Synodality involves a responsive listening to Christ in his person and a responsive listening to Christ in the lived circumstances of his people. . . . As human beings, we simply cannot know how to justly and compassionately respond to other human beings unless we are listening to them.
– From “Closeness and the Common Journey,”
Bishop Daniel E. Flores, STD
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime,
the longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme
– Seamus Heaney, “The Cure of Troy”
There is much talk these days in the Catholic community about the upcoming global synod in 2023. For me, talk of the synod does not excite me. In fact, I look at it as an exercise in futility. I hope I’m wrong, but my past experience with the plans for a synod has made me cynical of such a process. Let me explain.
In 2001, Bishop William Murphy, formerly Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, was transferred to my diocese of Rockville Centre in Long Island, New York. So much happened when Bishop Murphy arrived! He was installed as bishop on September 5, 2001, just a week before 9/11. It was a chaotic time. Then, in February 2002, the Boston Globe exposé of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the eventual cover-up of these crimes by the hierarchy shocked the church and the world. As the diocese tried to deal with the fallout from these difficult circumstances, Bishop Murphy stated that he would convene a diocesan synod in 2007. The plans went into gear. There were three preparatory meetings of parishioners throughout the diocese who shared their thoughts and ideas for the upcoming synod, and those meetings were very well attended. It all seemed so hopeful.
Obviously, there would be a lot of necessary planning, all in the midst of the pain of 9/11 and the sex abuse scandal, so it didn’t concern me when I heard nothing further about the promised synod. In my opinion, the synod was sorely needed in order to contribute to the healing process and to the future growth of the diocese, so I had no doubt that it was still in the works. I was confident that the bishop would keep his word.
As we approached 2007, I kept looking for notifications about the synod but saw nothing. I checked the diocesan website often. At one point, the website mentioned that there would soon be announcements about the synod within parishes. I watched and waited. Nothing. When I called the diocese to inquire about the announcements, I was told that was an error on the website. No synod.
No synod? What about all those preparatory meetings? They had amounted to nothing. The diocese stated that it decided to move in a different direction. So much for hierarchical promises. All I know is that the “different direction” did not filter down to the parishes.
Therefore, based on my past experience of synodal promises, this current global synod does not excite me. But I do live in the hope that the Spirit will prevail! Perhaps parishes will have had meaningful preparatory meetings after all. Perhaps history will not repeat itself. As of now, I must admit, the path to the global synod seems to be on its way. Across the world, dioceses, parishes, and religious communities have supposedly undertaken meetings in order to gather information in preparation for the synod.
In my parish, there were two synodal meetings scheduled. There were seven people at the first meeting, presided over by the pastor, and six at the second, which I attended, presided over by one of the deacons. This was a total of 13 people. Why so few? The pastor did thoughtfully arrange for one of the meetings to be in the evening and one to be in the morning. This allowed the necessary flexibility to accommodate as many parishioners as possible. Yet only 13 people showed up. Disheartening, to say the least.
For me, it is difficult to understand the very low turnout for the synodal meetings. It is also hard to know how the turnout compared to other parishes in the diocese, and in other parts of the country and the world. Yet this small number meant that many voices were not heard. I asked a number of my friends who are consistent churchgoing Catholics why they were not in attendance. Their comments were disheartening, especially since I know these people to be intelligent, committed Catholics: “It would be a waste of time and energy;” “Nobody in the church cares what I think”; “As far as the hierarchy is concerned, the laity remain cash cows”; “The church never listens. They just dictate.”
The bottom line is that the synthesis report from my parish was based on the input of only a handful of people. The report made no mention of how many people attended the meetings. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that the person reading the report feels that it is representative of the entire parish, when, in fact, it only represents the views of a small minority. For example, with one exception, my group of six participants all agreed on the need for women priests and married clergy. This fact was not mentioned in the report. It seems the subject of women priests in the church is still taboo, so it didn’t matter that the synodal group discussed the topic—the issue is off the table, period!
These are the roots of my disillusionment with the whole synodal process. My experience tells me not to hope on this side of the grave, but I do believe that the Spirit will ultimately prevail. When she will prevail, however, is a subject for another time!
Since transparency is not one of the church’s greatest gifts, I feel that it will take years before the details of this synod emerge. Eventually historians and theologians will write books on the worldwide synod of 2023, just as multitudinous books have written about Vatican II. Perhaps then the “inside stories” will appear and we will learn the truth of what happened. Until then, I hold to the words of Bishop Daniel E. Flores: “Humanly, we cannot dialogue with an idea of the Church; we can only dialogue with one another in the Church. We cannot love the Church as we wish she were, or imagine she might be; we can only love her as she is.” ♦
Anne Kerrigan is a registered nurse, mother of five, and grandmother of nine. She also has a master’s degree in theology and is the winner of the Australasian Religious Press Association Silver Award in Excellence for “Best Faith Reflection.” She is in the process of writing her memoir. She can be reached at email@example.com.