As the many Participants in the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops pack their bags and return home, they’ll be bringing with them the distillation of a unique event in the life and history of the Catholic.
Ahead of their return they released a letter late yesterday afternoon conveying the general essence of the event, and the aspirations it has inspired. Two years ago, when Pope Francis proposed the synodal journey, he was at pains to say that his intention was for a lengthy journey of “listening and discernment” at which nothing or no-one was to be excluded.
Rather predictably, there were those who took this to mean that – because nothing was excluded – everything was possible. By extension, comments such as “Synod to discuss …” created a flurry of wild and theologically improbable speculations around the world that all but forced the synod participants to go into a media blackout.
As with any seminal event, matching expectations to outcomes is never an easy process and – if the summary letter is anything to go by – there are unlikely to be any radical innovations emerging from this gathering either. One can empathise with Pope Francis’ aspirations, as any exploratory meeting ought to start with nothing excluded from the table. However, meetings within the Catholic Church are framed by an entirely different remit, not least that a whole body of pre-existing Catholic teachings will define the parameters of any discussion.
Where Catholics tend to confusion is in the blurring of the lines between what may be changed, and what may not, what must be accepted and what can be disputed.
The library of Catholic theology is immense, and its entirety is well beyond the grasp of even the most distinguished theologian. The best that most of us can do is to study and analyse one small grain on the beach and share what we have discerned with others doing the same, and through that hopefully try discern God’s infinite purpose for us.
The focus of the external chatter around the Synod has been the role – or rather lack of roles for – women within the Church, and the Church’s response – or lack of it – to the challenges of changing social attitudes to sexual orientation. No doubt such things were discussed, but the immutability of Catholic teaching in these areas means that whilst we all might aspire to develop a more charitable and open attitude towards these issues, little was ever likely to change in terms of fundamental theological positions, nor should it.
If first principles are sacrosanct, then some might ask ‘what’s left to discuss and deliver’ except tweaks to internal domestics and a reiteration of pastoral aspirations?
Reading through last night’s Letter of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to the People of God a great deal is made of the Church’s need to ‘listen’, and there’s quite a list of people that we need to listen more to – ‘the laity … men and women … catechists … children … families … the elderly’ and so on. Few would challenge this, but listening is a precursor to action, and that’s a far more challenging proposition, especially for the Catholic Church.
Between now and the second session of the Synod in October 2024 it sounds like there will be much emphasis on the concept of a ‘missionary journey’, as we will be called to re-assess and re-evaulate the way we conduct our Christian lives and interactions with the wider world. And here’s the problem – whilst any sensible institution or individual ought to consistently examine and assess their actions to ensure they’ve giving of their best, it’s very easy for this this kind of examination to drift into the dreaded concept of ‘reinvigoration and renewal’.
In times past it was very much a characteristic of the Catholic Church, and the premis of much Catholic teaching, that the laity in particular were living Catholic lives that were somehow faulty, inadequate or theologically naive, and it fell to the Church to instruct us in how we ought to rectify this if we were ever to stand any chance of attaining salvation. But it’s not really the most encouraging strategy to start out by pointing out faults.
Over the years the Church has often extended this to parishes, and even to the whole Catholic community itself. Initiatives floated on epithets of renewal and regeneration may seem encouraging, but they carry within them the implication of laziness, and even failure.
To the ordinary Catholic, who struggles with countless mundanities and burdens in their daily lives, but still somehow manages to get themselves through the church doors to Mass every Sunday, being told that your faith is inadequate is not the best starting point for positive engagement.
A far better strategy for the would-be parish evangelist would be to acknowledge what’s already good and solid in parish membership, and to explore the often heroic spiritual virtues found in most members of the laity.
The first of these is that they come through the church door in the first place.
This really is where the concept of ‘listening’ finds its meaning. Renewal and mechanisms of evangelisation are not aspects of listening, but of talking, and frankly the Catholic laity is in need of a lot less talking to and far more listening to on the part of the Church establishment.
It really won’t be a good synodal outcome if the determination is that it’s the laity (and even the clergy) that lies at the heart of the Church’s ills, and is need of yet more highly orchestrated parish development initiatives.
In this respect I’m minded very much of the writings of the great 16th century mystic St John of the Cross, who certainly understood the deeper significance of ‘listening’ rather than ‘talking’. In his most magnum opus, Dark Night of the Soul, John says: “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetites and our tongue, for the language He best hears is silent love.”
I’ve always been fascinated by St John’s argument that the more worldy the voices, the less likely they are to be coming from God. In his day this meant a far more direct affinity to the significance of ‘inner voices’ than most Catholics might be comfortable with today, which is a great shame.
Seemingly, in these modern, bleakly rational times days it’s fine if we’re talking to God, but not so good if God is talking to us!
St John’s Carmelite life was one of a deep commitment to prayer, contemplation and above all silence, but in such apparent aridity he managed to pen some of the most profound and influential writings in Catholic literature. For most of us, a complete disengagement from the mundane demands of life and seclusion in the company of God simply isn’t possible, but the example of St John and the many others who went into solitary contemplation points us to the theological significance of ‘listening’.
When Pope Francis addressed the Synod on 17th October, he spoke – as he has done often – about “prophetic” voices, and the need for the synodal process to respond to what “God expects of the Church in the third millennium”.
In listening to the narratives of the laity over the coming months, I do hope the Church realises that the need is not primarily to educate the laity (which should have been happening anyway) but to help the laity to give better voice to the heroic virtues that they possess already – primarily by virtue of their Christian presence.
Among the many small miscellaneous items in my ever-growing collection of Catholic books and manuscripts is a small pamphlet titled Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, written in 1925 by the legendary Masie Ward and Frank Sheed. As the title starts, this was the handbook for the Catholic Evidence Guild. Founded in the diocese of Westminster in 198, the CEG was a very public profile group that literally took to the streets, and London’s famous Speaker’s Corner every week, to explain and defend the essential principles of Catholic Doctrine.
If you’re inclined, copies of this landmark text can still be found in many online bookshops, including Amazon – a testament to its enduring relevance. Some will say that back then Catholic principles were far better defined and society a lot less complex, but I very much doubt – if they were around today – Masie and Frank would have any of that.
I’d like to think they’d say of the synodal process – respect the commitment that Catholics already have, maybe tidy up their understanding of the basics, but then let Catholics do what they do best, being a living witness to God’s truths through the everyday Christian lives they lead.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian