan synod or assembly that has been held in the past—as a serious threat to the current Church order in which only ordained clerics are allowed to make the most important decisions.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), as a body, has done practically nothing to promote the synodal process. Its vice president, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, has told Catholics in Southeastern Michigan that there is no need for it in their archdiocese.

Vigneron oversaw a local synod in Detroit in 2016 and believes that it sufficiently marked out the path of the archdiocese for the coming decades, even though that ecclesial assembly bore little resemblance to the synodal process the pope is trying make constitutive for Catholicism.

It will become clear next November whether the U.S. bishops have decided definitively to snub their nose at synodality. That’s when they elect their new conference president. And all but once in USCCB history has the vice president (in this case Vigneron) been voted to assume the top job. 

Pope Francis turned 85 last month and in March he is to complete nine years as Bishop of Rome. These are major milestones for both him and for all of us. During his time at the Vatican he has moved the Catholic Church in a markedly different direction than the one it was headed in when he was elected.

His effort to base all Church reform on a foundation of changed attitudes (or ethos) among priests and people—which is clearly and beautifully spelled out in the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium—has borne much fruit, but probably not as much or as quickly as many had hoped or expected.

Of course, that is a matter of perspective. A minority of Catholics, unfortunately made up of many bishops and clergy, are not at all happy that so much fruit has already begun to sprout.

Nonetheless, the Church is still a long way from become the self-forgetful, risk-taking, missionary outreach community portrayed in Evangelii gaudium. It is still dominated by people (all of us to a degree) who are obsessed mostly with maintaining/reforming ecclesial structures or reinforcing/changing certain “teachings,” rules and customs.

And we are divided.

The only thing that continues to unite us is our professed belief in God. And it is only through God—in prayer—that we will discover how to heal what divides us.

Catholics are not very good at speaking about their “prayer life.” It’s too intimate and sometimes we find it even more embarrassing than talking about our sex life!

We’re not speaking of prayer that consists only of asking or thanking God for something. The prayer of discernment that the pope speaks about, like any good Jesuit would, is certainly a key to this the real type of prayer that is necessary.

But there is also something called contemplation—sometimes called the “prayer of the heart,” “centering prayer” or even transcendental meditation. It is sitting in silent stillness, clearing the mind and allowing oneself to be embraced by the Holy Spirit.

Most Catholics have grown up thinking this is only something for monks or nuns, but as Thomas Merton discovered monks aren’t necessarily contemplatives. A lot of them are just introverts!

Perhaps the next stage of synodality and Church reform needs to be centered on a spiritual revival that helps Catholics—indeed, all Christians—discover the tools for building a deeper and richer interior life, whether through contemplative prayer, spiritual discernment or some other method that goes beyond just “saying prayers.”

The future of Christianity will likely depend on it. ♦

Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.

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