The first person to weigh in was Mary, one of my distant relatives from Pennsylvania. She and her husband are extremely active in their parish and have raised three remarkable daughters to adulthood. She asked this question: “How are we going to engage the unchurched and underchurched? Are we supposed to stand at the entrances of other churches and hand out forms to all those folks? To those who self-identify as former Catholics? It will be another exercise of ‘speaking to the choir’ imho.”
Thank you, Mary. In a few sentences you correctly targeted not one but two issues which may derail the Synodal process. First, your sentence, “It will be another exercise of speaking to the choir” reminds us that in the last half century or so, since Vatican II, we have loyally participated in a seeming endless series of programs which promise to restore the vigor of the Catholic Church at the parish level and enrich the universal Church. I suspect that we are growing weary of them. I must admit that when the Synod appeared on my personal radar, I had something of the same reaction—not another half-baked bureaucratic program leading to nothing. I was so unenthused that when a particularly good friend, a Doctor of Theology, asked me how I was going to get involved in the Synod process, I told her I was tired of Church programs and wanted to be left alone in my golden years.
If you google the web pages of dioceses at random, you will find that many of them in the United States are in the process of some localized structured renewal unrelated to the Synod. This morning I picked at random the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is featuring “Nothing Compares to Being There.” This is a campaign—well organized—to invite back to weekly Mass those who discontinued regular participation at Eucharist during Covid. The problem is that this program, and others like it, assumes that Covid is the facilitator of the decline, when there is a large body of research which establishes that the exodus from the altar predates February 2020. Nor did I see anything suggesting dialogue in the Philadelphia program; it is essentially “come back to us where you belong.” A pastoral effort, to be sure, but nothing synodal about it.
During my years as a Franciscan priest and parish pastor, I was elected to the Order’s three-year and six-year meetings, called “chapters,” to address problems and create better ways to enhance the community life of the friars on the East Coast of the United States. Each of these chapters produced a working document to be implemented by the local communities. Toward the end of my years with the friars we produced a document called Franciscan Life and Ministry, or colloquially, FLAM. Several years later we returned to write a revision of this document. The product quickly became dubbed “Son of FLAM” and became something of a poster child for the reality that meetings, documents, and plans were just not cutting it.
Why have so many Church projects of renewal died? The gifted Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton [1874-1936] may have put it best: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Chesterton’s adage explains why so many Church ventures do not deliver the goods, so to speak, whether they be the works of parishes, dioceses, or the universal Church itself. First, we nibble around the edges looking to avoid what our founding documents tell us to do—the Gospels, the Nicene Creed, Francis of Assisi’s Rule for the friars, written in his own hand; the “hard” challenge that Chesterton speaks of. There is no mystery to what Christ wants of us—to pray always, to care for the poor, to “be one as the Father and I are one.” Most of us—individually and corporately—are engaged in “conscience negotiations” about how far we want to take this, how hard do we want this to be.
Consequently, all our Church dialogue is tainted by this dishonesty. It is critical to admit this as we enter the Synodal phase. In fact, the best that could come out of the Synodal process is an intimate confession of our individual and collective sinfulness, one to another. Only then can the forgiving grace of God loosen our tongues to speak the words that build the Body of Christ on earth. If I understand Pope Francis correctly, this is the dialogue of saving unity he wishes the entire Church to embrace. To admit our sinfulness and failure to live the Gospel as well as our need for the saving example of Christ is the unifying principle of the Church.
In our prayers for the fruitfulness of the synod, we would be amiss if we did not pray for the deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church. It is impossible to escape the reality that the line between the sacramental charism of leadership and the intoxication of authority and power is often crossed, many times unknowingly. Again, the success of the Synod will depend upon the honesty of the ordained clergy: that they understand the pope’s intention, that they preach it clearly, that they facilitate the process to the fullest, that they seek help for the process if they do not understand the art of effective collaboration, that they encourage openness, and finally and most painfully, that they hear sincere fraternal correction, when necessary, coming from their people. The mistakes of ordained leaders do not lessen their ministry or importance to the Church; rather, admission of “clericalism,” pride, academic sloth, insensitivity, etc., bring our clergy to closer communion with the faithful.
And so, Mary, only time will tell as to whether our march toward Synodality is the highway to the New Jerusalem or forty more years in the desert. But to your second point about reaching the unchurched. I am going to suggest that the terms “churched” and “unchurched” are much less useful than we may think. We tend to put stock on the number of the “churched” because it is the only visible metric we have for measuring the relative health of the parish. [As a former pastor, I looked at attendance through the eyes of my accountant, LOL.] It is unwise to assume that because someone is in the pew with frequency, he or she enjoys a full communion with God and is in less need of the “spiritual field hospital,” to use Pope Francis’ phrase, than an individual who is not in our pews but may enjoy a communion with God that we can scarcely imagine. The elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son never abandoned his “pew” at the father’s table but his true soul was revealed in a painful display.
That said, it is exceedingly important that the Synod process involve those who once sat side by side with us in the pew and who have sought spiritual solace elsewhere. The assumption is often made that someone who absents himself from Catholic worship is “the guilty party in the divorce.” We have good research now that those who have left the practice of the Catholic faith have done so for a myriad of reasons, many of them quite understandable. The groundbreaking St. Mary’s Press/CARA 2017 study, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” found that departure from the Church begins around the age of thirteen, and as early as 10. When I read this study, I found these results very confirming. For an eight-year-old child, not fortunate enough to sit in one of the first three pews, what is the actual experience of Mass for him or her—spending an hour watching the backside of the grownup in front? And does he get more from the sermon than we adult unfortunates? No one has ever stopped to consider—or considered it important enough—that our very architecture [and our preaching and music selections, too] alienate children from Mass. It occurs to me just now that the Synod process should listen very carefully to the young and the very young, who are “unchurching” under our noses.
I do not think we need to visit other churches and hand out forms, as Mary humorously put it. But I think everyone who reads my words today knows dozens if not hundreds of family members and friends who are no longer affiliated with Catholicism, however one defines that. I could go through three lists right now and produce at least five hundred names: my family, my old seminary classmates, and my Facebook friends. In a perfect world—and even in the real world—I would ask them to tell me about their faith journeys.
I will give one example. One of my close friends from my seminary and ordination class is celebrating his birthday today. He beat me to seventy-four by three weeks. He retired recently from his position as a highly respected Episcopal pastor in North Carolina. I would hardly call him unchurched. At the same time, how much richer the Catholic Church would be if we understood the spiritual call that led him to the Episcopal priesthood after he was ordained with me. I would never say to him, “We’re gathering the fallen-away Catholics back to the fold, and we’d like you to join us and reconsider.”
What I would rather say is this: “You began your baptismal and ordination journey in the Roman Catholic tradition, and then you were called to another branch of Christ’s family. Can you share with us something of your journey that might enrich and reform us as we assess our Roman Catholic stance toward God’s mission through Christ?”
Invite as many as you are comfortable with, with the understanding that their experiences are invaluable to us, as we humbly listen. And let God take it from there.