“This Wild Calling”: The Possibilities and Limitations of the Synod on Synodality by Gene Ciarlo

Months ago I started out with mixed feelings of hope and a lot of hesitancy regarding the upcoming Synod on Synodality. The intention of starting with the People of God to lend significant voice to the church-at-large was a major step toward making the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, more relevant in this 21st century. That was the hope. But the very idea seemed overly ambitious, considering the long and checkered history of the monarchical and pyramidal church.

Time, and the gradual unfolding of process and program, however, have conditioned my hopes and expectations, and not necessarily for the better. From the point of view of programming and organization, the future looks promising. The church has always been pretty good at this. Complexity is to be expected when dealing with thousands and millions of people the world over. The entire enterprise could and would end up in chaos if there were not comprehensive plans regulating the gradually unfolding process, issuing in what will ultimately be presented in Rome, when the Synod begins to bear fruit with the input of the bishops assembled as a decision-making body. It is like moving mountains without the benefit of dynamite. It will be a long, tedious, and patience-testing process.

I have a fundamental fear, however, that has to do with the final outcome. Regardless of how the program is handled, and regardless of the end result, I am obsessed with puzzling out how the life and teachings of Jesus and the labor of Christianity as a movement for personal and communal development might become more acceptable to the young, baptized, non-engaged, disinterested people of the world. I am sure I have said these things before, in many ways and with different nuances, but here I go again.

People of the various generations from the 1970s onward don’t care what the church or the hierarchy or the years of Christian impact upon the world have wrought. All of that—the sometimes glorious, often heartbreaking, and unquestionably, at times, diabolical parts of the church’s checkered history—all of it says nothing to their lives. It is not within their age-circumscribed radar and range of interest. They are simply struggling to “become,” and they are going to try to make it without what we have come to consider a necessary spiritual life, even in the broadest sense of that term. Admittedly there is very often depth of thought, seriousness of intent, and lots of struggle, but it has nothing to do with Jesus, or the pope, or their minister, preacher, priest, or rabbi; not with Canterbury, Rome, Jerusalem, or Mecca. They are on their own, and God is a part of it only as a distant, disinterested refuge of absolute last resort when all else seems to be failing. “God, help me!” There is my fear for the future, in a nutshell. What can move these mountains of indifference?

The Synod on Synodality, the entire process from start to finish, is not radical enough to move mountains, and mountains must be moved. The program, if we might call it that, does not get to the biblical and kerygmatic roots. Kerygma, in the simplest terms, is telling the whole story of Jesus, his lifework deeds of compassion, allowing his personhood, personality, and style to embrace the hearer and potential follower. Christianity needs to be uprooted and replanted in seasoned and yet new, rich soil. 

There is a book that strengthens my convictions about where the fault lies in the synodal process. It focuses on where the emphasis should be placed in the task of actually making things happen in the church. It is entitled Saving Jesus from the Church, and subtitled “How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Following Jesus.” The author is Robin R. Meyers, a United Church of Christ minister, Doctor of Ministry from Drew University, and professor of social justice in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University.

Here is the “dedication” that begins Meyers’s book. It refocuses our attention and places the burden of progress and development not on the general and “unlettered” members of the assembly, but on the teachers and preachers who supposedly “have seen a great light” and realize what really lies ahead of them in their ministry and post-synodal challenge. To point up that essential focus of the synod, I want to borrow the dedication to satisfy my intention. I ask the reader to substitute just one word—the fourth—from “book” to “synodal process”:

I dedicate this book to all the men and women who have chosen the parish ministry as their life’s work, and yet do not wish to be considered harmless artifacts from another age. May all those who labor in the most misunderstood, dangerous, and sublime of all professions be encouraged and inspired by the possibility that one’s head and one’s heart can be equal partners in faith. Lest the church end up a museum piece whose clergy are affable but laughable cartoons, we must once again dedicate ourselves to this wild calling—one that leads us away from more comfortable lives and into the only profession where radical truth-telling is part of the job description. May we fear no man and no creed, save our own timidity, and may we encourage and support one another in pursuit of religion that is biblically responsible, intellectually honest, emotionally satisfying, and socially significant.

The designated leaders and example-setters are the responsible ones who hold the future of the church and Christianity in their hands. Moms, dads, teachers, catechists, deacons, priests, bishops, and popes have all been responsible for instilling the Christian life in their charges, those who are growing up and coming into their own. The challenge today is enormous and quite overwhelming, in my opinion. In truth, I am pessimistic that the church leadership, sent out to proclaim the message of Jesus, grasps the seriousness and has the wherewithal to initiate the radical paradigm shift that is absolutely essential if Christianity is not to end up a dinosaur from another age, an age of superstition and irrelevancy, a “museum piece.”

Keeping in mind the list of those who bear the challenge to expand the relevancy of the church going forward, we must consider the subtitle of Meyers’s book: “How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Following Jesus.” I envision a multitude of themes emanating from that juxtaposition of concepts. “Worshipping Christ” has everything to do with creeds, formulas for memorization and blind acceptance, canon law, edicts, declarations, proclamations, organizational structures, static sociological guidelines, prohibitions, sin, grace, and even liturgical laws and practice. It evokes two thousand years of setting up structures to ensure the stability and continued existence of the churches that proclaim salvation through belief in Christ as Son of God and Savior.

Worship is a sociological term that considers the development, structures, and norms of interaction relative to a deity, a nameless, faceless, and unspeakable being whom we call God, our Father, along with Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. None of that is tender, personal, lovable, or embraceable according to the human condition, yet that is how we have been taught to think, act, and pray in our lives as members of the Body of Christ. Is it any wonder that, among the children of light, God is sidelined—not denied but ignored while Christianity as a vital, living, breathing lifestyle dies a slow death?

Then there is the second of that brief but powerful subtitle: “Following Jesus.” That verb is an action word in both denotation and connotation, unlike the concept of worship that elicits thoughts pointing to something foreign, not of this world. The idea of following Jesus speaks of action, of earthiness, a journey and a definite way to go. It is progress and process; it suggests commitment. It opens up the possibility of love. However, it is still not enough. The story of Jesus is not enough to create Christian community even if our entire process of catechesis should radically change and be redirected to the active public life of Jesus, starting with the Beatitudes.

What, then, is left?

In the long run, there are two paths by which the church on earth can become once again a vehicle to bring the Christian message and spirit into the world, to breathe spiritual life into an almost totally secularized and godless planet when viewed with a wide-angle lens. The first path, the synodal process, is presently in progress and is all about the people of God, the real “ecclesia,” the gathering of the called. However, I do not put much confidence in a people revolution, re-creation from the bottom up, so to speak. Power to the people is not part of the Roman Catholic Church’s monarchical history, and it is not about to change regardless of what Pope Francis may really like to see.

The second road to new life is all about the people to whom Dr. Meyers speaks in his dedication, the teachers and leaders in the church; namely, the hierarchy. A revivification and rebirth of Christianity will surely evolve if the assembled hierarchy of the world, meeting in Rome, are inspired by the Spirit of God to reject their sense of entitlement, undergo individually and collectively an in-depth metanoia, and radically change the language, laws, and customs of the Roman Catholic Church as it has evolved for two thousand years. This sweeping change would necessarily involve a rethinking of doctrines, not the least of which is papal infallibility. Is that a dream or a nightmare? A dream among the devout; a nightmare among the members of the Roman curia.

There is a third finalistic, perhaps fatalistic, way for the church, the people of God, the ecclesia, to come to life, rekindle their latent spirit, and become the Corpus Christi on earth, at least temporarily. It is for the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus to come again in glory. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! ♦

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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