A version of this essay originally appeared in the March 26, 2022, edition of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC) newsletter. We are grateful to the author and editors for permission to reprint it here. An introduction to the ARCC’s “Peoples Synod” is available here—Ed.
In our synodal process, we engaged in prayer for guidance, spending untold hours in dialogue and debate. (Because of how long this takes, this may rattle the impatient.) We knew our grounding to this point: relationships are the foundation of our faith. Scripture is all about relationships, the good, the bad, and the ugly; it is a sort of “relationship manual” showing us worst- and best-case scenarios to learn from. The Spirit calls us to strong, deep relationships (right relationships); wholeness is needed in this high-velocity world.
Prayer and dialogue moved us to application, but we shared a sophomoric faith life we were taught as children. We recognized that we were facing a silent, invisible impediment to moving forward. That impediment, though simple in words, is complex in its origins. It’s best understood through the example of the young man who needed to go to a pharmacy to pick up depression medication taken his entire adult life. In asking why he hadn’t tried natural means, he looked up pensively, as if the idea had never crossed his mind. He pondered a moment, then said, “But that’s all I know.”
That comment parallels our Catholic Christian experience in a nutshell, and we recognized an internal obstacle. We were following the faith that we were taught, that had imbedded in it a need to seek permission, guidance, and dependence on an authority figure.
The Demonstrated Power of the Spirit
We “cradle Catholics” were raised within a chain of submission; we were made to believe we were not enough for God and needed a dependent relationship, a higher physical power to guide us, to prepare us to be good enough to gain salvation. Immediately this put us in a box, reliant on authority to show us a path while punitively keeping us on course.
We took the bait. Every time we posed a question to our planning team, instinctively, there was a note of concern. Questions like “Should we align with others because we are so small, so unknown, so empty of resources?” The Spirit stepped in at the precise moment, reaffirming the path we were on. An Emmaus moment! It was then that Pope Francis announced that our recommendations were not to be a recycling of “what is” but rather be built upon two criteria: they needed to be innovative and sustainable. Thank you, Spirit!
Prayer continued prompting dialogue and the will to continue. Over time, we began to think we were good enough, and this was followed by an almost irrational move toward action: “What are we waiting for? Let’s do this!” or “We’ve talked about this and talked about this. When do we act?” The chain of dependence was broken, igniting celebration, a joyous freedom to use our gifts, not the approval or disapproval of an authority figure to move forward.
We then realized that our target population will have the same issues, making our movement forward unsettling. Our bubble was temporarily deflated; frustration set in. Onward, we said. Let’s rethink the process and confront the question of who needs the chain of dependence broken to experience the same kind of freedom we have. All agreed that this was those on the periphery. The next struggle became: How feasible is it to ask those who have turned their backs on the institution to comment on what a healthy church of the future looks like? These issues were larger than life.
Finding the Target
If those sentiments were unconsciously imbedded in our target population, how can they be reached for dialogue? We decided that our contact needed to be indirect, not direct. Outreach to all might arouse an opportunity to share experiences in an accepting, nonjudgmental milieu with others. Some theology tells us we aren’t good enough to approach Jesus directly with our lived experience issues and must go to Mary to be our intermediary, causing us to speculate whether this is not the moment for a “theology of the People of God.”
Searching for Wisdom
In reading the book of Acts, it becomes clear the faithful had similar issues to our own. Believers in Jesus’s message were immersed in a non-accepting world opposite from their beliefs, causing many to be condemned and killed for those beliefs. Immediately, the thoughts of contemporary culture came to mind, where “cancel culture” has effects on how people think and behave and creates an external obstacle.
In reading the documents of Vatican II, I we face yet another similarity. Francis has “opened the windows” of the church. We are examining territory that was once forbidden, territory that smacks of “that’s all I know” that will take time to decompose. The reality of the Vatican II documents being altered for self-serving reasons initiated an anger that is still hard to extinguish. These texts greatly influenced our thinking and pointed directly to the issues, pro and con, we were about to face.
We followed these readings with an immersion in Pope Francis’s thinking and found that, for us, he never missed the mark. Did he OK women priests, married priests, gay marriage—No! But these symptomatic issues are all results of a poor system of governance. Too many continue to focus on issues of little interest to Francis; his interest is on root causes that have the potential of solving multiple problems when implemented. Science is his educational background. He openly invites the People of God to speak out, to identify what’s broken and offer recommendations to fix them. Not many CEOs have that kind of courage. This invitation can, if accepted, have a dual transformative effect on both the faithful and the institution.
Sadly, there are too many in the clerical culture who fear this move by resisting, ignoring, or sabotaging Francis’s invitation. Motivated by fear of change, the reaction needs to be expected in every step forward. Everything that some priests worked to achieve—a pastorate, a bishop title, an affirmation of their conformity to being legislators rather than empathizers—might have won them a cardinal’s hat. But the tone and tenor of Francis’s invitation is now calling all of us to service. Reversing the paradigm that grounds what some priests worked so hard to achieve is what is being asked of them, and us—and for many, it is too costly.
Turning an Obstacle to a Success
Recognizing that phenomenon, we identified it as another external obstacle to reaching the periphery. This helped us decide that our synodal process would become a project outside of the institution, open to all and applicable to all. The simple outcome of this massive endeavor is to teach us how we interact with one another—with family, neighbors, in business relationships. In researching the transformative literature outlined above, we became aware that nothing we recommended organizationally would be sustainable without the conversion of the people. It is even more complex to create “metanoia moments” in our recommendations to complement and nurture others throughout the synodal process.
We’ve accepted our path fully realizing it is not a “one-and-done” activity; it is multifaceted, multidimensional, and extremely broad and challenging to and for all affected. Focusing on sodality, we believe that continuing our small-group dialogue is a long-term commitment; it demands that we manage it now and beyond the 2023 Synod. This is new territory for us all, and there is no manual to follow, no wizard to consult, except the Spirit who works with us on Her own time. Transformation this size can be a communal metanoia, a personal and group opportunity. Everything in between is transitional, and by its very nature, is not a sustainable move.
Pope Francis is clever. He has a dual focus on institutional change to meet future needs of the People of God. If done well, it has the potential of converting the People. We have long believed the institution and the faith are not conjoined twins and can be dealt with separately. Francis’s foresight has brought the two together. There are benefits to this approach, as the process we have selected may help participants emerge from their bubbles of obedience, passivity, and silence in matters of faith.
The institutional aphrodisiac of power and control is being challenged everywhere, across all institutions, and the church has not escaped it. The sharing of power and control will continue to be resisted by the clergy and can only be displaced by the willing participation of opposing entities working together to achieve win-win outcomes. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) did it, so our efforts have a model peppered with extra doses of patience.
Excluding the People of God from the synodal process was a strategic misstep, yet it is our hope that Pope Francis (the Pope of Surprises) throws a “Hail Mary” pass at the 11th hour. His action on this issue would calm the fears of those who say they have no time to devote to a project that has already been decided.
We’ve been proactive in disseminating our views on the synod. We have guaranteed inclusivity and open communication. We believe we have the potential of enticing the periphery with a “forgiveness mindset” (which includes interaction with the clerical culture) and engaging a broad population (evangelical, corporate, and others). This solution can heal and repair the institutional church, those dynamics that have kept us enslaved, and bring about the conversion of the People of God.
It is time to recover the values of our faith. We have begun establishing small groups and invite all to engage with us. It can be a personal and communal opportunity to make history for ourselves and for others. ♦
Janet W. Hauter is Executive Director at Mission of the Spirit in Tinley Park, Illinois. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.