Stability in the Spirit by Gene Ciarlo

In the old but not-to-be-forgotten novel Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West, the newly elected pope, Kiril I, sheds all of the pomp and ceremony that we normally associate with the Vatican and the office of Vicar of Christ on earth and spends his ministry walking, talking, and giving his all to the poor and downtrodden of the world. It is a wonderful story that I often dream of, even though it will never see the light of day in our time.

If the earth lasts so long, it may happen someday, but it will take many, many Synods on Synodality and Synods of Bishops to bring the Roman Catholic Church to that point resembling the Jesus figure on earth. The wheels of progress in the church grind very finely and very, very slowly. That may be due to an effort on the part of us humans to be infallibly certain that the Holy Spirit really knows what God is doing for the good of the church. On the other hand, perhaps change happens slowly simply to allow us to adjust our psyches to the radical development of something so timeless as divine positive law, by which the church is shepherded and governed.

The Synod on Synodality has concluded and the results have been published. It is a document of 42 pages containing 20 topics, each of which is broken down into three parts: “Convergences,” which I would consider the facts, setting the scene for the heart of the matter; “Issues to be Addressed” about the subject at hand; and, finally, “Proposals,” which are hardly concrete and definitive.

A person must read very closely to distinguish any major differences among those three parts. They are very much interrelated and similar in content. There are no startling conclusions. If anyone familiar with the workings of the church expected major shifts in the modus agendi et vivendi through this particular synodal process, he or she might be considered a bit naïve about the history of Roman Catholicism and perhaps religions in general. Religions, dealing with matters of the spirit, must of necessity retain at least a modicum of stability and timelessness. It is a sociological fact.  

However, it must be noted that a very good and worthy result did proceed from the 2023 Synod, and that is the very process of synodality: how to work together in roundtable fashion to discuss matters and draw conclusions. We learned how women and men, ordained and unordained, can share thoughts and ideas with the hope of arriving at a common understanding that leads eventually to concrete action. That is the primary lesson and perhaps the only solid conclusion of the most recent synod. It was a synod about synodality and perhaps not much more. It was an introduction to a process of working together without regard to clerical or non-clerical status. Barriers among people may have broken down, just a bit.

Clericalism is a subject that Pope Francis has addressed on more than one occasion. He does not particularly like a two-tiered church of those who are special and elevated in status by ordination and then the rest of the Body of Christ. But there is the crux and heart of the matter: We are the Body of Christ, and as Paul so eloquently wrote in First Corinthians (12:21), we all need each other, and the role that we play in making up the Body does not allow for more and less important parts.

There are other conclusions from this 2023 Synod that are waiting in the wings, so to speak. The role of women in the church, namely their access to the deaconate and other vital roles now filled solely by clerics, is something that has been put off until next year’s Synod. The same holds true for members of the LGBTQ+ community who wait to be accepted as whole, sinless, and blessed in their state of life. Of course, there are other issues that are in suspended animation, still alive but waiting for action by the assembled Body.

In the meantime, what is the status of the Roman Catholic Church while we wait, ponder, and allow time and circumstances to lead the church to decisions? I can begin to conjecture how matters will evolve during this interim year because they follow a certain pattern that is common in church-related matters. Time and age have conditioned me. It might be summed up rather succinctly: While we wait, the Spirit is at work. I heartily recommend a reading of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, chapter 2, versus 1 through 16. It speaks of the role of the Spirit and how those who live in the Spirit will move about doing the work of the Lord. Verses 12 and 13 are worth quoting here: “Now we have received not the Spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.” Things are going to happen in the course of this next year, waiting for the next “installment” of synodality. It is the way the Spirit works in the church, often regardless of our human intervention or stagnancy.

While at Mass earlier this month, in a typical, traditional Roman Catholic community, I became aware of (and distracted by) the fact that this celebration of Eucharist according to the directives issued by the Roman Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome is only one way, one style of gathering a community for Eucharistic celebration. There are other ways already in progress, and they will continue to grow and develop. There will be small Christian communities, or intentional communities, coming together for Sunday worship. Someone will preside, and that person may not be an ordained minister. They will break bread together and talk about the Scriptures and their understanding of what it means to live life as Christians in this increasingly hostile world.

Women will feature prominently in these gatherings. They have always been a significant number of Jesus’s followers, as noted in the pages of the Christian testament. And next October, women will continue to participate in the Synod, gathering once again in Rome to discuss their roles in the church—roles that are already evolving, surreptitiously. But does anyone in the official Catholic Church acknowledge the de facto situations of intentional communities? I would suspect that some insightful members are aware but others are not. As I noted in a previous essay, there are two churches, both Catholic and Christian, expressing their faith in Jesus as Lord according to the way the Spirit moves them.

We must not to be afraid to admit that new ways of building church communities are arising. This is the reality, especially in Latin American churches influenced by a liberation theology that frees up minds and hearts. But this is not only true of the communities of Central and South America; this is happening all over the Christian world, in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and even in de-christianized France. There is the official church and the unofficial one. Where is the Spirit of God breathing?

Unexpectedly and unintentionally, the floodgates have been opened. In spite of, or because of, what happened in Rome, there will now be even greater movement on the part of those who don’t want to see the church languishing in a world that is dying—yes, literally dying—for lack of oxygen animating the spiritual life. The Spirit of God can supply that breath of lifegiving air. It will happen, perhaps in spite of us. ♦

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. 

Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel / Unsplash

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