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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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