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The Church serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family. [ Gaudium et Soes #40]

The "Synod on Synodality" (Part One)

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

For me one of the clearest indications that much of the Catholic Church in the United States is out of sync with the universal Church is the relatively low level of attention that has been given both to the preparatory phase and the ongoing work of the Synod of Bishops, which recently completed its first full set of gatherings called: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” The summary of the preparatory feedback from the United States—led by Bishop Flores of Brownsville, Texas, who had been an auxiliary bishop in Detroit for several years—did mention that over 750,000 people participated in the process. That sounds like a lot, but there are over 75 million Catholics in the United States and so that represents less than 1% of U.S. Catholics, even after Pope Francis asked that all bishops try to involve as many of their Catholic members as possible in the feedback for the Synod. In Detroit we had a large synodal process ending in 2016, and the results of that process, were given as the Detroit contribution to the preparation, I am told, but no diocesan-led attempt was made to engage people beyond that. Some dioceses had much more robust processes, but overall, here in the United States, it has fallen far short of what Pope Francis had hoped for.

In fact, Catholic media in the United States has too often been co-opted by our culturally driven ideological concerns, sounding more like secular American media than engaged and thoughtful Catholic media. On the very conservative side, for example, there are a number of voices, including a few Cardinals, who have expressed extreme fear and doubt about whether the Synod process is authentically Catholic, and they have gone out of their way to caricature it in a negative manner. On the very progressive side there is at times an excessive fixation on whether some big change will come out of the Synod—women allowed to be ordained, some sort of recognition of same-sex unions and so forth. If not, then it is seen by them as a bust.

Anyone who has paid attention to Pope Francis’ talks and writings, especially the most recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, would know that what the Pope is aiming at is not some sort of new constitutional framework for the Church or some significant doctrinal change, but for all in the Church to become more synodal—more able to listen honestly to one another, even those we vehemently disagree with, giving space for the Spirit of God to work, trusting that the Spirit will lead us into authentic conversion of mind and heart and deeper communion with one another. What is extraordinary is that the Pope is challenging the whole Church, from the highest level of authority down to the local parish, prayer group, religious movement, or Catholic enterprise, to embrace this “synodal way”. Before we can envision what that might look like for us at the most local level, we need to understand what that "synodal way" means. One of the best ways I can think of to grasp this concept is to listen to or read the series of six meditations that the Pope asked Timothy Radcliffe (former Master General of the Dominican Order, internationally renowned theologian and spiritual writer) to lead, in order to set the tone for the recently completed October 2023 first phase of the Synod on Synodality. I will briefly comment on each (the first two below, the other four in the next blog), but I would encourage people to take the time to listen to them all. Here is a link to the Six Synodal Meditations by Timothy Radcliffe.

In the first meditation, “Hoping against Hope,” Radcliffe makes an analogy between the Synod and what he calls “the first synod,” the time Jesus spends with his disciples after the Transfiguration, as they make their way to Jerusalem. Radcliffe points out the contradictory hopes that are present among the disciples—James and John want to be in the power positions, Peter not wanting Jesus to suffer and die, some even trying to stop Jesus from healing the blind man Bartimaeus—just as there are contradictory hopes among those participating in the Synod on Synodality. Some think the Synod is going too fast, addressing issues that the Church should stay away from. Others will judge the Synod to be meaningless unless some visible, even radical change happens. Radcliffe points out that at the base of such division is fear and that the antidote to that fear is the radical Eucharistic hope Jesus has given to the Church.

In the face of the violence that was to come, Jesus gathers the disciples with all their contradictory hopes, quarrels and misunderstandings and gives them the pattern that they are to follow: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The ‘this’ is not simply the Eucharistic words or rituals but the living of a life of radical hope in a world that tries to crush that hope; a world where the young wonder whether there will be an earth that can sustain them. In light of that radical hope, Radcliffe asks, do not all our divisions, contradictions, and quarrels—important as they are to sort through—seem as nothing? That is the face of synodality: honest about our differences and divisions, but united in a hope that we know is stronger than such divisions. Therefore, we can face any questions and issues; we can listen to one another without fear; we can accept the wisdom that “we are all radically incomplete and need one another.” What would happen in our Church and communities if we embraced such a “synodal way"?

In his second meditation, “At Home in God, and God at Home in Us,” Timothy Radcliffe points to a second tension present in the Church today, in those who are evaluating the potential effects of the Synod, and in the Synod participants themselves. Once again, he begins with the Transfiguration experience on Mt. Tabor, where Peter wants to set up the tents to prolong the stay, so wondrous is that glimpse of the fullness of divine goodness and beauty which he and the others experience. But Jesus does not allow that, instead rather quickly inviting them down the mountain, onto the journey toward Jerusalem. Radcliffe points out that we all need those glimpses of divine beauty and goodness, which make us feel “at home” and safe in the Church and world. They come from ways we pray and celebrate liturgy, popular devotions, religious art and architecture, shared language and so on. To suggest changes in such practices or to suggest that those comfortable ways of being Catholic might change or do change creates great anxiety. We are "at home" with such expected practices. They give us an identity and ground our sense of purpose. But Radcliffe also points to the many people who do not find the Church to be a safe home at all—those abused by clergy, many women who experience their gifts as unwanted and marginalized, gay men and women, those who struggle with questions of faith, and more. Many experience the Church, he says, as too Eurocentric/western, too patriarchal and clerical, too exclusive. These differing conceptions of what it means to be “at home” in the Church are the source of great tension today.

What is the remedy? Just as there is a Eucharistic “hope beyond all other partial hopes” that creates a unity greater than any division, we need to recognize that there is both what Radcliffe calls an “intimate home” and a summons to a universal home where we all belong. He quotes 1 John 3:2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall become has not yet been revealed. But we do know that when Christ appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him face to face.” We all need to find a home now where we belong and know ourselves as beloved, as children of God. But that home pales in comparison to the home we are all called to journey toward. If we hold too closely to the intimate home that brings us comfort and identity now, we risk becoming a sect. If we only focus on the future hope, we risk becoming a vague Jesus movement that does not engage with the real historical world at hand.

The incarnation of the Word means that God has pitched his tent with us. The obscurity of the many years at Nazareth, where we know next to nothing of Jesus’ life means that God dwells not just in the important, earth-changing moments, but also in all the humble, even obscure circumstances of our lives. We need to find a way to treasure those moments where we glimpse God’s glory in our usual, everyday encounters, but we also need to come down the mountain--willing to endure homelessness in a sense--in order to journey toward our ultimate home. Fr. Radcliffe ends the second meditation with a wonderful image of kneading dough in the process of making bread, where the edges are brought to the center and the center is spread out to the margins, again and again. He connects that image to Thomas Merton’s discovery of God as one “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” We can become a Church where all find welcome, if we both appreciate how God is present now and cherish those experiences of identity and beauty, but also are willing to journey to the margins, recognizing how our experiences and understanding might even be alienating to some, willing to journey together to find that true home, where all experience God as at the center of their lives. The “synodal way,” in other words, invites us to let go of our comfortable niches and journey together. Are we willing to do that? What would happen in our communities if we did that at every level? Or are we so fixed and certain as to what is the way, we cling to Mt. Tabor (in order to glimpse our understanding of the divine again and again) and refuse to journey to Jerusalem (where change is going to happen and, yes, suffering and death), and so we miss the wondrous resurrection experience the Lord is inviting us to?

Next time some comments on the other four meditations.

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The "Synod on Synodality" (Part Two)

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