To Catechist Café Patrons and friends everywhere:
For reasons not fully clear to me, many dioceses and parishes in the United States opted to ignore the pope’s invitation to participate in the first universal synodal conclave. My initial reaction was anger. However, I now believe that more pastors and bishops are fearful of what they may learn from their people. And there is a syndrome of shame and powerlessness when your congregations seek renewal and programs that are far beyond your expertise and means.
“The Synod on the Synod” obviously will, at some point in the future, address these and many other issues facing the Church. But the Pope’s main concern here seems to be that we talk to each other and how we converse with each other. So, we enter the process with humble hearts, good intentions, and considerable reflection.
The following discussion outline—about fifteen points, I think--is put forward to generate thought and enthusiasm for the synodal process. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does reflect many of my major concerns. Yours may be different, and you can communicate these to the Synod as you see fit. I left out several hot-button issues for one obvious reason—if you read these proposals in their entirety, you will come away with the sense that we are nowhere near ready to be making all kinds of massive structural changes. I have added a SYNOD stream on the Café menu and will add my reflections [and yours if you’d like] as we go along.
You may use this as you please. No attribution is necessary. You can gather friends to participate in discussion and submission if you wish.
The best suggestion I can make—editorially—is that you copy the text below and attach it to your own word processor file to put your own additions on it. The mailing address is at the bottom.
God bless and let me know how it goes.
SYNOD PROPOSALS FOR DISCUSSION AND SUBMISSION
____The disciples put forward the first great “synod agenda” when they beseeched Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Spirituality is the most talked about and least understood element of baptismal life. Since Vatican II we have floundered about looking for definitions and routines of prayer. The Baltimore Catechism’s definition of prayer as “the lifting of the mind and heart to God” is a description of the most profound conversion a human can experience. To be honest, it does not seem like we have yet formulated a catechesis—better, a mindset—of leading baptized Catholics into mystical union with God, at least in the United States, and of integrating spirituality into sacramental catechesis, for example. The idea of universalizing the Liturgy of the Hours has been bandied about since the Council, but it has come nowhere near common practice among the faithful.
____The true heart of prayer is greater than its individual parts. While the Church pays public respect to its “mystics” such as Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa, we gloss over the true inner anguish of all the saints. Who of us has the courage to pray like St. Peter, “"Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Our Church needs less exhortation to pray and more immersion and companionship in the spiritual-psychological encounter with the Heart of all reality. This recommendation assumes a pool of suitably trained spiritual directors, which we currently do not have.
____The holiness of the Church comes down to the personal spirituality of each of its baptized members. Over the years we have been catechizing [some would say frantically] to instill what Catholics should be doing, i.e., the Catechism. Where we fall short is the formative process of divine reflection where Catholics reflect upon their very being. Some excellent breakthroughs are evident in lay movements of faith, particularly under the tutorage of religious orders, such as the Trappists, the Jesuits, the Franciscans, etc. who organize and assist lay communities in developing deeper spirituality. The term “Lectio Divina” or divine reading and reflection is—finally-- finding its way onto more Catholic tongues. That said, the American Church still has no common denominator of personal and common prayer. And it often distrusts its spiritual outliers. What the late Carl Sagan observed about education in general applies equally well to Catholics of every age: “You go talk to kindergartners or first-grade kids, you find a class full of science enthusiasts. They ask deep questions. They ask, “What is a dream, why do we have toes, why is the moon round, what is the birthday of the world, why is grass green?” These are profound, important questions. They just bubble right out of them. You go talk to 12th graders and there’s none of that. They’ve become incurious. Something terrible has happened between kindergarten and 12th grade.
____Painful as it is to admit, the ministry and science of “catechetics” in the United States has ground to a halt. The U.S. Bishops’ post-Conciliar teaching “To Teach as Jesus Did”  began the official tolling of the bells when it taught, with a straight face, that Catholic school religious formation and CCD were equally effective. What the Conference of Bishops could not publicly concede then [or even today] was the wholesale departure of college educated professionals, notably women religious, from the religious education field. Today, catechesis across the age spectrum is conducted by parish volunteers. While there are notable exceptions, most dioceses do not demand or provide their catechetical volunteers with anything commensurate to basic college level religious and educational skills. Rather, dioceses have become traffickers in “on-line certifications” whose authorization ceases at the diocesan border.
____The recruiting and discernment processes of approval of seminarians bears discussion. Consider that  The full process is never explained to the faithful.  Laity, by and large, are not involved in the discernment process.  There are wide swings in the pastoral qualities of seminary graduates now being ordained: from the inherently wise, intelligent, widely read, and personable, on the one hand, to others who appear to have learned nothing from Vatican II.  The U.S. is experiencing an influx of seminarians from other sites. mother tongues, and cultures. We may be devolving from the ideal of the priest as the persona of Christ in our homes and classrooms into a class of exclusive “confectioners of the sacraments,” a linguistic-cultural cross to bear for them as it is for the general body of Catholics. I would ask the Church to publicly consult and study on the possibility of broadening its pool of future candidates for the priesthood to at least current parish deacons who have distinguished themselves in parochial work, married men, and those laicized priests currently in good standing in the Church who would seek to serve again. Moreover, it would be wise to make public that, for all practical purposes, the United States is a missionary country.
____There are fewer than six Catholic weddings per year in the average U.S. Catholic Church, per the CARA/Georgetown annual survey of diocesan records, down over 80% since 1970. [See 2022 figures at CARA FAQ website.] By this measure most married Catholics today are “living in sin,” which common sense tells us is either catastrophic or absurd. [I opt to the absurdity end of the scale.] In many ecclesiastical locales, engaged couples come to the church to seek sacramental marriage “guilty, till proven more guilty.” The obstacles to the approval of a parish wedding seem insurmountable and incomprehensible to these kids whose entire religious education quotient was taught to them around the age of ten by nervous moms who signed on to teach a week earlier. I recommend that the U.S. Church—and ultimately the global Church--discuss its entire theological/pastoral/psychological/liturgical approach to the celebration of the Catholic marriage sacrament. Rather than demand 100% church attendance and flawless catechism recital—and Natural Family Planning, for that matter—let us welcome them back into the Church the way our grandmothers were so happy to see us on their doorsteps, with all our youthful faults—including angling for her fresh-baked frosted sugar cookies.
____I recommend that national/diocesan/regional/ consultations be hosted by U.S. Catholic leaders to hear the experiences of individuals who have sought and received ecclesiastical declarations of nullity [annulments] in the United States. The “guests of honor” at such a conclave would also include those whose cases were not approved due to lack of evidence as well. Special emphasis should be placed on the spiritual, personal, parochial, and matrimonial impacts of the annulment process. Particularly helpful would be the experiences of those who, through no fault of their own, could not receive the legal clearance to enter a Catholic marriage. The results of such a hearing would be forwarded to Rome toward a long term synodal reflection upon the nature of the marriage bond and the current pastoral efforts to preserve it and celebrate it.
____Paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church labels the sexual affections between parties of the same sex as “objectively disordered.” In the first instance, the choice of language here is contradictory, as the same paragraph states earlier that the number of such couples is “not negligible.” [Roman-speak for “a lot of couples” whose sufferings and good will are receiving more sympathy, protection, and concern by “straight” Catholics in many parts of the world.] When something is observed in nature repeatedly, it is hard to label the phenomenon as “objectively disordered” or a rare occurrence in nature. Fifty years ago, the planet Saturn was viewed as “objectively unique” because it alone had a ring system. Today it is documented that all planets beyond Mars have substantive ring systems as our body of scientific research considers growing. And yes, we are learning more about the human species just as we are about the solar system.
___Continuing from the previous paragraph, I am deeply concerned about the term “objectively disordered.” Again, the question arises: “disordered compared to what?” Compared to all human beings sorting out the meaning of their existences in their prayers, walks with God, and searching for human intimacy? The language of para. 2358 is a generic and baseless slur against a large population of persons, all of whom are children of God, belong to families who love them, and who deserve the protection of religious conscience and protection of civil rights. Consider if the Catechism employed the phrases “Objectively Discolored” [for non-Anglo-Saxons] or “Christ Killers” [for all Jews]. In 1959 the Vatican removed the term “Perfidious [faithless] Jews” from the Catholic Good Friday rite. It is distressing to see the Church, in its Catechism, revert to class condemnation it has condemned elsewhere. But worst of all, Nazi atrocities began in the 1930’s with a collective literal denigration of an entire class of religious people, the Jews. It is often forgotten, however, that the Holocaust expanded its “philosophy” to homosexuals, the mentally ill, deformed children, political dissidents, etc., many of whom were also slaughtered. Words have consequences: Inflammatory, prejudicial, and potentially violent language has no place in a Catholic document, particularly one that holds itself up as the final word on Catholic faith and morals.
____In 1974 the Vatican released the post-Council renewed Rites of Penance, which included provisions for General or group Absolution, a practice well-known to military chaplains in battlefield locales. I recommend that the Church revisit the current strictures placed upon the third rite, popularly known in the United States as “General Absolution.” Present day practice allows for General Absolution in only life-or-death circumstances, such as the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident near Harrisburg, PA, in 1979. In terms of sacramental efficacy, oral confession is not literally necessary for forgiveness. The current disciplinary restrictions seem to assume that Catholics who attended General Absolution services quite enthusiastically several decades ago were “trying to get away with something” or “seeking cheap grace.” There is no research to support this, and such restrictions run the risk of “guilt shaming,” a tendency which seems to arise with increasing frequency each decade regarding numerous points of Church discipline. The Church would be well-served to consult with the faithful on pastoral needs regarding the celebration and ongoing catechesis of the Sacrament of Penance. For example, is it necessary—or even historically and theologically justifiable—to assert that children must make First Confession prior to First Eucharist?
____ Much of Church morality and pastoral catechetics does not seem conversant with psychiatry and mental health science. Many Catholics seeking counseling from priests in the parish office or in the confessional—including the young--are often manifesting clinical symptoms ranging from substance abuse, mood disorder, family dysfunction, vocational confusion, and personality disorders. Moreover, they can be particularly resistant to “secular treatment modalities” [particularly in pastoral counseling outside of confession] and to medicinal interventions, as when a confessor or pastoral counselor suggests a penitent consult with a physician in addressing such matters as mood disorders—e.g., depression. “Only a priest can help me!” Often, a sincere and well-intentioned confessor can become unwittingly engaged in the ‘circle of madness” that appears in personality-disordered individuals. The ideal of frequent and devout confession is not always what is best for the penitent, nor for that matter is it efficacious for the priest, who would normally share in the healing graces of the sacrament. Penance, as a sacrament, is a process toward spiritual health and growth; repetitive failure—i.e., no evident effort toward changes in destructive behavior by the penitent--is a recipe for despair and self-loathing for penitent and confessor alike.
____ I recommend that the U.S. Bishops publicly lead the country in a growing consciousness of the moral-justice-Scriptural imperative that every human being in our country receive the necessary prenatal, infant, child, adult, and senior healthcare necessary for a meaningful existence regardless of ability to pay. We are created as bodies and souls, Temples of the Holy Spirit. The healing of the body and the healing of the soul were one in the works of Jesus according to the four Gospels; the sacred scripture should serve as our guide as we plan. Catholic health care systems are among the largest in the country and in positions to lead industry standards in reforms of civil and private health care systems.
____ I am disappointed, disturbed, even scandalized at both singular and generic shows of disunity which have emerged in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is discouraging that many [not all] bishops have opted to reinforce the paralyzing and hostile divisions which afflict the United States as a whole. We are fueling hatred, not healing it! Some bishops have gone so far as to parrot themselves as “more papal than the pope.” [Many bishops are far too ensnared in American civil election politics]. Many more flaunted the Pope’s calls for the Synod consultation, with no explanation or apology. I would request that the bishops of the United States come together for a public absolution and reconciliation, seeking the forgiveness of Catholics across the country and rededicating the USCCB with words from the Last Supper and Jesus’ blessing of his apostles: [St. John 17:21] “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”
____It is rare to see a published, independently prepared line-item audit of one’s parish and/or diocese. Too many media accounts expose pastors or bishops funding pet projects while important ministerial positions—including those mandated by Canon Law in areas of religious faith formation or school support—go begging. Canon 537 mandates a parish finance board for every parish, a law which is flouted routinely in nearly every parish of my acquaintance. To enhance a quote from “All the President’s Men,” a famous film of the 1970’s, “follow the money” …or the man who is hiding it. I note with interest that Catholic finances in the U.S. are the next major scandal around the corner, per veteran Catholic journalists.
____I would recommend that all church entities in the United States read, line by line, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the decree on the sacred liturgy, from Vatican II, particularly its directives on church music, art, and architecture. And on the lighter side, consider that the English-language liturgical calendar in the United States and elsewhere currently uses ordinal nomenclature to describe the forty-some Sundays of the year outside the seasons of Incarnation and Redemption. In my youth a summer Sunday was called “the 9th, 10th, or 11th Sunday after Pentecost, etc., which focused us weekly on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and our work in the world. In similar fashion, the Sundays of January and February were addressed as “the Sundays after Epiphany.” Christ among us! Today, we refer to all these Sundays as “Ordinary Sundays,” which frankly sounds, well, pretty “ordinary.” A small thing, perhaps, but symptomatic of the loss of catechetical moments. Can future revisions of the Roman Missal and its US translations take a hard look at this Sunday impoverishment?
To strengthen the point, it might be worth noting here that Church Law also refers to the bishop of a place as “the ordinary.” In all my years as a Catholic, I have never attended a Confirmation where the bishop addresses the congregation, “It is a privilege to stand before you as your ordinary.” And what mother prays her daily rosary with the intention that her son grow up to become an “ordinary?” The word has got to go.
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The concerns raised here are many and complex, and we may not live to see them resolved. I offer them here to encourage thought, conversation, and study as we labor together in the vineyard of the Lord. Pope Francis, in convoking this synod, is not looking for concrete answers as far as I can tell. Rather, he hopes to lead the Church in collective unity toward its identity and mission, calling forth from each of us our Spirit-given wisdom from generation to generation.
I conclude with prayer for Our Holy Father and the efforts of all who labor for the sanctification of the Church. Thank you for your kind attention.
[Additional discussion points optional]
[Name and contact information optional.]
All matters regarding the Synod can be mailed to this address:
General Secretariat of the Synod
Via della Conciliazione 34
00120 Città del Vaticano
Do not include the word “ITALY” in the address. The Vatican is a separate nation.
The Catholic Press-not to mention curious folks from all or no Christian affiliation—is following the process of the Synod much more closely now as it continues in Rome October 4-29, 2023, and again in the fall of 2024.
For so many of us in the United States, we only know of the Synod by hearsay. For many reasons, many American bishops and pastors—including, sadly, my own pastor—chose to ignore the Holy Father’s universal invitation to the preliminary and local orientation gatherings of the Synod or universal meetings of the Church. At some point I will discuss this on the Café blog—it bears discussion—but that is not today’s news. Even if your local church engaged in a perfunctory process, it may be that you “never got your say” at a one-time structured meeting. It is hard to say much in ninety seconds.
So, let us do this right: reclaim your voice. On Sunday morning [July 23] and following, the Café will provide you with a cornucopia of ways to both learn about that mysterious word, “synodality,” and better yet, to get into the action. Your free Café membership entitles you to over a dozen “model” mini essays you can plagiarize to express your concerns for the Church, with suggestions for composing your own as well.
The Café will also provide you with the address of the Vatican Office managing the Synod’s international mail. The process is confidential if you wish it to be. Plus, we are including the address to Pope Francis’s Apostolic Delegate to the U.S. if you are concerned about a grave local issue or fear for your job in the church.
Again—it is all free. [Except for your postage to Vatican City.] You can help the Café by sharing the Synod material—or any resources--with friends, family, parishioners, and the like. One of Pope Francis’s pronounced goals is the unity of the Church—that we can openly communicate on the health and mission of the Church, in countless communities where even with three or four people “I will be with you always.” The Synod marks a new way of Catholic community living. If no one locally has invited you, our Café coffee is hot, fresh, and bottomless. See you Sunday!
SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM QUICK NOTE EXPLANATIONS
Paragraph 1: Since Sacrosanctum Concilium is the very first of the Vatican II documents, and the first product to appear after two years of work, the fathers decided to introduce the aims of the entire Council in this broad generic statement of purpose.
Paragraph 2: This is the summary statement of Sacrosanctum Concilium. It is worthy of personal meditation in your prayer. Footnotes 2-7 are all taken from Sacred Scripture.
Paragraph 3: The Council states that this document will put forth many specific norms along with its general principles. Most of the specific norms, however, would follow later, such as the release of the new Mass rite in late 1969. The first norms for the renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, for example, [para. 72] were not finished till the 1970’s and then adjusted in the 1990’s.
Paragraph 4: The Council tried to be mindful that the Latin Roman rite, to which we belong, is the largest of two dozen rites in full communion with Rome. Each rite has its own liturgical style, and the Council is saying, in effect, “we won’t change your rites, but we hope you will reform them as we reform ours.” The Eastern Rite bishops attended Vatican II but many of their problems—including living in Islamic cultures—were not addressed. In fact, the Council’s efforts to reconcile with Jews complicated Christian relations with the Arab world.
Paragraph 5: The Council emphasizes that Jesus—and our worship of him—is the fulfillment of the Promise of the Hebrew Scripture.
Paragraph 6: This is another segment worthy of circling for personal meditation. Rich in New Testament references, it outlines the development of the Church and the Apostolic mission of preaching and breaking of the bread.
Paragraph 7: The Council defines the liturgy as “a sacred action surpassing all others.”
Paragraph 8: We are reminded that our worship looks forward to the ultimate coming of Christ in his fully revealed glory, a day when sacraments will no longer be necessary, for we shall see Him as He is.
Paragraph 9: The missionary nature of the Church is explored here. The Church must energetically invite those outside of its family to hear the Word and embrace the life of Faith while at the same time energizing those in the Church toward greater “faith and penance” to fully engage in saving worship.
Paragraph 10: It is here that one of the most famous quotes from the Council emerged, that the sacred liturgy is both “the source and the summit” of Christian life. All that we do as baptized persons is focused upon meeting Christ in the Eucharist, which in turn nourishes us to greater works of holiness and mission.
Paragraph 11: Two key points here. First, the Council assumes that each of us prepares for Eucharist by a developed personal prayer life. Second, pastors have a responsibility to tie the personal faith of each believer into the celebration of Eucharist and the other sacraments.
Paragraph 12: The Council calls for each of us to cultivate a deeply personal prayer life outside of the Sunday Eucharist. Unfortunately, this has been one of the biggest failures of the Church to date, failure to introduce systematic adult spirituality to the full Catholic population.
Paragraph 13: The Council envisioned that our personal prayers and devotions would correspond to the Church’s seasonal calendar of mysteries, e.g., the Easter Season, Lent. Again, as a rule there has been no wholesale adult catechetical effort in this direction in the United States. Nor has there been any serious effort to invite Catholics to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the official daily prayer of the Church.
Paragraph 14: When this text was written, virtually no priests were prepared for the changes envisioned. The Council is saying that formation of priests in the field was a high priority, for they were being asked to lead the Mass and the other sacraments in ways they had never been trained to do. This was a traumatic time, particularly for older priests.
Paragraph 15: Priests teaching in seminaries were no more prepared for the changes of the Council than the rest of the Church, except for the lucky few who had studied in major European theology schools. Interestingly, today the declining number of priests in general includes fewer priests teaching in seminaries; more lay men and women with advanced degrees are taking over the responsibilities of paras. 14 and 15.
Paragraph 16: Sacred theology has many branches—Scripture, History, Dogmatics, Morality, etc. The Council reminds all the of “specialists” teaching in seminaries that their course work needs to be significantly connected to the future priest’s role as leader of the Eucharist.
Paragraph 17: The spiritual direction and counsel given to seminarians must be oriented toward the sacred ministry of liturgical leadership.
Paragraph 18: Again, the Council shows sensitivity for priests in the field who would be facing a major overhaul of their training and their pastoral practice.
Paragraph 19: The Council realized that its reforms would be fruitful only if there was an intensive adult orientation to its teaching. This, of course, did not happen in most dioceses and parishes, as the practice of adult education or adult faith formation has never caught on as an intrinsic and ongoing organism of parish life. If anything, the problem is worse today. Most adults live with an eighth grade understanding of the Catholic Faith.
Paragraph 20: This paragraph could not have envisioned the internet era and streaming Masses. A sobering thought: the Catholic Church has no control over content—liturgical and otherwise—which goes forth on social media under the name “Catholic.”
Paragraph 21: This is an introduction of specific instructions to follow, noting that some elements of the sacraments are unchangeable, but others are the products of ages past which no longer carry symbolic meaning today.
Paragraph 22: This paragraph is a mouthful. First, it states that the ultimate authority over Church worship is the Apostolic See, i.e., the Bishop of Rome, the pope [whose signature at the end of Sacrosanctum Concilium gives the document its full teaching authority, for example.] Second, it states that this authority is shared in particular instances with individual bishops or regional bodies of bishops, such as our USCCB. Third, it states that no priest has individual authority to change the liturgy on his own authority. Suffice to say that this third directive has not always been honored in the breech.
Paragraph 23: This is a very nuanced directive for those in the Church who would do the desk work of examining and revising all the Church’s worship rites. Clearly, this is a moderate and temperate mandate that calls for respect of tradition and connection with it. Changes in the rites required good historical and theological justification. Vatican II in general was not a “radical departure” from the past as some say. However, it is true that locally some reforms went further than the Church intended.
Paragraph 24: It is hard to overstate the importance of this reform: a major return to Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church, particularly in the sacred liturgy. Again, very little has been done in the past six decades to systematically bring understanding of the Bible into the life of all Catholics.
Paragraph 25: The Council called for speed as well as expertise in the rewriting of all the official worship texts of the Church. The full formula for the Mass was released in late 1969, six years after Sacrosanctum Concilium, while other sacramental rites appeared later. In those years of preparation, many local churches plunged ahead with improv renewals that in many instances were theologically offkey or lacking in taste, or both, leading to confusion and frustration at the local level.
Paragraph 26: This is an introduction to the various offices and responsibilities of those leading and participating in the sacramental rites, particularly the Mass.
Paragraph 27: The Council emphasizes that all sacraments should be celebrated as publicly as possible. Private Masses, Baptisms, etc. should be the exceptions, not the rule.
Paragraph 28: A good example of this provision is the proclamation of the Gospel at Mass. If a deacon is vested in the sanctuary, he assumes the right and responsibility to proclaim the Gospel, and not the principal priest celebrant.
Paragraph 29: The significance of these lay ministries of the Mass is emphasized by the need for devotion, formation, and practical training of those chosen for these offices.
Paragraph 30: In the years before Vatican II, the conduct of the congregation was passive and quiet. It was customary to say the rosary or pray from a prayerbook as Mass was offered. The reformed Mass would feature verbal, song, and physical involvement.
Paragraph 31: Prior to Vatican II, the official rituals contained only the instructions for ordained clergy—bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons. The laity, as noted above, had no pronounced responsibility except to follow the Mass with devotion.
Paragraph 32: Rich benefactors do not get the front seats—unless they arrive early.
Paragraph 33: The entire Mass is informative and instructive as it embodies our Faith.
Paragraph 34: More is not necessarily better. Good liturgy is marked by an effective economy of words and deeds.
Paragraph 35: This section makes more sense if we remember that prior to Vatican II the first half of the Mass [called “The Mass of the Catechumens”] was not considered as important as the second half beginning with the Offertory [called “The Mass of the Faithful.”] To be late for Mass before the Offertory was considered venially sinful, but to come in after the Offertory was mortally sinful, per the old catechisms.
Vatican II equalized the liturgy. This paragraph underscores one of the Council’s important achievements: the declaration that in the Scriptures proclaimed at Mass and its attendant sermon, we encounter Christ as we encounter Him in the reception of Communion.
This paragraph recommends “Bible services,” free-standing church events to hear the Word and offer prayers. This practice has not caught on in the United States although the “priestless rite” where a deacon or lay person distributes communion on Sunday bears a strong similarity.
Paragraph 36: This is an intriguing paragraph, stating as it does that the Mass and other sacraments should continue to be celebrated in Latin, and then making provisions for parts of the Mass to be celebrated in the native tongue. Pope Paul VI began granting wholesale permissions for use of the vernacular worldwide beginning as early as 1964 while the Council was still in progress.
Paragraph 37: The Council tread carefully on what to say about the extent of ritual reform to be tolerated in places far removed from European influence. It was hoping to avoid another major controversy like that of the seventeenth century when the Jesuits were accused by the Dominicans of excessively adapting the Roman Mass to Asian customs.
Paragraphs 38-40: The chain of command for determinations of ritual reforms in mission territories.
Paragraph 41: The bishop, as successor of the Apostles, is the supreme celebrant of the liturgy in his diocese.
Paragraph 42: The Council reinforces the principle of unity at the diocesan level, at the parish level, and between the two entities. The parish is described as a small representation of the universal church and implied here is the need for parochial internal unity and community, beginning and ending around the Eucharist.
Paragraph 43: The Council speaks favorably of the academic movements of reform—notably in liturgical, Scriptural, and historical studies—leading to the production of this document. The United States, not noted for theological excellence, was not actively involved in such research, which is why the nation was poorly prepared for the onslaught of changes beginning as early as 1964 [see para. 36].
Paragraph 44: It took some time for the United States, for example, to develop a broad machinery for liturgical planning, whereas nations like France and Holland many of these directives were already in play. In truth, the United States continues to have a very weak “liturgical substructure” of professionals, notably in such areas as music and architecture.
Paragraphs 45 and 46: In the present day such offices, where they exist, are vehicles of routine liturgical information and the training of liturgical ministers.
Paragraph 47: The Council’s stately definition of the Eucharistic Celebration, which introduces the following cluster of directives on the celebration of Mass.
Paragraph 48: Concern that the members of the laity were silent witnesses to the Mass was addressed by previous popes, Pius X and Pius XII. The Council, in the strongest language possible, makes the case that all the baptized have real and active roles to play in every Mass.
Paragraph 49: The Council, naturally enough, focuses upon the Sunday Eucharist as the solemn day of the Lord’s Resurrection. However, nearly all the following principles apply to daily Mass as well.
Paragraph 50: The Council acknowledges that over the centuries the Roman rite of the Mass accumulated considerable baggage—right down to the colored handkerchief word on the left arm of the priest, the maniple. On the other hand, rites of greater importance—such as the Prayer of the Faithful—had fallen into disuse.
Paragraph 51: A major contribution of Vatican II was the restoration of the Sacred Scripture to the full life of the Church, but nowhere more so than in the Church’s worship. This paragraph inspired the three-year cycle of Sunday readings we employ today, so that the Faithful would hear much more of the Bible for their edification and prayer.
Paragraph 52: The centrality of the homily, which “unpacks the Word of God,” is emphasized in no uncertain terms.
Paragraph 53: Prior to this Council teaching, the only “Prayer of the Faithful” in the Church’s liturgical year was the rite called “The Great Intercessions” on Good Friday, and four days of Litany of the Saints in the Spring.
Paragraph 54: The Council repeats the earlier directive on the laity’s participation in Latin, the mother tongue of the Church. [See para. 36]
Paragraph 55: The Council recommends that all receive communion hosts consecrated at the Mass they attend as a sign of the unity of the rite. Ideally, we would all receive from the same large host/loaf. It was little known that after the Council of Trent Pius V, in 1570, allowed Catholics to drink from the cup if their bishop gave permission. The practice, however, was associated with Protestant demands and was never publicly embraced for the Roman Catholic rite from the Renaissance period forward.
Paragraph 56: The Council again addresses the popular notion that the Liturgy of the Word at Mass was somehow less the presence of Christ than the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Paragraphs 57 and 58: These paragraphs strongly encourage the practice of “concelebration,” or priests offering Mass together instead of separately at side altars as was common practice till the Council. It is a powerful sign of the unity of the priesthood. Para. 57 lists occasions when this old rite might be restored, but today concelebration is the rule when even just two or three priests are gathered.
Paragraph 59: The rules and principles enumerated for the Mass by the Council were to be applied, wherever possible, to the celebration of all seven sacraments.
Paragraph 60: The Council interjects a word on “sacramentals,” holy things and/or actions that remind us of our Christian identity. Some are quite domestic—rosaries, home holy water fonts, blessed candles, holy cards, religious art, etc. Others are more dramatic such as making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or other venerable sites. Sacramentals exist to draw our affective selves to the heart of our faith, the sacraments of the Church.
Paragraph 61: By the Doctrine of the Incarnation, all of God’s creation is sacred and reflective of God’s beauty to those who see the world with the eye of Faith. The holiness of created things makes the concrete world of sacraments possible.
Paragraph 62: The Council notes that with the passage of time some of the rituals of the sacraments have lost their meaning. This theme is repeated multiple times in Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Paragraph 63: A bureaucratic note on how to receive Church approval for local changes. As noted above, requests from local and national dioceses began to pour in almost immediately after the release of this document in December 1963, and Pope Paul was engaged processing these requests as early as 1964.
Paragraph 64: One of the major decisions of the Council was the reintroduction of the ancient rite of the catechumenate, which we practice today. [For a variety of reasons, an adult can still be baptized privately if the pastor agrees.] Many parishes today have a paid or volunteer coordinator of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults; candidates are baptized at the Easter Vigil.
Paragraph 65: There are hints in this documents that missionaries were exercising pastoral imagination in how they organized their communities and the fashion in which the sacraments were celebrated, particular regarding formation for baptism.
Paragraph 66: It is hard to say if the Council fathers envisioned most adult baptisms taking place individually or at the Easter Vigil. Of course, the bishops had no experience of Easter Vigil baptisms. The Latin Easter Vigil rite in use in 1962 did not include the celebration of baptism, though it did call for a blessing of baptismal water. Admittedly, paragraphs 64 and 66 would require some later reconciliation, which did happen before the new ritual for adult baptism was completed in the early 1970’s.
Paragraph 67: Another major overhaul was the rite of Baptism of infants. Hard as it is to imagine, prior to Vatican II parents did not have to attend the rite; the godparents presented the infant for baptism. The Council recognized that the primary catechists of children are the parents, and the bishops called for a new rite to reflect parental spirituality and ministry.
Paragraph 68: Because of the many variables surrounding the baptism of children, particularly in the missions, the Council called for planning to cover all possible circumstances. The ordinary ministers of the sacrament are priests and deacons, but in emergencies or in mission territories any lay person can baptize so long as the Trinitarian formula and the pouring of water are observed.
Paragraph 69: Again, the Council expressed pastoral concern for babies baptized by nurses or parents in danger of death situations. Babies who survive may be later presented in church for the full ceremony, but there is no rebaptism. The emergency baptism is sufficient.
Another major point here is that those joining the Catholic Church from other Christian Churches are not to be rebaptized. The Catholic Church recognizes all baptisms undertaken in the name of the Trinity with the pouring of water. Previously baptized individuals from other Christian churches enter the Catholic community by a profession of faith and obedience. The principle in play: valid baptism is never repeated.
Paragraph 70: Baptisms performed during the Easter Season should use the water blessed at the Easter Vigil, if possible. At all other times, the water is blessed just before the baptism.
Paragraph 71: Confirmation remains problematic today, particularly when the candidates were baptized at infancy. It was originally part of an initiation rite which included Baptism and First Eucharist. Over the centuries it was separated from Baptism to become a “stand alone” sacrament with multiple meanings. This paragraph takes a first step toward reuniting Confirmation with Baptism by calling for a renewal of baptismal vows at the Confirmation rite. But more theological discussion remains to be done.
Paragraph 72. It is more than interesting that the Sacrament of Penance receives all of one sentence in the document. One reason is that both popes wished to avoid discussion of morality on the Council floor which would involve such delicate matters as contraception and “the pill,” a hot button topic of the day. Interestingly, after decades of experimentation, the Church has defaulted to the pre-Vatican II confessional rite for the most part.
Paragraph 73: One of the most pastorally effective changes mandated by the Council is this one.
Paragraph 74: Given that the new form of this sacrament went far beyond the anointing of the dying, the rites needed expansion to include sacramental confession and reception of the Eucharist for the sick who were conscious and/or chronically ill.
Paragraph 75: Think of group celebrations of this sacrament in hospitals and nursing homes.
Paragraph 76: The revised rites for ordination include attention to the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops.
Paragraph 77: The reform of the marriage rite involved both worship elements and legal element of Canon Law.
Paragraph 78: The old rite had a lengthy blessing of the bride after the Our Father of the Mass. It has been rewritten as a blessing for both parties. Marriages between Catholics and Protestants took place in the rectory office until after World War II. Today’s practice of a mixed marriage allows the couple to be married in the church, but the celebration of Eucharist would be difficult because of interfaith communion considerations.
Paragraph 79: “Reserved blessings” are those from a pope or bishop which can be delegated to a priest to administer.
Paragraph 80: As you might expect, the temporary and solemn vows of religious orders members are made in the context of the community’s Mass.
Paragraph 81: The rites surrounding Catholic death and burial have been considerably enhanced. One unspoken provision here is the elimination of black vestments for funerals. Purple or white are approved colors; white is the most used.
Paragraph 82: This is a new and welcomed provision of the liturgical rites.
Paragraph 83: The Church is described here as a community of prayer, and the next paragraphs deal with the official daily prayer of the Church, “The Divine Office” or “The Liturgy of the Hours.”
Paragraph 84: The divine office dates to the earliest practices of the Church. The advent of monastic life [c. 500 A.D.] gave these prayers a structure still in use today.
Paragraph 85: The enduring power of the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours was the realization that the Church’s prayer was being raised to God in the same words at the same times in a global unity.
Paragraph 86: All priests and all religious in solemn vows are bound to some measure of engagement in the universal prayer of the Church.
Paragraph 87: Recognizing that parish priests, for example, live a different lifestyle than, say, monks in a monastery, the Council authorized an examination of the current obligation so that the requirements of prayer would fall evenly upon those bound to pray the Office. Recall that at the time of the Council a priest was bound to pray the full office each day, in Latin. This was a major part of a priest’s routine.
Paragraph 88: Although priests and monks were bound to pray the nine times or nine “hours” each day, they were not necessarily bound to pray the psalms in the prescribed order or at the prescribed times. The Council is calling for a restoration of praying at the proper hour, but it recognizes that this may be an impractical demand upon clergy in public ministry. The Divine Office, by the clock, began around 3 AM in monasteries and continued at three-hour intervals till Compline in the evening before retiring. Obviously, strict observance of the liturgical clock would be a hardship for parish priests, and teaching or nursing sisters, etc.
Paragraph 89: The outline of a reformed Divine Office is laid out here. The highlighted prayer services are Lauds [Morning Prayer] and Vespers [Evening Prayer]. Note that Matins—a service of Scriptural and spiritual readings we call Lectio Divina today—is recommended for a time of day when it can be thoughtfully embraced by the subject.
Paragraph 90: The Council encouraged priests and others who pray the office to study Scripture to gain more spiritual enrichment from the daily prayer routine. Today this advice is extended to all Catholics.
Paragraph 91: In today’s Liturgy of the Hours, as the daily prayer routine is called, the 150 Psalms are spread out over a four-week cycle. The revision of the psalter spoken of here was a new translation of the Psalms then in progress. This reform was way overdue, as the Church was still using St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible “the Vulgate,” compiled around 400 A.D.
Paragraph 92: The emphasis here is the Office of Readings. In today’s rite, there are two substantive readings: one from the Bible and one from a Church Father or saint-author such as St. Augustine. What has been dropped was the story of the saint of the day, which often could be soft on historical footing.
Paragraph 93: The Council refers here to hymns of dubious quality which have crept into the Divine Office over the centuries.
Paragraph 94: This paragraph seems somewhat at odds with the earlier ones. Possibly this is a reference to priests who postponed praying the office until late in the day, when they would have to rush through multiple hours all at once.
Paragraph 95: The expectation is that in monasteries and cloistered communities all the hours would be prayed in common.
Paragraph 96: Parish priests, for example, even though they might live alone, must pray all the hours prescribed by law.
Paragraph 97: The Council recognized that the demands of priestly duties in parishes and elsewhere needed to be considered in discussions of the obligation to pray the hours. In the 1850’s, priests in the United States who heard confessions for five hours or more were exempted from the obligation to pray the hours on that day.
Paragraph 98: This is a reference to committed lay organizations who devote their time to prayer and service to the Church.
Paragraph 99: The Council encouraged religious communities, and even parish priests living in common, to pray at least some of the hours in common, and to sing the psalms when possible.
Paragraph 100: The Council hoped that parishes would establish the practice of conducting public Vespers on Sundays and major feasts; it also recommends the praying of some of the liturgical hours [primarily Morning Prayer, the Office of Readings, or Vespers] by all baptized Catholics. Neither of these hopes came to fruition.
Paragraph 101: As in other teachings, the Council calls for the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours to be recited or sung in Latin. But as in the rites of the sacraments themselves, the bishops left the door open for the use of the vernacular. Interestingly, permission for the vernacular was automatically granted when a priest prayed part of his office with lay faithful. This is not a common practice in the U.S.
Paragraph 102: Turning to the calendar, the Council Fathers reaffirmed the solar year as an annual cycle of the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption. Catholics then and today have some sense of this in the passage of liturgical seasons, such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, etc.
Paragraph 103: Mary, the Mother of God, gets special mention here. One of the debates over Sacrosanctum Concilium was whether to add more feasts of Mary to the calendar. The majority advised against this.
Paragraph 104: The Council calls attention to the number of saints’ feasts on the calendar. Later, in the reform of the Missal, some feasts were removed on the grounds that historical evidence was shaky at best. A good example: St. Christopher, whose medals and statues adorned the cars of Catholic drivers everywhere.
Paragraph 105: Arching over all these individual feasts are the seasonal observances such as Lent, which is described here.
Paragraph 106: The observance of every Sunday as a celebration of the Resurrection is emphasized here.
Paragraph 107: The Council is calling for intensive observance of each of the Liturgical seasons, clarifying for the faithful their importance and meaning, and encouraging personal observance of the feast’s characteristics, such as the prayer-fasting-almsgiving axis of Lent.
Paragraph 108: The Council is saying, nicely, that the observance of saints’ feasts should not override the observance of the Lord’s Sunday observance. Feasts like St. Joseph or St. Patrick are never observed on Sunday but rather transferred to another time.
Paragraph 109: Lent gets special attention here. In truth, the Church prior to the Council was doing a rather good job pastorally in conveying the penitential spirit of this season. The Council fathers are calling for more awareness of the connection of Lent with Baptism as well as greater awareness of societal sin, such as racism.
Paragraph 110: This paragraph emphasizes the previous one. It adds an exhortation for the faithful to observe the “Paschal Fast” beginning with the Holy Thursday Mass and concluding with the Easter Vigil. This practice has not caught on in the United States.
Paragraph 111: The bishops here are recommending that only the saints with universal impact should be included in the universal calendar of the Missal. They allow for local observance of saints in the regions where they ministered.
Paragraph 112 begins an important segment on “sacred music” in the Church. The bishops stress that church music exists primarily for the service of the sacraments, most notably the Mass, and constitutes a primary means by which the faithful engage in the holy mysteries of the altar.
Paragraph 113: It is advised that the liturgy of the hours be sung whenever possible.
Paragraph 114: The Council recommends that churches have choirs of quality, but they are to no way interfere or usurp with the faithful’s singing at Mass, an act which is “rightfully theirs.” A choir assists; it does not perform.
Paragraph 115: The Council calls for greater attention to sacred music in the training of seminarians and religious order candidates, probably to encourage the practice of common singing of the Divine Office, among other reasons.
Paragraph 116: The Council cites Gregorian Chant, the ancient Latin format of notation and song, as the preferred mode of participatory singing. At the time of Vatican II, Gregorian Chant was the norm for all sung Masses, though the faithful themselves rarely sang along with the cantor or choir. The document does not close the door on other forms of devout music, however.
Paragraph 117: The official hymnal of Gregorian Chant was the Liber Usualis, a large book that was highly impractical for congregational use. The LU was being revised at that time, but the Council encouraged something of a “parish friendly” edition as well.
Paragraph 118: The singing of the faithful is to be full-throated…which assumes that directors of music make it their prime duty to assist all the faithful in fruitful participation.
Paragraph 119: Again, special attention is directed toward the long-standing musical customs of missionary territories.
Paragraph 120: One of the more controversial teachings of the Council is the primacy of the pipe organ. In the United States many musical liturgists believed the organ was too old fashioned and jumped to the “guitar Mass” and later to other forms without proper reflection, discussion, and authoritative leadership. The best guidelines from the U.S. bishops, “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship ” was way too late to address the post-Conciliar U.S. struggles over music. For an excellent history of American Church music after the Council, see Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can't Sing [2013 edition].
Paragraph 121: The Council fathers remind composers and music directors that the thrust of their work is the goal of “active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful.”
Paragraph 122: The document shifts to “sacred art and sacred furnishings.” This introductory paragraph reaffirms that the Church supports the development of the fine arts in its sacred appointments.
Paragraph 123: The Council recalls the long and remarkable history of Church art.
Paragraph 124: The bishops invoke the principle of “noble simplicity.” Churches should not be cluttered with dozens of shoddy items, but rather be furnished with a few items of excellent taste. The last sentence has been sorely overlooked in the U.S., i.e., that churches be built “suitable for the celebration of liturgical services and for the active participation of the faithful.” Many churches built after the Council use the same floor plan as before the Council, the long rectangle, with limited visibility.
Paragraph 125: The Council specifically limits the number of sacred images to a number that is “moderate” and their location to places that will not direct attention away from the celebration of the sacraments.
Paragraph 126: The Council envisioned each bishop/diocese having an advisory commission on matters of church art and architecture. The paragraph also addresses a problem now faced in 2023: what does one do with a church that is permanently closed due to consolidation and dwindling numbers of Catholics?
Paragraph 127: The Council envisioned a renaissance of Church art as part of the liturgical reform. This has not unfolded in the United States to any great extent.
Paragraph 128: The bishops called for a revision of all existing codes and directives involving “material things” in the sacraments. This umbrella directive included church architecture and the placement of the tabernacle.
Paragraph 129: The Council directed that seminarian be adequately trained in the history and development of sacred art.
Paragraph 130: A “pontifical” is the official rite of the Mass celebrated by the pope or bishops. The ruling here states, in effect, that only an active bishop of a diocese should use this official rite. Retired or administrative bishops, evidently, were to celebrate public Mass with less fanfare.
Appendix on the Revision of the Calendar
Many editions of Sacrosanctum Concilium conclude with a discussion of establishing a permanent date for Easter. The fathers of the Council stated that they “would not object” to such a move if the Churches not in union with Rome also agreed. At the present time the main Christian body which does not follow Catholic practice is the Orthodox Church. Discussions have taken place into the 2000’s but a decision is nowhere in sight currently.
Similarly, the Council agreed to respect a secular calendar so long as a seven-day week with Sunday was preserved and respected.
Sacrosanctum Concilium: Paragraph 2
For the liturgy, "through which the work of our redemption is accomplished, “most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek. While the liturgy daily builds up those who are within into a holy temple of the Lord, into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ, at the same time it marvelously strengthens their power to preach Christ, and thus shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together, until there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.
+ + +
In a perfect world the first documents to be released by the Council might better have been statements on the nature of the Church itself and divine revelation—a full explanation of why the Church exists and how its existence and ministry can be deduced from God’s Revelation. But there are two factors to consider here. The first is that the Council fathers were nowhere near agreement on either of those two theological issues, and second, there was considerable interest among many bishops in the state of Catholic worship, most notably the Mass. Most bishops were not theologians—they brought their own theologians, called periti, with them to the Council to explain what was happening. But all bishops offered daily Mass and would very likely have something to say about this sacrament and its impact—or lack thereof—upon the congregations they encountered. In addition, there was considerable pressure—both inside and outside the Council—to get something on paper, to show the world that the bishops’ labors were bearing fruit. Sacrosanctum Concilium was promulgated on December 4, 1963—the first formal statement of the Council after two years of discussion, study, and revision.
Paragraph 2 is the full introduction to the Council’s treatment of the sacred liturgy. [Paragraph 1 served as an introduction to the entire Council.] It is remarkably rich and marks a significant change in emphasis from the treatment of the sacraments put forth in the Council of Trent [1545-1563]. Of particular interest is the emphasis upon the active role of the laity and the transformational power of the Eucharist to intensify the interior experience of the lay worshipper with the saving power of God and to empower the participants’ “power to preach Christ” and model the innate holiness of Christ “to those who are outside…until there is one sheepfold and one shepherd.” The final vote of the bishops was 2147 to 4, even more remarkable when one considers the understanding and role of the Mass prior to the Council. Can any of us comprehend the significance of this change of emphasis?
The last major revision of the Mass and the other sacraments occurred after the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Trent was correctly identified as “a reform council,” a response to both Protestant attacks on the status quo and a clarification of the essentials of sacred worship, particularly on the nature of salvation, a point of contestation with Protestant thinkers. Trent, for example, is the council that corrected abuses of indulgences and mandated the institution of seminaries for the proper training of priests.
On the other hand, Trent—and its subsequent interpretations—placed a high value on uniformity of thought and practice in an age when various Protestant reform churches were proliferating. In the case of the Mass, Trent focused upon its definition as the unbloody reenactment of Christ’s death upon the cross and his one perfect offering of himself to his Father in atonement for our sins. This placed a high premium upon the exclusive role of the priest [or bishop] as the sole minister who could consecrate the bread and wine into the Real Presence of Christ and offer that perfect gift to the Father. This emphasis upon the consecration of the Mass tended to diminish the first half or Scriptural portion of the Mass [known back in the day as “The Mass of the Catechumens,” as my 1950’s missal would have described it] and, ironically, decreased reception of the Eucharist itself, particularly after the eruption of the Jansenist Heresy in the seventeenth century, which held that original sin had so distorted the human species that we are unworthy to approach the altar of God.
What the faithful were expected to do at Mass was never fully outlined in a catechetical way we would recognize today. [My personal opinion is that the passive nature of the laity during the Eucharistic Prayers of today’s Mass is still a problem inadequately addressed in the Vatican II reform. The problem is the prayers, not the people.] Post-Tridentine literature speaks of the Catholic in attendance as joining herself to the priest metaphorically as he himself offered the saving sacrifice of Christ to His Father. Or put another way, participation of the faithful at Mass was an entirely interior experience. Aside from attending and receiving communion, there was no other visible, tangible element of lay involvement [except for altar boys and choirs], a curious situation when we recall that a sacrament is an outward sign as well as an interior experience. Church Law dictated attendance at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, but even the Catechism of my childhood stated that to be late for the first half of the Mass—the scripture/sermon/creed component--was only a venial sin. Mortal sin accrued if one were late for the second, or Eucharistic, portion of the Mass. [Even as a middle schooler I did not miss the irony that one did not commit mortal sin unless one missed the collection, taken as today during the Offertory.]
It would be a mistake to assume that “liturgical change” began with Vatican II. The Tridentine ritual still in use in 1962, known popularly as “the Tridentine Mass,” came into being in 1570 as the result of the reform Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. However, the Tridentine liturgy placed a premium upon doctrinal accuracy and uniformity, which had a stultifying impact upon those who attended Mass over the following generations. In his remarkably good Theological Highlights of Vatican II [1966, Kindle only], Father Joseph Ratzinger, a peritus or theological expert at the Council and the future Pope Benedict XVI, made the telling observation that none of the great spiritual revivals between Trent and Vatican II involved the Eucharist—the mystical revivals of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius’ founding of the Jesuits, St. Margaret Mary and Devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the Marian apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima. Put another way, motivated Catholics attended Mass from duty, but they looked elsewhere for personal and communal stirrings of prayer and conversion.
Matters reached a point where Catholics virtually stopped receiving communion altogether, and this was not so long ago. My Baltimore Catechism in the 1950’s included the Church commandment to receive the Eucharist at least annually, during the Easter Season. Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] was so deeply concerned about the infrequency of reception of holy communion that he famously lowered the age of First Communion to around seven, so that youngsters would learn at an early age to approach the Eucharistic rail with regularity. Pius XII [r. 1939-1958] reformed the observance of the Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil—by moving the services to the night hours so that more could attend, and he famously reduced the communion fast to three hours instead of from midnight. But these initiatives did not address the main problem of lay passivity, and except for isolated reformist movements in Europe, no one—not even popes—seemed to know how to engage the laity in the celebration of Mass. Pope Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903] actually encouraged the faithful to pray the rosary to Mary at Mass during the month of October each year! In the twentieth century popes encouraged the use of missals, the full English translation of what was happening on the altar, but these were never purchased in large numbers and Catholics typically developed their own rituals of litanies, rosaries, prayers, etc. to recite silently while the priest offered the holy sacrifice in Latin. In my own case, I would read the reflections of The Imitation of Christ at the seminary Masses until the Vatican II reforms percolated into our liturgical lives around 1965.
Thus, the typical parish Mass of 1962 was a passive affair, strange when one considers that the word “liturgy” comes from the Greek λειτουργία or “public works,” a bread-and-butter definition which defines our Catholic worship as common labor. We have Father Ratzinger’s remarkable description of the Mass of the opening of Vatican II in October 1962 as witness to serious reservations of thoughtful churchmen everywhere over the passivity of the laity [and clergy!] at Mass. After commenting on the interminable length of the celebration, the future pope mused:
The opening liturgy did not really involve all who were present, and it had little inner coherence. Did it make sense for 2,500 bishops, not to mention the other faithful there, to be relegated to the role of mere spectators at a ceremony in which only the celebrants and the Sistine Choir had a voice? Was not the fact that the active participation of those present was not required symptomatic of a wrong that needed remedy? Any why did the Credo [Nicene Creed] have to be repeated after Mass when the Mass itself contains a profession of faith? What was the need for an ornate additional liturgy of the Word, when the Mass itself contained appropriate epistle and gospel messages? Why were long litanies sung outside the Mass, when the liturgy of the Mass itself provided for the insertion of suitable intercessory prayers? …the real meaning of [the liturgy’s] various parts were no longer intelligible. People no longer realized that the enthronement of the gospel, the profession of faith and intercessory prayers were actually contained in the Mass itself.
There is humor in this paragraph. If memory serves me correctly, the opening of the Council—a Mass followed by a stream of repetitive rites dating back a millennium—ran to about five hours. And Father Ratzinger, a Bavarian, might have been poking Teutonic fun at the old Romans for failing to recognize the nature of the very Mass ritual they were defending. Unless his biographer tells us in the upcoming biography of the pope emeritus, we may never know.
Father Ratzinger could have been describing much of the American Catholic landscape in his description of the Council’s opening Mass in terms of the limited participation of the laity. In Why Catholics Can’t Sing  Thomas Day recalls that in the United States Catholics typically picked the shorter Sunday Masses and avoided high [sung] Masses like the plague. Boys like me were the exception. As an altar boy I learned the rubrics and became the weekly master of ceremonies of the three-priest solemn high 10:30 Mass. I loved the hands-on involvement with the Mass and the polyphonic choir, but obviously I was the exception, not the rule. My classmates attended the 35-minute earlier Masses. At the high school seminary I later attended, I did not have the opportunity to serve, and the Mass was a labor of duty in those years.
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Catholics in my youth were not actively engaged in faith-filled ventures. Many of us youngsters had the daily experience of religious life in our classrooms, in my case with the Christian brothers in elementary school. The school and the parish calendars were a smorgasbord of devotionals—weekly confessions, rosary, Stations of the Cross, holy hours, the annual Forty Hours devotion, Corpus Christi procession, annual retreats, blessings of the throat [St. Blaise] and Easter dinners [Holy Saturday], May Crowning, etc. In Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession 1955-1975  Maria Morrow describes the common penitential practices that united Catholics before the Council, such as fasting and abstinence during Lent and the Ember Days
What troubled generations of scholars [end even some popes] was the separation of intense lay Catholic devotion from the celebration of the Eucharist. Historians, particularly in the century leading up to Vatican II, reminded anyone who listened that the eucharistic liturgy had a long history before the Council of Trent, and that the Mass of the second century looked quite different from the Mass that Father Ratzinger endured in 1962. The most radical point of departure for Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium was the ancient principle that the Eucharistic liturgy is the source and summit of all Christian life, for laity and clergy alike. In principle, the Vatican II bishops voted unanimously for a reform of the sacramental life of the Church which centered spiritual life around the Eucharist. It is hard to imagine, though, that the 2147 bishops who voted “aye” were of one mind on just how such a reform should look. Or, for that matter, how would these reforms be received in the United States, to cite one country, where many Catholics—often over ethnic and family generations—had crafted a religious routine that they had been told was unchangeable? Not for nothing does this document run to 130 paragraphs—to be followed by dozens upon dozens of Vatican and bishops’ conferences on the fine tuning. To be honest, much work still remains.
Did you live through the 1960’s when the changes in the liturgy were introduced piecemeal? Do you have a sense of the “before and after” of the Council’s liturgical renewal?
Do you know older Catholics who lived through those times? Do they talk about the highs and lows of change and divisions within their local churches?
How closely is your personal prayer and religious life connected to the liturgy as it is celebrated in your community? Is the liturgical calendar living in your head? Is this year’s Sunday Gospel, St. Matthew’s, stimulating your prayer and reflection?
Are you familiar with very recent controversies involving Popes Benedict and Francis on the policy of permitting local churches to celebrate the pre-Vatican II format of the Mass, the Latin Tridentine form? How would you address the issue?
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