This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.
And so it happened on December 4, 1963, after two full working sessions of the Council, its first teaching document was promulgated or released to the world, Sacrosanctum Concilium, “The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” That the Council even got off the ground at all is something of a miracle. When Pope John XXIII, in 1959, announced to an audience of Roman Cardinals his intention to call an Ecumenical Council [i.e., a gathering of the “full house” of the Church] three years hence, there was stone cold silence. The Cardinals present represented the sentiment of the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy in Vatican City which essentially runs the Church.
If you still own a copy of the Baltimore Catechism, you will look in vain to find any references to Church councils, although prior to Vatican II there had been twenty such councils beginning with the epic Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. which produced our Mass Creed. The last Council, Vatican I, was summoned in 1869 for the purpose of formalizing the doctrine of papal infallibility. There was a popular sense that with the infallibility of the pope now established, there would no longer be a need for costly and possibly controversial gatherings.
There are some indications, however, that during the conclave of cardinals which elected Angelo Roncalli to the papacy in 1958, the idea of a council was floated in the smoked-filled rooms between ballots. In his excellent biography John XXIII: Pope of the Century [1984, 1994] Peter Hebblethwaite affirms that the newly elected pope had been thinking about a council for some time. Most Catholics are not aware that, as a young curial official, Angelo Roncalli ran afoul of Mussolini’s fascist government, then negotiating with the Vatican the Concordat of 1929. In 1925 the Vatican exiled the outspoken Roncalli to a string of thankless diplomatic posts, including Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and post-World War II France before elevating him to the College of Cardinals and the Patriarchy [Archdiocese] of Venice in 1952.
Having witnessed the world wars and political chaos of Europe up close as a diplomat, Roncalli was acutely aware that the Church was sick and ineffective as a voice of reason and justice in what were, ostensibly, Catholic countries or populated with significant Catholic populations. It is a sobering thought that the two largest churches in Germany during the Nazi era were the Lutheran and Roman Catholic communions. A healing council, in his view, would need to examine every aspect of Catholic life to ensure that the Church was true to its past and open to the promise and the challenges of the future.
It is important to note here that Paragraph 1 of Sacrosanctum Concilium is the first statement of purpose issued by the Council, period. Thus, it introduces not just the subject matter of the Liturgy, but the agenda of the entire Council. This agenda reflects the hopes of Pope John, though he did not live to see this agenda stated solemnly by the Church in December 1963. The first point put forward is “an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful.” The hope of the Council was an intensification of personal faith, knowledge, spirituality, and identity with Christ in every baptized person. A critical term here is “the faithful.” Certainly, in my youth there was a two-tiered intensity of spirituality. Priests and religious were expected to live to a higher standard of holiness—they were under obligation to pray the Breviary daily [The Liturgy of the Hours], live lives of intense chastity and obedience [and, in many cases, a simple economic mean], and to be available to God’s people around the clock.
The opening of Sacrosanctum Concilium in paragraph one calls for a “democratization of the spiritual life,” so to speak. As will be discussed later in SC, the great religious identity equalizer was the Council’s restoration of the initiation triad of Baptism/Confirmation/Eucharist. It is these sacraments of initiation which bring an individual into the quest for full union with Christ—both in the manner we live out our spiritual identities and the public energies we exert in bringing Christ’s reality to the world. Orders and religious vows were particular ways of living the Baptized life of the Church, but in truth the obligation and call to holiness extended to the entire Church by virtue of the sacraments of initiation.
The second highlighted goal of the Council was for the Church “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change.” This is a deliciously vague mandate that not a few in the Church understood as a wholesale endorsement of modernization. This became one of the most disputed issues in the implementation of the Council as people of good will would disagree on the measure of accommodation to the times was appropriate for the Church. Interestingly, in very recent years some sober reconsiderations of the initial interpretations of the Conciliar documents are appearing in print by thoughtful theologians and analysts. In her Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955-1975  Maria Morrow observes that the Church may have been too hasty in jettisoning its communal rites of penance, such as meatless Fridays; most Catholics, she observes, had little skill in creating their own penitential agendas, although most bishops believed otherwise, perhaps too ambitiously. John W. O’Malley, S.J. writes in his own history of Vatican II: “They [the Council bishops] assumed an easier transition from ideas of the scholars’ study to the social reality of the church than proved to be the case.” Hence the turmoil when the bishops returned home. And which institutions were “in need of change?” One example: Pope Francis, in our own time, has responded to a need for greater communication between laity and clergy, and laity with each other, in what we call today “synodality,” a significant modification of the age-old communication from leadership as “top-down.”
The third point in this paragraph calls upon the Church “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ…[and] to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.” There would be considerable controversy over the “both-and” nature of Church teaching from the Council, as significant portions of the documents, including paragraph one here, seem to endorse distinctive points side by side. In this third agenda item, the Council is promoting unity among “all who believe in Christ,” a reference to the many Christian denominations and church bodies not presently in union with Rome. On the other hand, there is a call for the whole of humankind to join the household of the Church.
By way of explanation, the Council was acutely aware that since the Reformation the Roman Catholic policy was “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Pope John and many Catholic scholars wished to correct this position, noting that wherever Christ is worshipped, true Christian ministry exists. Hence the efforts of the Catholic Church, after the Council, to engage in ecumenical prayer and discussion with other Christian Churches. On the other hand, the identity of Catholicism as the one true Church of Christ was maintained in Lumen Gentium [“The Light of Christ”], “The Sacred Constitution on the Church.” LG developed a formula in paragraph 8: “This Church [i.e., the Church of Christ], constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church."
The more you read Church documents, you may be frustrated at times by what appears to be a dialectical style, as in “yes, this is true, but this other position is true, too.” We Americans are accustomed to think like computers, which are nothing more than billions of on-off switches. The binary digital system used in computers has only two numbers, 0 and 1. However, this is a Western way of thinking; other cultures are comfortable with mystery and complexity. The Council of Nicaea put forward the greatest contradictory statement in the universe: Jesus is truly God and truly man in both senses. This is the ultimate in impossibilities; as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” [Nicaea, by the way, was attended primarily by bishops from the Eastern Mediterranean. Only a handful of Western Europeans were present.] To go further, Jesus himself taught in parables, literary devices that invited believers into a deeper realm of mystery. The New Testament calls forth a mystical response to the identity and message of Jesus. The Council fathers attempted to integrate this Biblical spirit into the teaching of the Church, though it remains a struggle for a Church with a millennium of scholastic theology and Canon Law at its back.
Some of those who were [and still are] most critical of Vatican II point to a kind of “watering down” of absolute truth. Pope Francis, deeply impacted by the teachings of the Council, has been accused of creating confusion in his press conferences and encyclicals for his recognition of the complex interdisciplinary considerations in matters such as economic justice, marriage, and same-gender attraction. [“Who am I to judge?”] While the Council never came close to endangering any doctrinal bedrock of the Church, nor has Pope Francis, it did question whether the articulation of Church truth in the present day represented the roots of the teachings as our ancestors understood them, and whether the articulation of such truths in a modern age and milieu needed consideration and study. This is where we find ourselves today, and Pope Francis’ call for the “synodal process” needs to be understood in that sense.
Some questions for reflection:
Do you have a historical sense of the events leading to Vatican II?
[Recommended: my review of John O’Malley S.J.’s What Happened at Vatican II? or better yet, reading the book itself. Another thorough source: John XXIII: Pope of the Century by Peter Hebblethwaite.]
If you are in my generation, do you remember the Council and its immediate effects upon you and your local church? Did you feel that “reasons for the changes” were adequately explained by your local church?
If you are born after 1960, how was Vatican II taught in your Catholic school or religious education program? Was it taught at all? Is it a priority in today’s catechetics?
If you were the pope, would you convoke a council today, and what vision and issues would you bring to the world’s bishops?
Next post on this stream: Paragraph 2, in about two to three weeks.
Allentown Diocese Synod Question 5: “Does your participation in your parish help to inspire important decisions in our life? Why or why not?”
This is an intriguing question with a strong autobiographical component. I might have worded the question a little differently, along the lines how one’s Catholic identity comes into play when making major decisions, for most of us are the product of a lifetime of Catholicism which is broader than our current parish of residence, and that full panorama of Faith experience comes into play—or should come into play—in our major life decisions. On the other hand, there are moments of unforeseen crisis or decision where we look to the local church for guidance, advice, counsel, or some other form of intervention. As a former pastor, I can attest to the fact that people turn to the Church before they will turn to anyone else, and nothing makes or breaks a relationship to the Church as the quality of our ministry in those special times. I was adequate to the task at times, for which I am grateful to God, and inadequate at other times, for which I am deeply sorry.
There are several ways to discuss this question, but the best way to do so is to address the quality of every parish’s continuous faith formation. Do we get an adequate formation in Faith and Doctrine to guide us in our daily living, such that we are gently and wisely steered in the direction of graced discernment? Are we cultivating a life of virtue, rather than just a few visits into the world of holiness? St. Thomas Aquinas describes the term “virtue” as the product or acquired habit of doing good things, be they examining one’s conscience, keeping one’s temper, or sharing one’s bread with the less fortunate. To live virtuously is to develop the habit of daily, frequent communion with the wisdom of God, through prayer/meditation, study, and good works, and, it goes without saying, participation in the sacramental life of the Church. If we live in such a state, our decision-making will be wise and pleasing to God.
So, the question becomes—how well does our Catholic parochial life help us to form virtue, to habituate communion with God in word and deed, to the point that our Faith becomes a pillar in our “important decisions in life?” In a word, haphazardly. I do not say this with disrespect. While parish life has changed in many ways since Vatican II, the DNA of a parish has not. The local church is where we attend Mass, make confession, celebrate other sacraments, attend elementary school or “CCD”/faith formation when young. The parish hosts several societies for charitable and social purposes. At a time of crisis, as when Margaret and I lost our Danny to a drunk driver twenty years ago, a parish [and diocese, for that matter] can respond spectacularly. But when recent popes called for a “new evangelization,” or Pope Francis set forth the practice of Synodality, the local parishes [and dioceses] scratched their heads and hoped that the challenge would drift away like our late afternoon Florida thunderstorms. These concepts were not embedded in parish DNA.
Where parishes struggle is in round-the-clock formation to the Catholic Tradition and, more importantly, to continuing spiritual formation to prayer, meditation, and virtue. We must concede that Faith formation of the young appears to be our greatest priority, but too often even here the emphasis seems to be on the product—conduct, i.e., morality—without the building blocks, the necessary tools of experience upon which to build virtue, such as an inner awakening to prayerful mysticism and the cultivation of the nearness of God. We teach children formulae but not a lifestyle, which is why we lose them as early as age ten, as some studies show, and certainly after Confirmation.
Adult faith formation has not enjoyed a resurgence after the Council because unfortunately the template for teaching the young the A-B-Cs of religion spills over into our treatment of Catholic adult life in most parishes—reinforcing for adults what was learned as children, and not very effectively even in childhood. This is complicated by yet another unspoken but real handicap of pastors, including myself back in the day. We assume that adult Catholic faith life stands synonymously with the church plant, i.e., all aspects of our faith life are centered around the church building[s]. This is true in the sense that the Eucharistic liturgy is the source and summit of the Church’s life. But in hard numbers, 99% of our lives are spent outside of the church building, many of them in our homes and careers. To become a fruitful and holy Church, we must become a domestic church. Much work remains to create in the hearts of all baptized Catholics a healthy ownership of a “lifestyle of spirituality” built upon a commitment to prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and study.
When we consider the subject of Synodality, from the Greek “to walk together,” one of the most important things we share is our own journey to walk in the wisdom of God. Formation to a full adult spirituality is one of the unfinished goals of Vatican II, and I believe that Pope Francis has this goal in mind in his call to Synodality. The process of Synodality rides and falls on its ability to capture the deepest spiritual experiences and insights of participants. In an ideal church, we are fellow travelers, lifting our confreres by our words and deeds. Not all of us are expert navigators, of course, and here is where the synodal process has enormous potential—putting us in communion with those who have “walked the walk,” and done the homework of breaking open the Revelation of Scripture and the treasury of the saints. Imagine, for example, if one of the members of your group was a local Trappist monk. Consider the wisdom he would bring to the table from a lifetime of meditation, common prayer, fraternity, and work.
Unfortunately, the Church is not currently blessed with many of these special people whose lives are leaven for those of us laboring along the way. There are many pastors who would like to provide their people with the learning and the tools to cultivate an inner life of devotion and prayer, but honestly do not know how. Spiritual formation is a unique charism of the Holy Spirit. Over the next three years the bishops of the United States are undertaking a renewal of devotion to the Eucharist—with an emphasis upon its centrality and its importance—but I fear that this effort will bear little fruit if it is not accompanied by an intensive immersion into the Sacred Scriptures, that as adults we wrestle to honestly answer the question of Jesus, “Who do men say that I am?” Add to that the need for guidance to the riches of meditation when beholding the Eucharistic bread.
Because of a severe shortage of persons for whom spiritual guidance and development is a life’s vocation—such as spiritual directors, members of religious orders, and the like—the labor will fall upon us to find our way into a healthy spirituality that directs our lives in ordinary and extraordinary times. I need to mention a historical caveat—to enter a closer life with God requires a certain courage. Reflect upon the phrase, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” We know that as the saints drew closer to God, their own egos suffered greatly. In the final years of his life, St. Francis of Assisi prayed repeatedly, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm and not a man.” When the letters of Mother Teresa became public, there was shock that her spiritual life was much more complex and troubling than we had been led to believe. Encounter with your inner God is a journey we must do alone, but always in communion with fellow sojourners. Synodality at its deepest.
Allentown Synod Outline Question #4: Does prayer, Mass, the Sacraments, and other Church celebrations inspire and guide your life with the Church? Why or why not?
In addressing this question in the Synod sharing sessions, I am making the presumption that participants would most likely address the circumstances of their own parishes, since most of us attend Mass at the same locale and, unless you worship weekly in a monastery or a campus ministry center at a university staffed by a religious order, you generally have the same one or two priests leading the Eucharist and the other sacraments almost exclusively. Let me begin by stating unequivocally that no parish in the world can, by itself, meet the personal needs of everyone seeking to develop a personal relationship with God, or a “personal spirituality” as we say today. Spirituality is one’s “internalized religious identity and structured way of approaching divine love.” It is the foundation of why we even go to the trouble of belonging to any religion. It is faith penetrating the heart of the psyche.
This statement should hardly come as a shock, nor is it an indictment of the parish system, as parishes certainly do their part in the formation and maintenance of their members as spiritual beings. The parish is the building block of the Church, the Body of Christ. But if we look back in history, we can see how the Church has encouraged its members to special acts of piety and devotion outside of regular parish life. Very early in the Church’s history the idea of “pilgrimage” took hold—a once-in-a-lifetime venture that mixed the virtue of courage with the holiness of the place visited and left a lasting spiritual/psychological impression upon the pilgrim. As you read this in 2022, thousands of Catholics and persons of all faiths are walking “the Camino de Santiago” or the way to St. James, an 800-kilometer journey to the burial site of the apostle in northwest Spain. This pilgrimage is powerfully portrayed in the film, “The Way.” Such spiritual journeys take us far beyond the daily life of our local churches and curve the trajectories of our life with God.
In 1998 my future wife and I were filing our paperwork with our beloved old Irish pastor to get married later that year. With something of a chuckle, he told us we did not have to attend the diocesan pre-Cana classes “with the kids.” We were both 50 and had belonged to religious orders in our younger years, she the Dominicans and I the Franciscans. Instead, he suggested this: “Why don’t you take a few days off and make a private retreat with the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey outside of Charleston, South Carolina?” Our pastor himself was a devoted retreatant and benefactor of the Mepkin monastery.
Making retreat with the monks for any period leaves you a different person, and Margaret and I became regular annual participants up to the Covid crisis. Retreatants can share as little or as much of the life of the Trappists as they wish on retreat. For me at first in 1998, I was both discomfited and inspired. Discomfited, because I was and am quite independent—and somewhat undisciplined. The idea of living the strict life and the clock of the monks—they retire at 8 PM and rise at 2:30 AM for the Office of Readings/Liturgy of the Hours—was more than I could take, so I slept in till 5:30 AM and joined the community for breakfast. [Margaret took to the schedule nicely; her problem was the silence, LOL.] On the other hand, there was a holy productivity and simplicity of life that I found irresistible. The monk-author Father Thomas Merton had been a Trappist in Kentucky before his 1968 death, and I had a bookcase full of his biographies, journals, letters, and spiritual books I had acquired over the years but read at best superficially or immaturely. At Mepkin, though, the thought nagged at me: what am I doing in my life that is more urgent than reflecting upon the wonder of God that these monks do with such obvious inner peace?
I should add here that the sacred rites of the Church at Mepkin and other monasteries—notably the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Eucharist –are celebrated with what the Vatican II documents call “a noble simplicity” that lifts the heart. Because the life of a monk is centered around a constant purposeful exchange with God, the Mass does not need to be cluttered with bells and whistles—or multiple renderings of the “Ave Maria,” has happens too often in my church. In parishes, the Sunday Mass is usually the sum and summit of most of our praying for the week, as well as “the village bulletin board.” When you remove these encumbrances, as religious communities do, Mass is brief, simple, and purposeful, and yet one leaves with a profound impact from what has just happened.
I will never be a monk, obviously. But the richness of the monastic ideal of Christian simplicity and fraternity is available to all Catholics to arrange one’s spirit and life, through the lived experiences of communities like Mepkin Abbey and particularly through the riches now available in multiple media, particularly from the pen of arguably the greatest spiritual author of our time, Thomas Merton [1915-1968]. During Covid, Mepkin Abbey developed an ingenious on-line Zoom program for its retreat alumni to read Merton and other mystics and discuss the material monthly. Currently my wife and I are reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation with five other Mepkin alumni from Florida.
There are several rich spiritualities from the Church’s history. Besides Benedict, there are the Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian, Carmelite, Redemptorist, and Servite [Mary] spiritualities, to name the most prominent. The common denominator of all of them is the movement toward an intimate personal union with God through meditation, imagination, contrition, and action. Spirituality is our “divine identity” if you will. Where our trains go off the track is with the habitual idea that the structured parish life constitutes the spiritual identity. When you believe this long enough, the monotony of ritual and habit gradually saps whatever religious animation has endured over the years. Spiritual directors in modern times have put it this way: “If your goal is to keep your plane at a level altitude, it will start to crash.” If we are not on a soulful growth trajectory, we will lose the little that we have. A parish alone cannot keep you afloat, but it can be the gateway to a profound religious life that is lived and breathed 24/7.
As a gateway to spirituality there are many things a parish can do to help its members. The first thing I would recommend is honesty. It would be refreshing to hear from the pulpit that the Sunday sermon alone is not enough to fuel the soul. The homily can be part of a parishioner’s spiritual growth if the listener is familiar with the Bible as a whole, not simply the tiny excerpts read on Sunday; and, if the listener opens one’s heart to God in a daily meditative process. The same is true regarding reception of Holy Communion. It is true that we receive the real Christ in the consecrated bread. But how powerful is that moment if we know next to nothing about who it is we are receiving?
It is important for a parish to emphasize the concept of “the domestic church.” That is, in the best of all worlds our home is where most of “the spiritual action” is. We have been woefully deficient over the years in catechizing home prayer. Interestingly, Vatican II recommended the idea of encouraging the laity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s daily prayer, notably Lauds and Vespers [Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer]. It has been sixty years since that recommendation, and I am not aware of any serious effort in this direction.
The bigger question is: just what is prayer? In 2021 Father James Martin, S.J., rode to The New York Times bestseller list with his brilliant Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. This is the best introductory book on prayer I have seen in my lifetime. Among other things, the author discusses the religious experience of children, which unpacked for me spontaneous religious occurrences in my early youth. Pope Francis took special notice of this book and its author. It amazes me that in my own parish, for example, this work has never been mentioned from the pulpit or recommended for purchase. It is frustrating, week after week, to hear exhortations that “we need to pray” but never the concrete instruction. “Saying prayers” is different from meditating, which builds a psychological grounding on the reality of God and keeps us going through thick and thin.
Pastors must avoid the temptation of believing that their own spiritualities, developed in their own contexts, are automatically the default destinations of all their parishioners. Each parishioner is as different as a snowflake. I have long thought that pastors should invite guest preachers or exchange pulpits from time to time on Sundays to expand the parish horizon of spiritual understanding. Another good example is the Sacrament of Penance. Each of us sins in our way, from our human make-up, and needs an insightful confessor who, over time, can come to understand what religious input is best suited to our temperaments to help us grow from sin into grace, Any validly ministering priest can absolve sin, to be sure, but if you talk to any honest priest, he will admit that many of the confessions he hears are repeats, many times the same person going through the same motions for years. This is discouraging for the penitent, who has never been encouraged to take his or her penitential insight to deeper places. This also explains why the numbers of confessions are miniscule as compared to years ago.
Many years ago, when my parents were still alive, the three of us took a week to fish in northern Canada. In the best of angling tradition, one night by the full moon we made a sizeable dent in a new bottle of Canadian Club. In vino veritas, my father stated—at the age of 60 or thereabouts--that he was getting nothing out of his bi-weekly confession and went to confession only because my mother made him go. My ma started to scold him. But I sided with my father, as I was by then a parish pastor, and I knew as a confessor I was offering my regular penitents a bunch of “sweet nothings.” Today it is a mystery to me why I didn’t just slip my own penitents a copy of The Imitation of Christ and invite them to reflect on a chapter before their next confession. My dad was such a good man; he carried many crosses raising five very different children in post-War America. How much comfort he might have received with the concrete experience of Christ in his corner. In my own early seminary years, The Imitation had been the one worthwhile spiritual input that kept me going.
A critical issue that every Catholic ought to be worrying about is the shrinking number of religious orders and qualified spiritual directors in the United States. It is encouraging to see more lay persons enter college and graduate studies in this field of ministry. Spiritual direction is a true theological discipline, involving both a solid immersion in theology and religious tradition as well as an understanding of human nature. “Grace builds on nature, and nature builds on grace.” But unlike the days when members of religious orders cultivated their spiritual traditions through their parishes, schools, and universities, “spirituality ministers” and “spiritual directors” will need financial backing for their training at reputable Catholic universities as well as living wages to raise families once in the field.
There is more to be said on this subject, so give me a few days.
Allentown Synod Question 3: Does your parish offer a spirit of welcome and inclusion to all in the community? Why or why not?
How does Church Law, or Canon Law. define a parish? “Can. 515 §1. A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.” This is not exactly a heart-thumping evangelical definition, but it does indicate that in the mind of the Church a parish is a real place with real people and a real leader—with human interactions and concrete sacramental celebrations. A parish is not a floating dice game nor a mythical concept, but a committed community of human interactions. While a parish has a mystical end—getting us to heaven in the next life—it is a nuts-and-bolts conglomeration of people, places, and interactions that we can manage and mismanage.
We have a decent body of research on why people are leaving the Catholic Church in the United States. The reasons given are  no longer believing in the Church’s teachings,  tired of religion and religious commitment,  feeling alienated from the Church,  having a problem with the Church’s teachings on marriage, divorce, and sexuality, including homosexuality,  being divorced,  marrying a non-Catholic,  the position of women in the Church,  regarding the Church’s teachings as arbitrary, irrelevant, and out of touch with the modern world, and  Mass being mechanical and boring. This summary I obtained from Dean Hoge’s research at Catholic University in 2001.
We can assume that every parish is affected by these trends and attitudes. But the Allentown question #3 is more focused in that it probes from us the concrete circumstances in our own local churches. For example, my parish has an active ministry for those seeking annulments and convalidations or blessings of second marriages, with a staff minister assigned for personal assistance. All things being equal, a divorced Catholic would find my parish welcoming and inclusive. On the other hand, it is rare to see any parish website or bulletin with outreach to LGBTQ Catholics. I found two parishes in my own diocese recommended by an independent national Catholic website as “LGBTQ friendly” but only one of the two lists such ministry in its website [with an exceedingly kind message of welcome, I might add.] There are only seven such parishes cited in the entire state of Florida. There is something very deficient here,
The beauty of the Synodal process is the opportunity to look at our local communities for our inadequacies and opportunities in embracing more folks to the Table of the Lord. Rather than break this down analytically, let me share two tales of “church inclusion” from my own life.
A Rocky Mountain High. During the week of June 7-13 Margaret and I spent time in Colorado. We had been invited to a wedding in Denver, and so we decided to make a vacation of it. We rented accommodations for two nights in Estes Park, just outside the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park. Because entrance to the national parks is now carefully monitored by timed computer reservations, we could not enter RMNP till after 2 PM, so on our first day we decided to undertake an AM hike along Estes Park’s Riverwalk, a waterside trail with dozens of shops and commercial ventures.
At the entrance to the trail is an enterprise called “Kind Coffee.” Located under trees and next to a lively little river, Kind Coffee had indoor and outdoor seating. It was obviously a community gathering spot for the locals. I said to Margaret that if I ever won the Florida Lottery, I would build something like this as a Catholic community and information center here in Apopka in conjunction with the Catholic Church I pastored here 35 years ago. I envisioned a place where you could just stop in, relax, enjoy some brew, mingle with other guests, read, browse our library, and/or talk with a catechist or parish minister in the building about anything. A Catholic home away from home.
Later that week we planned to hike out at the Red Rock Amphitheater, but the temperature was approaching one hundred degrees, so we just viewed the park and decided to check out a shrine to St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in the adjacent mountains. What a pleasant surprise! A religious retreat grounds set thousands of feet high near Golden. Multiple chapels, outdoor meditation paths, a large gift shop which included—you guessed it—a homey coffee and pastry corner. If I lived anywhere nearby, I would find my way up there and soak up the tranquil community, at least till the winter snows arrived.
The next day, Sunday, we found a parish Mass near our accommodations in Littleton. St. Francis Cabrini Parish is in Columbine—two of the shooting victims’ funerals were conducted at that church some twenty years ago. On this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, the pastor’s sermon tended to wander way off the feast and into Colorado’s abortion politics, but it was one of the announcements that caught my good ear. The parish was hosting food trucks on its property one night during the coming week for everyone to get together. I thought to myself: how clever, what a way to bring the parish together. I was sorry we would not be around. I try to visit such events when I am on the road and I always enjoy them, even as a stranger off the road. I attended a parish building fundraising social in the Adirondack Mountains in 2018 and spent several hours listening to parishioners talk about their local challenges. [Their parish school had been destroyed by an arsonist a few months earlier.]
The geography of Catholicism in the United States has changed since World War II. We no longer grow up in Catholic ghettoes as I did—spending most of my waking hours on church grounds for services, school, and sports with the Christian Brothers. It takes more work for us to come together and welcome each other into our lives. But that week in Colorado I stumbled into locales where community and inclusion are being fostered in some very imaginative ways.
Are We Keepers of the Gate or Greeters to the Banquet? During my final year in the priestly ministry, I encountered an interesting pastoral situation unexpectedly that I will never forget. I was approached for pastoral counseling by a woman who identified herself as a lesbian. She was raised Catholic and her main reason for seeing me was to find out if she could go to church despite her orientation. We talked for about two hours, and I did everything I could to encourage her to become a member of the parish family, explaining that orientation is a mystery of creation and no barrier to God’s love or the communion banquet. She cried, and I cried, and it was one of those grace moments you never quite forget.
What I came to realize, in subsequent weeks, was that I started getting more calls from women in similar circumstances, so I assume the word went out that I was a “safe” cleric and mine was a “safe parish” to hang one’s hat. Not unexpectedly, I was asked about cohabitation. This was a quarter century before the “civil same-sex marriage” debate picked up heat in the United States. Sometimes the Holy Spirit does work overtime. I explained to those who inquired: “The mystery of one’s sexuality is ultimately known only to God. I would not presume to tell you that your need for intimacy is a violation of God’s plan for you. We trust God and always ask for Wisdom. What I would say is this: if you are at peace with God, live with your partner with the same moral commitment we ask of different-sex couples when they marry in the Church. Be monogamous and faithful, commit yourself to the relationship wholeheartedly, try to be Christ for your partner, pray together. If you believe that God has brought you together, receive the Eucharist unless you have morally failed your partner, and then come to see me in the confessional.” [None asked me to marry them, which I interpreted at the time as an indication of their prudence and good faith as well as sensitivity to my position.]
I would also tell them that if someone questioned their arrangement, they should say simply that this is a matter between themselves and their priest in confession and thus confidential.
The Church has the responsibility to unpack the moral teachings of the Sacred Scriptures. However, I do not believe that should be the Church’s calling card, either. Of course, should discussions along these lines come up in Synodal sharing—and I believe they will the longer the groups work together—it is important that the position of the priests of the parish be taken into consideration. These are challenging times for clerics in public ministry. The so-called culture wars are entwined in parochial life, and even the confessional, in ways that are much more intense than they were thirty years ago. Pastors are under much greater episcopal and social scrutiny today than during my years in the ministry. Not all of them would agree with my conscience decisions, either, and I respect that. But from the vantage point of the Synod, it is good for priests to hear from the laity how certain aspects of Church ministry create unnecessary pain, as it is good for laity to hear the stresses of their leaders in the current environment.
How would you describe your relationship with the Catholic Church today? Has it changed over time? How?
Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
Before addressing question 2, we owe it to ourselves to undertake an honest examination of what the word “church” means to each of us. The questionnaire is correct that our relationship with the Church will change over time, but some of this evolution is the inevitable outcome of human development, period. Our attitudes about everything—from love to portfolio management—develop as we age and gain lessons from our life experiences, not to mention the continuing rearrangement of our brain cells and neurotransmitters. [I cannot sit still for three hours at a sporting event anymore, but I enjoy wagering more than ever. The inevitability of biology.]
If you attend weekend Mass with any regularity, you make a promise of belief in “one, holy, catholic [i.e., universal], and apostolic Church” when you recite the Nicene Creed, our summary of religious reality crafted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. I say “promise of belief” because our human intellect cannot fully comprehend the depth of the divine reality, at least not in earthly life, nor is our moral will so strong that we can just throw ourselves in full certainty over the edge of belief like diving into Niagara Falls. In fact, the Council of Nicaea and its sister Councils at Ephesus [431 A.D.] and Chalcedon [451 A.D.], collectively, the “Christological Councils,” concluded that human language itself had exhausted what could be verbally expressed about the nature and reality of God, and no council after 451 A.D. ever attempted to add human statements about the nature of God.
Consequently, when talking about religion at all—whether in response to the Synod’s questionnaire, or in study and catechetics, or even in personal meditation—there is a relative quality to all our “God talk” because we are not divine beings in the full sense of the word and cannot perfectly sense God’s mind. It is especially important to remember this, for when we gather to do anything of a religious nature, each of us has a distinctive gestalt or inner template of the divine plan. None of us has the “full Monty,” but we do profit from bringing our portion of religious experience to fellow believers. This is Pope Francis’ intent, to build a communicative unity, in fulfillment of Christ’s Last Supper prayer that “all might be one.”
Discussion Point 2 asks that we share our experience of the Church. As I posted earlier, there is an autobiographical element to our relationship with the Church. If you had asked me in 1963 what I thought of the Church, I would have expressed disappointment, given that my minor seminary was nothing like I had hoped it would be. In the 1980’s I would have been more optimistic about the term “Church,” given that its leaders entrusted me with considerable responsibilities and meaningful work. In 1994 I was not too far from giving up on religion altogether. In 1998, though, I married a wonderful Catholic leader who has helped me find a modicum of balance between my continuing frustrations with the Church and my need to partake of the Eucharist with her and serve the Church as best I can today. In sharing our Synodal sense of Church, the autobiographical experience cannot be ignored.
Another critical point for consideration in our Synodal sharing is language itself. Take our most sacred word, God. I would wager [sorry about that] for every member of a Synod sharing group there is a very distinct and ongoing experience of God—both intellectually, as in how God functions in our world, and spiritually/psychologically. In his masterful Learning to Pray  Father James Martin speaks of otherworldly moments in the lives of young children, including his own childhood: “Then I looked around. All around me was so much life—the sights, the sounds, the smells—and suddenly I had a visceral urge not only to be a part of it, but also to know it and somehow possess it. I felt loved, held, understood. The desire for everything, somehow for a full incorporation into the universe, and a desire to understand what I was doing here on this earth filled me. It wasn’t a vision. I was still looking at the meadow. I hadn’t ‘left myself.’ And as a boy, I don’t think I would have been able to describe it as I just did. But I knew something had happened: it was as if my heart had stopped, and I was given a conscious inkling of the depths of my own desire for…what? I wasn’t sure.” [p. 23]
One reason the Synodal sharing has not gotten off to a more muscular start is that we do not have much collective experience in the Church in talking to one another about the heart of Christianity: our life experiences of God and those factors which have enriched or deflated our communion with God. If you think about it, Catholicism does a great deal of “talking at.” This is true at Mass where we passively endure homiletic generalities of the religious ballpark. It is certainly true in catechetics, where religious education teachers lather themselves up in conveying “catechetical truths” without a hint of understanding that language is subjectively received and interpreted—and if our research is correct, it is assessed and rejected by students as early as age ten, when a child is smart enough to perceive that his experiences, enthusiasms, criticisms, and questions are not welcomed or, in some cases, condemned.
If the sermons you hear in your church are not cutting it, there is a particularly good chance that your homilists are not reading. Ditto for religious educators and other ministers. What we are experiencing in contemporary Catholicism is parallel to what we see in American life—repetitious contention of the same tired tribal arguments with little or no genuine research and precious little interest in listening. For example, I frequently see in social media that Pope Francis is labeled a “socialist.” To that I can only say that such a sentiment is woefully ignorant of over a century of papal teaching—Pope Leo XIII defended the right of workers to form unions in the 1870’s, for crying out loud.
Consequently, for the Synod sharing to succeed—and to become a permanent fixture of Catholic life—its participants must be countercultural. That is, we need to speak with a personal honesty drawn from a lifetime of experiences over which we have prayed and evaluated ourselves. We are not gathering to argue positions—religious experience is too rich and too diverse for that—but to feed and be fed. The Synod—in fact, all Catholic life—becomes an encounter of the Spirit when we have done the homework—unpacking with penetrating honesty our own life with God and the quality of our communion with the Church. Very often, I think, we do less homework than the preachers who bore us.
There have been many instances over my lifetime when the Church appeared to me to be less than one, holy, catholic, apostolic movement. And over that same lifetime there have been plenty of times when I was not one, holy, catholic, or apostolic member, either. Insight into our own healing will bring insight into healing the Church.
Next: “Does your parish offer a spirit of welcome and inclusion for all in the community?” [Allentown Questionnaire]
When I left for Europe at the end of April, I regretted that I had left behind an ongoing discussion about how to participate in Pope Francis’ invitation to consult on the upcoming synod of 2023. The timing of my trip was unavoidable—it had been cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic—but it did cut me off in midstream of our Synod discussion. This has bothered me for a while now given that many of you have expressed an interest in becoming involved because your parish or your diocese inexplicably took little or no interest in sponsoring this consultation of the universal Church. And I sense that many of you have a need to express yourselves at this juncture of the Church’s life.
On top of everything, when I got home, I contracted a heavy cold. I worried that it might be Covid, but those nifty home tests sent to us by the government came in handy. Anyway, a cold is still a cold, and after a few days of malingering and pampering myself—and doing little to no writing or research—I decided to take an opposite approach, and I threw myself into cleaning out the vegetation that is overrunning my back yard. I decided to sweat this thing out, and the strategy is working as well as all those liquid pharmaceuticals with the free little plastic cups.
The exercise roused me enough to return to my reading, and somewhere around 5 AM today I was immersed in a volume of Thomas Merton’s Letters. [The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends, 1989]. Merton is the best-known Trappist monk of the Twentieth Century whose output of writing—produced within the structure and confines of the monastic schedule—is nothing short of amazing. Unsolicited correspondents’ requests upon his time for everything from spiritual counseling to manuscript reading became insurmountable by the 1960’s, and Merton finally resorted to sending an annual universal mimeographed letter to all but his most intimate friends.
In one of these circular letters, dated “Pentecost Sunday, 1967,” Merton notes that he has been asked many times about his reaction to the changes of in the Church resulting from the recently completed Council Vatican II [1962-1965]. Merton was well into his 50’s in 1967, a monk for a quarter century. He had a certain cynicism about church authority, and he comments that if church leaders are making decisions unilaterally, he did not believe that a true renewal of the Church was possible.
But then he turns to the monastery’s situation. “That brings us to the question of monastic renewal. It is a question I do not feel competent to talk about at the moment. There is at present a General Chapter [of the entire Trappist Order] being held. Our Father Abbot left the other day for Rome. Most of us in the community here seem to be doubtful whether anything special will come of it; there is a sense of “wait and see.” A big questionnaire was sent out to everyone in the Order—a complicated but routine affair—and most people apparently write in their answers. But most seem to have felt that this Gallup Poll approach was not too promising. At any event, a lot of ‘wishes’ will have to be tabulated. Unfortunately, the tabulation of wishes is not enough to constitute renewal.”
We will never know what Merton thought of the outcome of the “monastic Gallup Poll,” because he was tragically electrocuted while lecturing in Asia in 1968. We do know that as a monk he believed all genuine renewal was highly personal and interior, and that he could be critical of projects and programs undertaken in the name of renewal without a concomitant interior conviction. In other writings he adopts the same attitude toward the reform of the Liturgy—then a major project of the Church—and protests against the War in Viet Nam, which Merton regarded as immoral and unjust due to the sufferings imposed upon civilians of both the North and the South.
Merton’s reminder to begin the “Questioning Process” from within brings an indispensable piece of wisdom to the Synodal listening process, i.e., a serious time of reflection upon our own identities and histories before we offer public insight to the Church. For example, over the past week or so I have been reflecting upon the first questions on the Allentown format: “Describe ways that you learned about being Catholic (e.g., raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, RCIA/Convert, married a Catholic.)” and “How would you describe your relationship with the Catholic Church today? Has it changed over time? How? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?”
There are easy answers to be given here: I was born into a German environment in East Buffalo, German was still spoken occasionally by my older relatives, my parish had German-English roots. But simple autobiographical details do not tell the whole story. Over my crib—my first religious ikon coming into consciousness—was a framed picture of the face of Christ purportedly taken from the Shroud of Turin. [See Introductory photo.] In my living room hung a large portrait of Christ, on the ground, weeping next to his cross on the way to Calvary. This was German spirituality to a hilt—at least the East Buffalo brand—and my first exposure to things Catholic. There was a family philosophy that followed this, of course, highly pessimistic. It went something like this: when you think you have accomplished something, beware, God will humble you. A variation on the proverb, “Pride goeth before a fall.”
My continuing introduction to Catholicism was conflicted. In my home religion was a grim business at times. I was also baffled that some of the religion taught to me at school was contrary to what I experienced in real life. I had no sense of communication with Jesus at my First Communion [and later, I was disciplined at home for returning from the altar too slowly; in my effort to be devout, I must have created a logjam. I will never forget that.] But there was something [divine?] given to me that made me take ownership of my Eucharistic life that day, for the very next day I got up before dawn and attended the 6 AM workers’ Mass in my parish, the only kid with the blue-collar crowd, and I received again, on my own. I count that as my first true communion.
When do we stop learning about being a Catholic, as the Allentown questionnaire asks in its first question? I could go on and on here in print with the highs and the lows of my own discoveries of the Church as I progressed through my stages of development and important life changes. Even in my mid-70’s, in the early morning stillness with my beloved Merton texts and letters, I continue to reflect upon my place in the Church. I can say that I never left, for much the same reasons that Merton stayed a monk when so many were questioning the value of monastic life in the frenetic 1960’s: “We who entered cloistered orders ten, fifteen, and twenty-five years ago were certainly chilled by the sense that there was something warped and inhuman about it. We were not totally blind and stupid…it is true we were told absurd things, made to behave with a stupid and artificial formality, and put through routines that now, as we look back, seem utterly incredible. How did we ever stomach such atrocious nonsense?” [Easter, 1968]
He goes on. “We have nevertheless elected to stay put with it because we have continued to believe that this was what God asked of us. We have simply not seen any alternative that seemed to us better…what matters to me is not the monastic life but God and the Gospel—as exemplified by these words of St. Paul from the Easter liturgy: “Since you have been brought back to true life in Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is sitting at God’s right hand.”
Merton’s mimeographed letters quoted here would have been entirely appropriate as responses to the Synod’s invitation, were he alive today, and they give us a clue about the 2023 Synod. Our first task is looking inward. Many bishops were afraid to obey the pope and conduct synodal listening sessions because they were afraid they would hear nothing but cries for married clergy and women priests. These are critical issues, but I must agree with Merton that no reforming act is going to sanctify the Church without the prerequisite change of heart, the homework of doing the history and entering the solitude of God’s presence.
Of course, we are always called to this level of personal honesty and examination. The pope’s intention in the Synodal process is to bring this inner conversation with the Holy Spirit into holy conversation with one another, locally and eventually universally. Those of us who live in areas where the Synodal process was ignored are going to need some creativity not just in getting our notes in the record, but even more to the point, sharing with each other the fruits of our introspective prayer.
I have several recommendations to offer here which I will return to in future posts:
First, all interested participants need to give private time, study, and prayer to the questions proposed on the Allentown Diocese’s questionnaire; it appears to be the best available.
Second, if you are considering joining or forming a discussion group locally, please allow enough sessions or meetings as the spirit of the group seems to need. It is critical to avoid superficiality. If you schedule a 90-minute session, for example, be open to the reality that several members may need time to share how they found Christ—or alas, lost Him—in their Catholic experience. If you can, employ leaders with some experience in group interactions—teachers, human resource personnel, mental health/group therapy practitioners, parish staff, etc. Discuss privacy and confidentiality boundaries.
Third, existing parish groups that meet for other faith formation/education purposes can glide into synodal group encounters, considering the advice offered in the previous step two. I recognize that a pastor who has not sponsored a synodal listening in his parish may not be so forthcoming with permission to allow for the use of space on the parish plant for synodal processing. If he refuses permission, do not rule out using homes or those small group meeting rooms offered by restaurants and coffee shops like Panera’s.
Fourth, there is nothing that says an extended family cannot gather for Synodal sharing. It occurs to me that with so much angst about adult children who do not practice the faith, the opportunity for a charitable and placid discussion about faith experience and the struggle of the young to find meaning in it might, at the very least, bring some measure of reconciliation into families where religious differences are the consistent elephant in the living room.
How the Catechist Café will help:
First, I will devote posts to the synodal discussion questions twice weekly to assist individuals and groups striving to put together contributions for the bishops’ synod. Follow the Café’s invitations on “The Catechist Café” Facebook site or “Thomas J. Burns—The Catechist Café” at Linked In, or the Café’s home site, www.catechistcafe.com
Second, I will open a special link on the Café’s website at www.catechistcafe.com for anyone who would like to share a reflection on a particular question in the Allentown sequence. Submissions can be sent to me at email@example.com I will publish the contributions anonymously.
Third, beginning in late June I will host several Zoom gatherings to discuss questions in the synodal agenda. All I will need is an email address to forward a link. I will post the dates and open registration on or around June 15.
There is no denying that “Synodality” is a new concept for the general Catholic populace, though Synods have been a common feature of the Church since ancient days. As “an assembly of the clergy and sometimes also the laity in a diocese or other division of a particular Church,” one can argue that the first Synod occurred in the New Testament, in Acts of the Apostles 15 to be precise, the “Council of Jerusalem.” It is worth reading this text as we begin our project of a modern Synod, for it was called to address a major question that might have crippled the Christian mission forever: must Gentiles become Jews before they are admitted to Christian Baptism? Put another way, was circumcision required of males as part of the initiation process?
Acts 15 records a meeting marked by sincerity, prayer, and personal witness of those who witnessed the working of the Holy Spirit. It was not a meeting without conflict. Recall Galatians 2:11 where Paul reports that “I withstood Peter to his face” on the matter of required circumcision. On the other hand, understandably, thoughtful Jewish converts worried about what they saw as a break in continuity from the faith of Abraham and Moses to faith in Jesus, the Risen one. They were right to be concerned, but other prudent heads in the meeting drew texts from the very Hebrew Scriptures themselves that brought comfort to the concerned and a measure of unity to the Church. “After much discussion,” Peter, preeminent among the apostles, and James, the bishop of Jerusalem, brought together the Spirit-filled wisdom in the gathering and summarized the future practice of Christian evangelization in the beautiful letter that was transmitted to all corners of the known Christian mission in 50 A.D.
Pope Francis has announced a Synod of Bishops to meet in 2023 and called on each Bishop around the world to listen to members of their flock – including those who are marginalized or who have fallen away from the Church — and get their feedback on issues important to the Catholic Church today. Bishop Alfred A. Schlert of the Allentown, PA, Diocese, explains the process well on his diocesan website: “The Holy Father wants to know how Catholics experience and express their faith in these challenging times, The goal is to listen to all Catholics, wherever they find themselves in their faith journey or relationship to the Church, so that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we may discern the best ways of addressing the challenges we face as a world and work together on a path of healing and unity through our Catholic faith.”
As it has become clearer that many dioceses and parishes have not engaged in the process, despite the call of the Holy Father, it will be left to dedicated laity—certainly in communion with priests, deacons, and religious in their parishes or regions who likewise wish to contribute, wherever possible —to lay out their local plans to engage in this collective listening and discerning process. [Perhaps anticipating a lack of participation from parishes and dioceses, the Vatican has provided a direct way to submit the product of lay synodal participation. Consequently, no one need fear being shut out.]
If you or your parish has not had its “bite at the synodal apple,” here are some theoretical and practical points on getting started.
First, approach the Synod as a spiritual event. The last thing I want to do is go into a synodal sharing with my “grievance list.” The better paradigm is a religious retreat, which allows for quiet reflection, faith-filled input, and a resolution/conversion for the future. Until the Covid cloud upset our apple carts, I tried to make an annual retreat with the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey, near Charleston, SC. On the last full day of the retreat, after several days of silence, reflection, reading, and the liturgical hours, I would make a general confession, perhaps an hour, with one of the wise spiritual directors. Inside of that hour I could bring my reflection to bear, including my relationship with the Church—my love for the tradition that formed my faith identity and my frustration with where I belong in my local assembly of the Body of Christ.
Obviously, this kind of experience would be extremely hard to replicate in local synodal sharing. But the sequential of prayer, reflection, and an honest “state of my union” in the Church is not a bad outline to keep in mind as we approach synodal communion, and these are parts of the process that anyone can begin now in preparation for synodal group sharing.
Synodality is autobiographical.
We all came from somewhere, and when we gather to share, it will be critical to understand that, like snowflakes, no two of us are alike. [Even among the evangelists, no two Gospels are alike, either; each sacred author writes from his own encounter with the risen Christ]. We are already in the “autobiographical stage;” hopefully, reflecting upon our religious histories and highlighting the Church moments [or years] of our agony, ecstasy, stasis, alienation, reconversion. It is true, too, that the Vatican II and “the changes” have challenged the structural Church itself. We and the universal Church have changed together. It is also true that we live in an era of ongoing struggles between looking too far forward and looking too far backward.
If we can articulate our “Church journey” well, we will be able to better understand both those whose lives in the Church have been nurtured and those in the Church who have been suffering. My own life in the Church has been something of a roller coaster, but the Eternal Ticket Taker keeps punching my ticket for another wild ride around the course. I would have hoped that in my 70’s all of that would be settled. I might add here that the official documentation for the Synod calls for every effort to invite into the process those who have left the Church—evangelization of the best sort. All the sadder that the process was neglected in so many places.
Synodality is an experience as much as an outcome.
What would happen, for example, if a synodal sharing group met for six evenings during the summer and decided that it was impossible to share on paper all the nuances expressed in those times together? What if you do not finish the worksheet of questions? Is that a failure?
Gracious, no! First, this initial foray into Synodality is just that—our first time around the track. Pope Francis intends this synodal model to be the permanent way we, as a Church, talk to each other. I am aware that some dioceses are using on-line questionnaires to elicit black-and-white data on several topics of Church life. I hope no one draws a conclusion that the Church is just looking for some one-time feedback on a deadline, and that will be the end of things. This is just the beginning.
There is nothing wrong, either, with writing a letter to the Vatican Office of the Synod [I have the address] and simply expressing gratitude for the opportunity and the spiritual mood of the group after coming together at the invitation of the Pope.
Our sympathetic ears will be more important than our dogmatic mouths.
I was a theology teacher for my diocese for forty years, and I am aware that where religion is concerned, things can get heated. I cannot recall a time in my life when I have heard as much outright verbal abuse hurled at a pope by Catholics as the present day. However, I remember a psychology professor at Rollins College explaining to us future counselors that “resistance is a gift.” Anger is honest and often a clear expression of the soul. As difficult as it may be to hear, it is a true act of charity to allow a troubled brother or sister to articulate frustration or pain. Anger is often a marker of fear and powerlessness, and there are Catholics at both ends of the spectrum who fear that the wheels are falling off the ecclesiastical wagon. This is part of the “culture war” stress across America, to be sure, but a good many of us are “walking wounded” from past religious experience or any of several kinds of traumas too numerous to list. And there is a built-in hubris in assuming that an angry or troubled individual is not on target, at least to a point, and I as a listener may be obtuse to a legitimate concern of a fellow believer that I am hesitant to confront due to my own prejudices.
At the Last Supper Jesus prayed that “all may be one,” and the opportunity to express one’s religious concerns in a gathering that is not judgmental but honestly open is a major step in that unity longed for by Jesus
Working out a structure.
I would not be posting this blog at all if every diocese and parish had developed a workable structure for the synodal process to implement the Pope’s call to participation. And one thing I am discovering is that the dioceses which did implement synodal programs are shutting their internet resources down, having passed the arbitrary deadline for closure of the listening phase. In scouring many dioceses around the country on the internet, I got the dreaded “404” alert—link no longer engaged. This is unfortunate for those of us who were waiting on our parishes and never got our bite at the apple.
How we organize ourselves to engage in the process will require us to be wise as serpents as well as simple as doves. I wrestled for a long time with what kind of advice to offer on how to organize. If there is a group or groups within the parish that plan to meet to participate in the synod, it is wise to inform the pastor of your intention and ask for his prayers and blessing. You can even invite him to participate. However, it is not necessary to ask permission to meet, and I recommend you do not ask, for the simple reason that Catholics are always free to gather for prayer and faith sharing.
That said, common sense and fidelity to the Church both dictate that it is wise to have a competent pastoral advisor for a free-standing synod group to consult between meetings. For example, the director of faith formation in a parish would seem like an excellent resource person on several levels—to provide theological information on questions that may arise, to assist a group that may wish to form a permanent faith community, and to assist in forwarding the results of the synodal discussions to the diocese, or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or even directly to the Vatican.
Things become more complicated when the question becomes where to meet. In the best of all worlds the locus would be the parish “plant” itself. Parishes are notoriously sleepy during the summer [except for Vacation Bible School] and one would think that requests for space to meet might be less a problem. Again, there is a delicate balancing act here—the pastor does have the right and responsibility to manage the parish grounds, and whether he is enthusiastic about the synod process or not, as the CEO of the parish operation he has legal liabilities for the safety of anyone using the property. I am going to cross my fingers and say that a good pastor will do whatever he can to facilitate a friendly request for help and support, at least in terms of providing hospitality.
There are other options for gatherings. My own parish has several small faith groups that meet monthly and rotate gatherings among the homes of the participants. [I presently belong to a Mepkin Abbey spirituality group which meets monthly over Zoom.] I have not talked to my better half yet, but if left to my own devices, I would invite Catholics in my development to my home during the summer for several evenings of good coffee, pastry, and synod sharing. [My development straddles two parishes.] Again, during my pastoring years, I offered Mass from time to time at the clubhouses of the various retirement communities in the parish and followed it up with lunch and long informal discussions about the Church. It may be useful to consider such sites for a series of synodal gatherings.
About four years ago my entire family of three generations rented a splendid vacation house on Lake George in the Adirondacks and we gathered every night around the fire pit. In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if I had produced a case of a fine Umbrian wine and asked the group, “OK, where is everybody with the Church?” I think we could have gone to sunrise. [Or, they could have kept the wine and set me adrift on the lake in our boat.] The Spirit works where it wills. Just remember to summarize the discussion on paper after breakfast.
Local leadership of the process.
No group will function well without a leader, but for the synod we may be able to cast the nets a little wider for competent personnel. The synod is a listening process, which is different from a focused Bible study or a religion instruction. The discussions may call for clarifications about the Church, but that is more a matter of individual/group follow-up with, say, a parish formation staffer. One need not be a certified catechist to lead.
The Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan, has an impressive synod listening program guide in place. From its website: “All parishes, organizations, and self-formed small groups are invited to participate in the Synodal Gatherings preceding the Synod of Bishops in 2023. The purpose is to listen together to what the Holy Spirit is saying as it guides the Church forward. Materials are now available for people to lead their own Gatherings. The written conclusions from those consultations should be sent to the Coordinating Team which will synthesize them into a final report.”
The Kalamazoo Diocese assumes that many of its groups will be preexisting—parish councils, school faculties, choirs, etc. but that many others will be independent initiative-takers—no doubt the geography of the north factors into this--and it provides volunteer leaders a rich array of resources and suggestions to borrow from—beginning with a legible overview of the process and proceeding to the details. From what I can see, the best synod group leaders are those with a level head who care enough about the Church to join such a group in the first place. Any Catholic adult with experience in group settings—classroom, administration, military, family, business, human relations—would be fine. I suggested to my pastor that mental health counselors are trained group facilitators, but my input was relegated to clerical limbo.
[I would advise the readers to make copies of the Kalamazoo process--or a similar one, such as the Allentown link above--soon, as I do not know how much longer these resources will remain posted. I will keep copies for anyone who needs one down the road.]
In reading the Kalamazoo documents, I got the sense that one of the most important tasks of a designated leader is inviting as many people as possible to the sessions and encouraging friends and family to invite as many people as they know. “[The group] does not limit itself to certain people or groups, but actively searches in order to hear people at the margins who are overlooked, ignored, or without a voice.” Moreover. if the sessions continue through the summer, there is no problem I can see with adding more people to the groups if the logistics permit.
Synodality cannot be achieved in an evening. But it can be sampled.
It may be the start of a new reality of togetherness in the name of Christ. Consequently, let the group evolve with its own sense of time. Kalamazoo recommends a two-hour max for each meeting, including prayer and a caffeine jolt. In fact, the group can ask the guidance of the Spirit for a sense of its direction in the future. Hopefully, many groups will build upon the experience as the building of “domestic churches” which offer the intimacy of Catholic community we do not experience in larger church assemblies. The term “domestic church” was a favorite of Pope Paul VI. Pope Francis envisions the synodal model as the normative way we Catholics contribute to the wisdom and holiness of the universal Church.
Synodality may be the start of something beautiful…and the embrace to a hungry and frightened world to find flesh-and-bones communion with those who wait for Jesus to come again while living in a Spirit-filled community of support. We need each other.
I have received a fair amount of correspondence about the Synod and the opportunity [or lack thereof] to participate in Pope Francis’ invitation to pray and reflect together on our experience of the Church. From what I see on social media, some dioceses are talking about Easter as being the wrap-up phase. If your parish or diocese has not invited you into a process—or, only a very superficial one—I would ignore the Easter deadline and proceed as you see fit.
There will be plenty of opportunities to submit data down the road. Working through a parish or a diocese is not the only avenue to communicate with the pope. That was the original plan, but too many bishops and pastors opted out of the process—we can do a postmortem later on why so many leaders are not in step with the pope on the synodal process. There is absolutely nothing in Church Law that prohibits dedicated Catholics from clustering to conduct the pope’s wishes.
But my thinking at this point is that the Synodal process is about a unity in faith that profits everyone who participates. Two things need to happen to make the process work. First, personal prayer and reflection. The synodal process is autobiographical—a profound reflection on my life with Jesus Christ and how my spiritual experience has interfaced with my life in the Church. Before any structured synodal sharing, every participant needs to do this kind of homework, to prepare oneself to talk about God in my life. As a wise lay leader in my parish observed, “the synodal process should not be reduced to a ‘bitch session.’” He is spot on. Galatians 5: 22-23 is the keystone to the process: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Second, the synodal process offers a wonderful opportunity to build smaller communities of faith within the Church. There is nothing to stop us from forming groups to reflect upon life in the Church and continuing them, even permanently, after the formal synodal process has concluded. A series of synod get-togethers may evolve into a more permanent bonding of prayer, friendship, adult education, and service in communion with Christ. Naturally, I am not talking about independent bodies separate from the life of the parish or the universal Church. But when we talk about our parishes as “communities,” the fact is that most parishes are too large and diverse to provide the affective sense of belonging exemplified in the Acts of the Apostles [4: 32-34]: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.”
Something to consider, too, is the upcoming summer season. Summers become something of a spiritual parish desert. We can bloom some flowers during the Dog Days. There is nothing to stop you from inviting neighbors and friends over to your house for coffee, cookies, and spiritual intimacy. If you are thinking of initiating such a group endeavor—and “group” can be as small as five people--you can consult with your local director of faith formation in your parish who in most cases would be delighted to help you organize and give some guidance.
I am recovering from my second Moderna booster today; I got the shot yesterday in anticipation of travel at the end of the month. The shot must be working because my body is fighting it like crazy. But side effects notwithstanding, my goal is to begin providing a series of reflections on the synodal questions provided by the Diocese of Allentown, PA, which has done an excellent job in putting forth an organized discussion outline. I might recommend that you visit and download the Allentown outline sooner than later, as I don’t know how much longer it will be available.
I should note here that I have created a separate stream on the Catechist Café website for Synod posts and discussions.
Here is a summary of the discussion points from the Allentown resource:
PARTICIPATION IN LIFE OF THE CHURCH
Describe ways that you learned about being Catholic. (e.g., Raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, RCIA/Convert, married a Catholic)
How would you describe your relationship with the Catholic Church today? Has it changed over time? How?
Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
Does your parish offer a spirit of welcome and inclusion to all in the community?
Does prayer, Mass, the Sacraments, and other Church celebrations inspire and guide your life with the Church?
Why or why not?
Does your participation in your parish help to inspire important decisions in our life? Why or why not?
What joy does the Church bring you now or in the past?
What do you think is the mission of the Church? What areas of mission is the Church fulfilling? What areas need
more attention? What areas are being neglected?
DIALOGUE IN CHURCH AND SOCIETY
When you reflect on your parish community, is there diversity in dialogue that is representative of a wider
community? Why or why not?
Do you believe the Catholic church listens to the whole People of God? If so, how? If not, why not?
What issues in the Church and community should be highlighted?
What dialogue and collaboration does the Church have with believers of other religions and with those without
Do you feel there is space in your parish for the voice of all people, including those both active and inactive in their faith?
Are you aware of tools and procedures that the Church uses to promote transparency and accountability?
CATHOLIC IDENTITY AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
How would you describe your relationship with God? Would you call it fulfilling? Why or why not?
How do you think people can grow in their faith? What resources (books, clergy, retreats, services, etc.) are helpful to you?
JOURNEYING TOGETHER AS A CATHOLIC, FAITH-FILLED COMMUNITY
Where do you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit? What are we being asked to do?
How can a church community help form people to be more capable of walking together, listening to one another, fulfilling the mission, etc.?
How do you think the Holy Spirit is inviting the Church community – both locally and universally – to grow together?
The Synod Page