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Synodality, “New Pentecost”, and more: Reflections on the Synod’s Final Document

It appears the Final Document has re-defined “synodality” to level the playing field in such a way that the authority of the Synod Fathers may in the future be compromised by the protestations of non-bishops.

Pope Francis talks with Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, at the Vatican Oct. 26. Also picture are Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Byzantine Catholic Archbishop William C. Skurla of Pittsburgh, Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In my first piece of analysis of the Final Document of the 2018 Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment, I looked at five problematic passages. In this second piece, I look at a few more passages, including those that discuss “synodality”.

A New Pentecost?

First, however, let’s look at the introduction to the Final Document, which begins with a quote from Acts 2:17 which, in turn, cites Joel 3:1.

This scriptural text refers to the Feast of Pentecost, regarded as “the Birthday of the Church,” when the Holy Spirit was poured forth by the Father and the Son or, following Saint Basil the Great, one could say “by the Father through the Son,” onto the Apostles who awaited the Promised Spirit in the Cenacle or Upper Room of the Last Supper. The Eleven did so in the company of the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Regina Apostolorum (“Queen of the Apostles”) and Mater Ecclesiae (“Mother of the Church”), the latter title being solemnly proclaimed by Paul VI at the conclusion of the third session of the Second Vatican Council.

When Papa Roncalli convoked Vatican II, he expressed his hope that the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church would mark the beginning of a “New Pentecost.” Saint John XXIII believed the Church was ripe for aggiornamento (“updating”) and that the Council would help to open her windows (metaphorically speaking), so that the Church could look out onto the world and the world could look into the Church. In theory, these were noble ideals

However, already by the end of the Council’s first session, il Papa Buono (“The Good Pope “) had serious regrets – allegedly remarking on his deathbed, “Stop the Council! Stop the Council!” due to the fact that contrary to what he had envisioned, many of the Council Fathers and periti (“experts” advising the bishops) turned out to be die-hard liberals and some actual modernists who looked to revolutionize the Church, weaponizing the Council as if it were a blunt instrument or a battering ram.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, recently canonized as Saint Paul VI, who was elected in 1963 to succeed John XXIII, decided that despite the advice of several cardinals and curialisti to terminate the Council, the Holy Spirit was indeed calling him to bring the Council to a fruitful conclusion. Yet the same Papa Montini would later lament in 1972 that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church as through a small fissure.”

What is my point? Simply that our ideals, our dreams, our hopes, our aspirations and our visions, however noble, do not always correspond to reality. Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous or naively Polyannaish to think that our endeavors are going to unleash a “New Pentecost.” More than fifty years after Vatican II, we can see that the tree of that council, as it were, has not always borne good fruit. On the contrary, there is evidence, statistical and experiential, that the Church has declined in certain significant areas since Vatican II ended in 1965.

At least as far as the United States is concerned, Mass attendance, priestly and religious vocations, Catholic education, liturgical formation and basic catechesis are nowhere near what they were in 1965. The situation in Western Europe is far worse in comparison. For example, the beautiful churches of the Centro Storico (“Historic Center”) in the Pope’s Diocese of Rome are quasi-empty (minus the tourists!) and the Church in Germany is desiccated, more bureaucratic than evangelical, rich in material goods but impoverished in doctrine, morality and praxis. In Latin America, in one of the most Catholic countries in the world like Brazil, the Church continues to hemorrhage members at an alarming rate as poorly catechized Catholics leave to join the Pentecostal and Evangelical sects which often, after a few years, also lose them – with many former Catholics becoming unchurched and even agnostic. While the Church continues to grow on the African continent and in Asia, I think it is premature to say that a “New Pentecost” is underway that will renew the Universal Church on their account.

Along these lines, I think that the Synod Fathers may have jumped the gun a bit in identifying the 2018 Synod on Youth as the beginning of a “New Pentecost,” unless I have somehow misunderstood the reason for beginning the Final Document with that bold citation of the Pentecost pericope.

Synodality

In ecclesial circles, some argue that during Francis’ pontificate, synods have become too frequent, three in less than six years (with another Pan-Amazonian Synod planned for the Fall of 2019), and that they are being treated like mini-ecumenical councils, which was never the intention of Pope Paul VI in instituting the Synod of Bishops. Nor for that matter did Paul VI envision “synodality” in quite the same manner as Francis. Until Pope Francis, “synodality,” referred strictly to the work of the Synod Fathers (i.e., bishops) in communion with the Pope, the Successor of Saint Peter.

Now, Pope Francis (as the Final Document attests in paragraphs 119-127 of the chapter entitled, “The Missionary Synodality of the Church”) has widened the net to make “synodality” a more inclusive concept, involving not just bishops but every member of the Church (clerical and lay), and even “all men and women of good will” (see paragraph 126).

At the same time, with his Motu Proprio Episcopalis Communio, Francis has changed the original norms of Paul VI regulating the Synod, strangely doing so somewhat arbitrarily (interestingly, in a very “unsynodal” or “uncollegial” way) only a few weeks before the Synod began, precisely to accommodate his new vision of “synodality.” Ironcially, this vision is not shared by many of the Synod Fathers who barely discussed “synodality” in the Synod and who voted many “non-placets” on the paragraphs treating “synodality” in the Final Document.

Furthermore, it is reported that during the recent Synod, Pope Francis, contrary to the established rules, intervened, walking around the room where the draft document was being prepared to ensure that the work was proceeding as he wished. This does not seem to be much of an expression of “synodality.” If the bishops at a synod are supposed to be working with parrhesia, that is, with boldness and courage under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, why then would the Pope feel the need to micromanage them? And even more, why present a final document in a language that many bishops do not understand (Italian), expecting them not only to read it in a day but also to comment on and critique it in an honest fashion?

From my perspective, “synodality” is an overused word that admits of a certain and dangerous ambiguity. I think Pope Francis and the authors of the Final Document have re-defined “synodality” to level the playing field in such a way that the authority of the Synod Fathers may in the future be compromised by the protestations of non-bishops (including young people!), who may seek to use “synodality” as a pretext for demanding changes to Church structures, teachings and traditions that reflect more their concrete “walking together.” And this may or may not accord with the Divine Will, and could lead the Church toward the perils of decentralization and democratization along Protestant and Anglican lines. This last point was highlighted by none other than Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster in England and not readily identified with alarmist positions; he urged great caution in this sphere, however, due precisely to his close observations of the Anglican Communion.

Paragraphs 2 and 3

These two paragraphs solidify the importance of the Instrumentum Laboris as a text which was not only foundational for the work of the Fifteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops but also as a text that must be considered as different from, yet complementary to, the Final Document. Does this imply that any problematic and controversial passages of the Instrumentum Laboris, such as the one which mentions “LGBT” Catholics, strongly critiqued in a Synodal intervention by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, still remain valid?

Paragraph 2 goes on to relate the account of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish in John 6:8-11 to the collaboration of young people in the synod process. Just as the young boy in the Gospel account generously offered whatever he had, so too are young people called to offer what they have for the good of the Synod and the Church. This is a fine analogy and one that, if I recall correctly, appears as a theme in Blessed John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, insofar as he sees the young boy in the passage as epitomizing human cooperation in the economy of salvation. Indeed, Saint Augustine wrote: “Qui te fecit sine te non te justificat sine te,” meaning, “He who created you without you does not justify you without you.” In other words, our salvation depends in part on our cooperation with God’s saving grace. Saint Ignatius of Loyola made a similar observation when he exhorted us to pray as if everything depends on God and to act as if everything depends on us.

Nevertheless, a few words of caution: The wording in paragraph 2 (in Italian) could lead someone to believe that Jesus could not have performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish if the young boy had not been present with what he had to offer. By no means am I suggesting that this was the express intention of the authors, but it is a reasonable extrapolation, given the wording of the Italian text: “Gesù ha potuto compiere il miracolo grazie alla disponibilità di un ragazzo che ha offerto con generosità quanto aveva.” This text literally translates as follows: “Jesus was able to accomplish the miracle thanks to the disponibility of the young boy who offered what he had with generosity.”

A reason for caution here comes in the person of Enzo Bianchi, a layman, whose thought is respected by Pope Francis and sometimes seems inspirational for the Pontiff’s own homilies. Why? Because Enzo Bianchi claims that the real miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish is not so much a miracle over nature, as one would naturally presume, but a miracle of sharing and caring. We must be careful not to fall into Bultmann’s “demythologization” of the Gospels or into Thomas Jefferson’s use of Ockam’s razor to carve out Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings, while disregarding His miracles as superstitious tales lacking real historicity. Some sources say that in a draft of the Final Document the interpretation of John 6:8-11 as a miracle of sharing and caring made a short-lived apparition, being omitted from the Relatio due to opposition from certain Synod Fathers.

Paragraph 14

Here we learn that many of the Synod Fathers, whose provenance is non-Western, are concerned about how “globalization,” often brings with it “real forms of cultural colonization.” In reading this paragraph, my thoughts went immediately to the African continent. However, the text is not explicit in this regard. Nor do the Synod Fathers explicate what exactly are these “real forms of cultural colonization.”

It is my understanding that in many African countries humanitarian aid is often conditioned on their willingness to condone artificial contraception and abortion, embrace the normalization of homosexuality, and approve “gender ideology.” I think it would have been helpful if the Synod Fathers had identified these specific areas of concern in the Final Document.

In that same paragraph, the Fathers report, without giving any evidence, not even a single footnote, that “in secular societies we are witnessing also a rediscovery of God and of spirituality.” Really? Is this another naive hope for a “New Pentecost”? Perhaps the Synod Fathers would have profited from a consultation of Rodney Stark’s scholarly writings on the topics of Christianity and secularization in our contemporary society. Although Stark is not a Catholic, he is a devout Christian, arguably the most eminent scholar in his field, having authored numerous books, including works in which he defends the Catholic Church from secularistic attacks that are often mired in age-old anti-Catholic bias so characteristic of the “black legends” or “urban legends” regarding the Church’s historical relationship to the State and the sciences. Simply put, Stark is not as sanguine about such “rediscoveries” in the secularized West.

It is also important to remark that the term “spirituality” is rather vague and lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations, which can be at odds with an orthodox Catholic understanding of the term. Does the Church rejoice in all forms of “spirituality,” no matter how heterodox they might be? And when fallen-away Catholics claim that they are “spiritual” but no longer “religious” to express their disavowal of traditional Catholic teaching and praxis, is this not a reason for “pastoral concern” among bishops and pastors even in the context of a secular society?

Paragraph 19

Here the Synod Fathers express an important concern about how “Christian Initiation” is misunderstood as “a course of religious instruction that usually ends with the Sacrament of Confirmation.” Their concern is real and noteworthy.

What surprised me about the treatment of the Sacrament of Confirmation is that none of the Synod Fathers, to my knowledge, mentioned the idea of adopting in the Western Churches the practice of the Eastern Churches, which celebrate the Rites of Christian Initiation as one single event, whereby the infant who is baptized is likewise confirmed and communicated in the same ceremony. Thus, the ancient order of the sacraments is preserved, according to which the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion is in fact the crowning event of the rites of initiation.

A good example of this in a Latin Rite diocese: Some years ago, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver mandated that the age of Confirmation be lowered and that the proper order of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation be restored. He and other bishops have argued that the Sacrament of Confirmation should no longer be used like a carrot or a stick to entice young people to remain in the Church. Nor should the Sacrament of Confirmation be viewed, as is often the case, as if it were the young person’s graduation ceremony from the life of the Church.

Paragraph 20

In “The Formation of Seminarians and the Consecrated,” the Synod Fathers are concerned that seminaries and houses of formation “sometimes do not take into adequate account the prior experiences of candidates, thus undervaluing their importance.” Given the present clergy sex abuse crisis and the unfortunate sexual activity (both heterosexual and homosexual) of many youth prior to marriage or entrance into programs of religious formation, it may have been helpful to have the concern spelled out, rather than the vague allusion which can admit of pure speculation.


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About Fr Nicholas Gregoris 11 Articles
Fr Nicholas Gregoris is a founding member of the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and managing editor of "The Catholic Response." He holds a bachelor's degree in sacred theology from the Gregorian University and a licentiate and doctorate in Mariology from the Marianum, both in Rome. He is the author of four books.

6 Comments

  1. Talk of a “New Pentecost” drives me absolutely crazy. It seems blasphemous to me, and it seems to me that the phrase is used by people who think the Church is fatally flawed and needs to be re-founded. It implies the original Pentecost is somehow inadequate for the task we face. Pentecost was a unique event – the descent of the Holy Sprit at a certain time and place within human history – that can never be repeated and should never need repeating. Calls for a “New Pentecost” fly in the Church’s clear teaching that public revelation was completed in the age of the apostles and so we are neither to expect nor call for any. Pentecost is considered the birth of the Church and so to call for new one is essentially to call for the foundation of a new and different Church.

  2. Fr Gregoris delineates well the troublesome issues of synodality, so there’s no need for me to paraphrase. I’ve prev noted the idea of synodality or ongoing synods as a vehicle for ecclesial transformation originated with former progressive Cardinal Martini of Milan, then Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio’s mentor. At the Synod the Pontiff spoke of Catholicism’s “abstract ideologies that don’t touch the reality of our people, of constraining moralistic dogmas”. We need not call the Pontiff a heretic, besides there’s no hard evidence. There is a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that would incriminate in a civil law setting although not within the strictures of canon law. The Pontiff apparently aware applies stealth tactics that mislead the faithful. He’s not simply a Modernist lacking a clear, intelligent stratagem. Within a short span he has effectively diluted doctrine and deconstructed Church structure creating autonomous spheres of governing. He is entrenching homosexuality within the Church and its Hierarchy while pretending to be in disfavor. Archbishop Viganò’s latest allegation is that Pope Francis presents himself as a substitute of Christ rather than his defender. His strongest indictment. The Pontiff is messianic and presents a gospel other than what is handed down by the Apostles. Taking all into account we can no longer presume he is simply a bad pope, mistaken, and hopefully will disappear. Like Archbishop Viganò we must, clerics and those of us with the means follow the Archbishop’s lead, resist, speak up, counter intelligently with the teaching mandated by Christ to the Apostles, in loyalty to Him and for sake of the faithful.

  3. “While the Church continues to grow on the African continent and in Asia, I think it is premature to say that a “New Pentecost” is underway that will renew the Universal Church on their account.”

    The Church Universal is not just the Patriarchate of Rome.

  4. “What surprised me about the treatment of the Sacrament of Confirmation is that none of the Synod Fathers, to my knowledge, mentioned the idea of adopting in the Western Churches the practice of the Eastern Churches, which celebrate the Rites of Christian Initiation as one single event, whereby the infant who is baptized is likewise confirmed and communicated in the same ceremony. Thus, the ancient order of the sacraments is preserved, according to which the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion is in fact the crowning event of the rites of initiation.”

    Indeed. I don’t expect the reform of Christian initiation in the Roman rite to be completed before ad orientem worship is restored.

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