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]
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