The Synod on Synodality: Evolution or Revolution? by Gene Ciarlo

The solemn opening of the “Synod on Synodality” began with the gathering of the delegates and other participants in Rome on October 4. Much work has gone into this major enterprise, not only on the part of individual Catholic dioceses and parishes throughout the world, but also among the men and women who have been instrumental in the planning and staging of this great event in Rome. The gathering is arguably the most important development in the life of the Roman Church since Vatican II stirred the embers of a living but languishing church in another fateful October in 1962.

This is a positive moment for the good of the church, with an eye toward its future growth and progress toward the reign of God. There are great hopes and expectations, not only on the part of many millions of Catholics who are anticipating a more active and responsible role of laypeople who profess membership in the Catholic Church, but also among those increasing numbers of former Catholics who have looked with a jaundiced eye at organized religion in the 21st century. There may be cynics, and there will be zealots, but regardless of the positive and negative attitudes that necessarily attend an event of this magnitude, it will leave an indelible mark upon the church for years to come—for better or for worse.

I say “for better or for worse” intentionally. It suggests that there will be a negative side to this worldwide religious event that has broached democratizing an historically authoritarian structure. The final results of the gathering may not satisfy the hopefuls and progressives who see the future life of the church as dependent upon more than cosmetic change. On the other hand, the outcome may seem more like revolution than evolution to those Catholics who feel that any significant disruption of dogma and doctrine that has, by divine ordinance, come down through the centuries would be a sin against the legacy that Jesus bestowed on his apostles and upon the early church.

Although there have been opposing postures throughout the Synod, I do not believe there will be a formal division in the church as in the Great Schism of 1054. We have gone beyond that for several reasons. If there are strong differences of opinion, they will manifest as a quiet separation of belief and practice. There will be those who prefer the traditional mode of prayer and worship, tenacious and unbending as it may seem, convinced that the catechism of the Council of Trent conceived in the 15th century cannot evolve over time because its teachings are firmly grounded in sacrosanct and immutable divine revelation. On the other hand, there are those less conservative members of the Body of Christ who believe that the times and seasons invariably dictate how the theology of the early church will, and indeed must evolve and develop in time. They see sociological principles and continued growth in the Spirit as part of our God-given enlightenment.

A few concrete examples might bring to light the ways in which the past and present come together to create an apparent clash between what the church holds sacred and unchangeable and how those beliefs are ritualized in worship.

On the one hand, small Christian communities are gathering as we speak. It is becoming increasingly common for like-minded Roman Catholic Christians and other Christians to come together on a regular basis to pray, break bread, and perhaps celebrate Eucharist. They may not all profess Roman Catholicism, but they confess Jesus, the Christ, as Lord, and are believers in his message, method, and style of life, love, and compassion. They are an open and welcoming community, accepting among them anybody who believes in Jesus, acknowledging him as the Word and affirming his lifestyle as answering the needs of their own journey.

The aim of these small communities is to carry forward into their members’ lives the unity, simplicity, compassion, and bonding of their gathering as church. The underlying theme of their coming together is how to grow to be able to reach out, to evangelize by word and deed in daily life. The community is never myopic and self-serving. It is intended to build ekklesia, “the gathering of those summoned.”  

On the other side of town, as it were, in a place like Seville Cathedral in Spain, the tone of the gathering for worship is vastly different. For starters, there is a breathtaking four-rank, 12,000-pipe organ housed in the choir loft of a magnificent neo-gothic brownstone building modeled after the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. But that is not their claim to fame. Their Sunday liturgies are well-attended because they are usually heavy in ritual and rich pageantry, magnificent in sight and sound. It is traditional Roman Catholicism at its finest.

However, it is noteworthy that the congregation is not encouraged to be involved in the musical and verbal responses. There is no apparent need. Although the participants in this liturgical extravaganza are moved, the question to be pondered is whether the feeling of elation carries over into their daily lives. Does it help them to be imitators of the spirit and message of Christ? That is the test of its worth in keeping with the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me,” that are pronounced before the grand elevation of the Sacred Species, summoning the congregation to attention at the sound of the enthusiastic ringing of bells. This is the kind of pageantry that endures forever in our hearts.

What thoughts come to mind as we ponder the two styles of gathering described above? I like both of them; one for entertainment and swelling my spirit, and the other for making me think of what I must do to live the spirit of Jesus and somehow become a sample of it in the world. In his book Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, the psychologist Abraham Maslow alludes to the two divergent perspectives in our search for meaning in our spiritual lives:

I see in the history of many organized religions a tendency to develop two extreme wings: the “mystical” and individual on the one hand, and the legalistic and organizational on the other. The profoundly and authentically religious person integrates these trends easily and automatically. The forms, rituals, ceremonials, and verbal formulae in which he was reared remain for him experientially rooted, symbolically meaningful, archetypal, unitive. Such a person may go through the same motions and behaviors as his more numerous coreligionists, but he is never reduced to the behavioral, as most of them are. Most people lose or forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefine Religion as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms, which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic, conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, anti-religious. The mystic experience, the illumination, the great awakening, along with the charismatic seer who started the whole thing, are forgotten, lost, or transformed into their opposites. Organized Religion, the churches, finally may become the major enemies of the religious experience and the religious experiencer.

It must be noted that Maslow posits extremes in both positions because he is intentionally working with opposites for the sake of emphasis. Consider it hyperbole. In medio stat virtus: In the middle stands the virtue. Which direction will Catholics choose? Choices will have to be made, or the church will continue to gradually slide into oblivion or occasional meetings of quiet desperation.

As a Roman Catholic from infancy, I bear with me the marks of Catholicism in what I know and understand about religion. I remember what I was taught, and those lessons are carried through in numerous ways in my beliefs and practices. I learned to pray, but much of that prayer was “asking” prayer, even though the catechism also includes prayer of adoration and reparation as well as petition. Atheists may occasionally catch themselves praying for help, because somewhere along the way prayer was introduced as a part of their cultural environment. In sum, we will never be men and women of one extreme or another. We will always remember where we came from and what we were taught, and it will always influence our words and actions. We are leaners as well as learners: we lean, progressive or conservative, dogmatic or free spirited.

Where will this Synod on Synodality take us? Will it break us into camps, one side being almost libertarian in its beliefs and practices, with an absolute minimal nod to the teaching authority of the church, and the other convinced that the Synodal Assembly was destined to be swayed in the direction of tried-and-true doctrine and dogma, persuaded by the most powerful among them who hold positions of authority in the Roman Curia and Vatican corps of movers and shakers?

The church will go on, and the paths of its members—and even its nonmembers who still hold to their belief—will be scattered in various directions like seed sown in the wind. At harvest time the separation between wheat and chaff will be made. The Catholic Church will never be a monolith again after this Synod. The Spirit of God blows where it wills. ♦

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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1 reply
  1. Anne M Mulderry
    Anne M Mulderry says:

    Thank you for deep wisdom, clear exposition, and especially thank you for stating how much there to ponder, and how that might be done a peaceful acceptance of my own uncertainties.


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