A Church in mission or a Church in meetings?

The pandemic has doubtless accelerated the decline of Catholic practice. But that exodus from the pews was underway before the world ever heard of Wuhan virology labs and COVID-19.

An abandoned church in Italy. (Image: v2osk/Unsplash.com)

On the Solemnity of Christ the King in 2013, Pope Francis completed the work of the 2012 Synod of Bishops with the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), issuing a ringing call for the entire Church to “embark on a new chapter of evangelization.” Catholicism, the Pope urged, must move from maintenance to mission: “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.” And that ministry ought to empower all the people of the Church for mission, for the 21st-century Church must understand itself as a “community of missionary disciples” who are “permanently in a state of mission,” because the Church lives not for herself, but “for the evangelization of today’s world.”

A little short of eight years later, Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, unveiled a complex — some might say, convoluted — plan for an extensive series of consultations at the diocesan, national, continental, and international levels in preparation for the Synod on “synodality” to be held in Rome in October 2023.  This two-year process has been described by one enthusiast as “the most important global Catholic project since Vatican II.”

My own hunch — based on the U.S. Catholic “Call to Action” process in 1974-76 and the current German “Synodal Path” — is that the only people who will be fully engaged in Cardinal Grech’s multitudinous consultative “phases” before the 2023 Synod are people who love to go to meetings in order to share with like-minded spirits their complaints about The Way Things Are in Catholicism. The rest of the Church, or at least its living parts, will be otherwise occupied, getting about the task to which Pope Francis once summoned all of us: “the evangelization of today’s world.”

From a Church in mission to a Church in meetings is not a step forward.

That the Church must be in mission, including a mission to poorly catechized Catholics who are drifting away from the faith in droves, ought not be in serious dispute. The pandemic has doubtless accelerated the decline of Catholic practice. But that exodus from the pews was underway before the world ever heard of Wuhan virology labs and COVID-19. The exodus reflects in part the corrosive effects of a culture that, in its kinder moments, may tolerate Catholic faith and practice as a lifestyle choice, but which is adamantly opposed to the notion that Catholicism is the bearer of enduring Gospel truths that lead to personal happiness and social solidarity.

The exodus is also a by-product of decades of inept catechesis and flaccid preaching, such that in much of the western world today, the most highly educated Catholics in history likely know less about Catholicism — and therefore believe less — than their grandparents.

Some recent survey data from Italy illustrates the depth of the challenge. In 1995, 41% of those surveyed in Italy professed belief in life after death; 28.6% believe in life after death today. In that same timeframe, the numbers of those who flatly deny that there is life after death almost doubled, from 10.4% to 19.5%. The remainder, presumably, are agnostic on the subject. Think what it means, though, that of these numbers, only three out of 10 Italians firmly believe in life after death.

Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright, who has brilliantly defended the historicity of the Resurrection, has also written that there is no evidence whatsoever of any form of early Christianity that did not vigorously affirm that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised to a new and super-abundant form of life — a life available to all those who professed belief in him and lived as his friends and disciples. What was true two millennia ago is true today: If there is no belief in Easter, or in the resurrection to eternal life of those who have died in Christ, there is no Christianity. Period. And if, by that measure, Italy is a post-Christian society and culture, things are likely even more grim in other sectors of what was once western Christendom.

It is not self-evidently clear how two years of self-referential Catholic chatter in pre-synodal Church discussion groups, conducted under the rubric of “discernment” about a “synodal Church,” is going to chart a path beyond this abandonment of rock-bottom Christian beliefs, which is at the root of today’s rapidly declining Catholic practice. This is not the time for a Church in meetings. The times demand a Church in mission, proclaiming Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life.


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About George Weigel 354 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

24 Comments

    • Agree to 100 percent with Mr Weigel. All those endless conferences and meetings. Usually ending up in things continuing as usual.
      These Bishops should leave the comfortable conference tables and start evangelizing.They should leave their luxurious apartments/palaces and mix with ordinary people in the streets, in the marketplaces, in the churches.Im Germany the average monthly salary for a Bishop is 1.400- 1.600 euros! Plus free *extremely luxurious) housing, free car( and not any car which their subordinate ordinary and usually underpaid Catholics could ever dream of) food, insurances, cleaning maids,business( first class??)travelling and other benefits. A medical doctor with 12 years of extremely hard studies and 50- 80 hours hard work (surgeons and anesthetics in particular!) will never come even close to such privileges.
      From having ( naively) thought that all the Bishops were saints, many now sadly have lost all confidence and respect for these men.
      With enormous love and respect for the office of Bishops of course and for the relatively few truly faithful and great Bishops our there
      Praying for holy priests and Bishops!

  1. CONNECT THE DOTS…

    The atheist Jean Paul Sartre replaces faith with his existentialist distractions: “les PROJETS” (the projects),
    Ratzinger warned against replacing the Gospel with a merely sociological “Jesus-PROJECT” (“The Ratzinger Report,” 1985),
    Today, Secular Humanism replaces eternity-looking Christian funerals with two-hour (!) “celebration of life” PROJECTS,
    And for tomorrow, clericalists enthuse over a two-year [!] synod-on-synodality process as “the most important global Catholic PROJECT since Vatican II.”

    WHAT WILL BE THE DIFFERENCE between a polyglot synodality and the polyglot and two-month [!] “1894 World’s Congress of Religions” held alongside the Chicago World Columbian Exposition?

    A HINT: Of the 111 contributing authors from all of the pluralist [!] world, six were Catholic—and part of CARDINAL GIBBONS’ remarks included this: “The Gospel of Christ as propounded by the Catholic Church, has brought not only light to the intellect, but comfort also to the heart. It has given us ‘that peace of God which surpasseth all understanding’—the peace which springs from the conscious possession of the truth […] peace with God by the observance of His commandments; peace with our neighbor by the exercise of charity and justice toward him, and peace with ourselves by repressing our inordinate appetites and keeping our passions subject to the law of reason illumined and controlled by the law of God.”

    This should replace a boatload of synods, but the synodal Barque of Peter can’t have any of that!

    INSTEAD, the light of the world cometh from chandeliers, comfort to the heart cometh from finger food, and universality cometh from a compendium Final Report even thicker than the 1196-page “The World’s Congress of Religions at the World’s Columbian Exposition” (Mammoth [!] Publishing Company, Chicago, 1894).

  2. One could start by preaching on the rosary, and using St John Paul II Apostolic Letter on the Rosary. It seems that Rosary would be a way to improve the catechesis of the faithful. Additionally it brings along the Blessed Mother to help us understand our faith and her Son. The Ignatius Press book by Father Groeschel “the Rosary: Chain of Hope” would be the nice guide for ever priest to use. Why have a Synod when the Grace of the Rosary is already here? All that is needed is to use it as a teaching and prayer guide. Just saying!

  3. Covid Lockdown was certainly a catalyst to what George Weigel correctly proclaims was already in process. Falling away in such great numbers that this writer perceives as Apostasy. Weigel makes his strongest and clearest admonition that continued meetings [always hated endless compulsory meetings ending in tautology] is antithetical to our Christ mandated mission. Synodality is deceased Jesuit cardinal Carlo Martini’s Curse. Embraced by the indolent promoted by the devious. Our best measure of confirmation of Weigel’s article are the effects of this pontificate in dissolution of the Rule of all moral measure, the Gospels of Christ.

  4. My Diocese has priests meetings endlessly. Our priests are not available for Mass nor any of the Sacraments. Those meetings are just parties as nothing ever comes from them. Those meetings are on certain subjects but the votes are always contrary for the good of the Church. The end of the meetings result in just singing 3 more verses of Kumbaya, and their, problem fixed. I would like for our priests to discuss real issues like Apostasy and Modernism, and today who really are Traditionalist Roman Catholics? Away with the notion that we are just plain divisive Catholics. We are divisive only because we bring out the mess they made of Christ’s Church, that’s not divisive, that’s calling out the truth of God and demanding He is re-instated in the Church. Let’s admit the leadership in the Church resembles an atheistic regime full of divisive talk.

  5. There has been too much misdirected, and frankly silly, “evangelization of today’s world”. Jesus said “by their fruits you shall know them”. While there are many in the Church who evangelize through their works and persistence in Faith, many seem to be coming from an ineffectual dream world. Their focus is not on works but on magic like formulas on how to organize, interpret, pray, sit, stand, … etc. Such things do not evangelize. They present sounds and images but they do not change the heart. People who have strong faith will tolerate them when they are new but others may be confused by the strangeness and leave. Rarely, if ever, non-believers will not have a change of heart because of them. So, what can Pope Francis do if he wants to “evangelize today’s world”? Discussions about synods and thought differences in the Church will not cut it. It will be a long time before such shenanigans lead one person to Faith.

  6. ” The exodus reflects in part the corrosive effects of a culture that, in its kinder moments, may tolerate Catholic faith and practice as a lifestyle choice, but which is adamantly opposed to the notion that Catholicism is the bearer of enduring Gospel truths…”

    Replace the word “culture” with “papacy and ecclesial hierarchy.” When shepherds do not tolerate Catholic faith and practice as bearers of enduring Gospel truths, sheep will stray and stay far away. Such shepherds do not realize they are cutting off the branch of the tree on which they sit, laughing at the sheep who stay near them.

    Look at pictures of Francis when he’s with men of the world. He laughs a lot. Look at that same man when he’s with the faithful or when he says Mass. Look at the man.

  7. “A culture that, in its kinder moments, may tolerate Catholic faith and practice as a lifestyle choice, but which is adamantly opposed to the notion that Catholicism is the bearer of enduring Gospel truths that lead to personal happiness and social solidarity.”

    Weigel, like many Catholic moderates, has frequently blamed vaguely specified forces in the culture for ecclesial decline to save them from the task of faulting too many actual individuals or events in the Church for the very unambiguous harm they do. The above is an essential description of the petulant personality of Pope Francis towards the very religion of which he holds the most Sacred of responsibility. Francis uses the word Gospel frequently, but applies it to whatever elitist ideology of progressivism he favors in a given mood on a given day, even if such ideologies are hate-filled towards Christianity, even if his applications contradict what he said on different occasions. In the process he equates anyone who criticizes him with Satan, while equating himself with Christ, not to mention his expressing a consistent disdain for Catholics who take Catholicism too seriously or too coherently. Yet Weigel praises Francis as a heroic inspiration for getting out of our rut of ecclesial decline simply because he states the obvious about the Church on permanent mission.

    The “culture” didn’t make Catholics abandon their catechisms anymore than high prelates have been pursuing the mischief of recreating God’s Church in their own preferred image for a century, actually for two thousand years, but more successfully for a century, especially the last half century. Freely chosen sinful pride did this.

    Weigel’s obliviousness towards Francis’ misdeeds has been going on for eight years now, yet Weigel, who had no difficulty demonstrating his hatred of Donald Trump, a man who saved more unborn lives than any man in history, never utters a word of direct criticism towards Francis, whose praise for notorious pro-aborts and international agencies that implement compulsory abortion not only undermines the Church’s moral witness in incalculable ways, but aids and abets this holocaust.

    Typical of moderate Catholic polemics towards “radical critics of VII” involves dismissal while ignoring specifics. Among many silly banalities in several documents of VII, the authors of Dignitatis Humanae opined in its introduction: “Modern man is increasingly aware of the dignity of the human person.” Yeah right. Twenty years after the massive carnage of World War Two. Since when did free will towards virtue or vice become a collective evolution? If we sober up and realize that “modern man” is as stupid and depraved as he has ever been, are we going to blame sociology at our final accounting?

    Agreed, meetings, and meetings about meetings, and “discernment” about meetings will not solve any problems. But recognizing that our Pope who commonly abuses a Catholic concept, like discernment, which traditionally means choosing between two goods, but which Francis has remade into a tool to rationalize evil, should not be our source of moral inspiration and ecclesial regeneration except in the sense that we pray for his conversion and that of ourselves, the entire Church, faithful, lapsed, and fallen away for all our freely chosen sinful inclinations.

    • Thank you. A like-minded soul my soul finds.

      “are we going to blame sociology at our final accounting?”

      I submit that neither you nor I will, but others undoubtedly will. They’ll also claim the books were cooked so how could they be blamed? It’s God’s fault for having made us homosexuals, thieves, adulterers, abortioners, idol-worshippers, or all the above.

    • A question for Edward Baker, who writes: “Weigel’s obliviousness towards Francis’ misdeeds has been going on for eight years now […] never utters a word of direct criticism towards Francis.”

      Is it possible, I wonder, if in his opening paragraph…is Weigel actually holding Francis accountable to his own words about mission? And, I also wonder, how many other commentators have been denied access to their contacts in Rome for simply being less guarded in what they say and how they say it? Not enough left between the lines…

      Weigel then spotlights, for all to see, the contradiction between past words about mission and the future swamp of meetings with predictable outcomes.

  8. “This is not the time for a Church in meetings. The times demand a Church in mission, proclaiming Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life.”

    I do not agree with the first sentence in this quote mainly because the Church is not a monocracy. It might have inadvertently acted as one in the past when the Church was confined to the Middle East and parts of Europe, but as the years went by that system could not be sustained efficiently. The Church began to grow and to spread out among the different nations. And with that came divisions, disputes and areas that were neglected because of its sheer size. Fortunately, there were times when the synodal path did play a role in the governance of the Church. I believe that it happened quite often.

    For nearly a century, changing trends in society were making an impact on the Church. This rush to modernize society accelerated during and after World War 2. This was the time when the radio, movies, porn magazines and rude jokes gained attraction. And let us not forget liberalism, individualism, and freedom (license to do as one pleased) became the new creed.
    Did this upheaval affect the Church? Yes, in a big way. Many Catholics who had once attended Mass just as followers of a crowd or because they felt obliged to do so, now experienced no qualms of conscience as they stopped going to Church. They chose other gods and philosophies.

    The modern attitudes along with the Church’s governance becoming unwieldy have led to the Church having its problems today. I believe that our Pope Francis is doing the right thing by organizing this meeting which is all about how we should proclaim Jesus to the world of today.

    I would like to add something that is different but, nevertheless, connected to this topic. When God made Adam and Eve, he equipped them to be the stewards of the world he created. Today, the descendants of our first parents have different cultures, racial features, concepts of God, and philosophies of life but they are still equipped to be stewards of creation. So, besides the call to evangelize, there is also this call to work together for the good of this world, this human family.

    • When do non-silly worthless things ever occur at these “meetings.” And when did the human condition ever change course from the unchanging drama of the seven virtues contesting the seven sins encapsulated by such incisive observations like that of the great dissident of the same communist tyranny for which Francis casts his catastrophic invincible blindness. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously noted:

      “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained”

      Contrary to the socialism preached by Francis, the actual Gospel preaches reconciliation with God.

    • Union is a primary characteristic of the Holy Trinity in the union of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Being made in God’s image and likeness we humans were created for ultimate union with God. But it had to be a loving free will union. During the fall into Original Sin Adam and Eve destroyed their Original Innocence. Their nakedness was a source of shame because they were no longer clothed in righteousness and had breached their union with God and each other. After the fall there was no longer any harmony in Eden. Adam and Eve took their spiritual direction from the serpent and not from God.

    • Mal: Your commentary is predicated on the notion that there is something NEW under the sun. There isn’t. Nor can there be. Only atheists, self-aware atheists or unaware atheists, believe in revolutionary thought. Seriously, does the industrialization of lust alter in any way the nature of lust? Is anyone performing, in any way an historical originality, by realizing that poisoning air and water is not necessarily a virtuous thing to do?
      Real original insightfulness exists when we apply old truths to old sins masquerading as something new. God placed limitations on our intelligence, none on our stupidity. When mass murdering abortion supporters, feeling a repressed sense of guilt for having been supporting the extermination of inconvenient unborn life by the millions create fantasies of environmental catastrophes to justify their anti-populationist ideology, they are engaging a form of moral displacement that a mind properly immersed in a Catholic moral sensitivity ought to be able identify easily. How would you account for the lack of Catholic leaders to take this self-evident fact of human mendacity into consideration in their comments about “environmental concern?” Ever even notice how many “animal lovers”, who are not even actual animal lovers but pretend to be, nonetheless ever notice how many are fanatical pro-aborts? Moral displacement is as common as grains of sand on the beach. Do you think Francis would ever notice?

      • Not sure how you got the idea that my comment was predicated on the idea that there is something new under the sun. I had not entertained such a notion. You then proceed to list some of the deeds by activists which every faithful Catholic objects to. Pope Francis has quite of ten condemned abortion because he sees the face of Christ in every child. I would add that he sees our Lord’s face in every human. Hence, his view on capital punishment. And why should we not be concerned about our environment? Even pagans can teach us that the quality of our lives is heavily dependent upon the quality of our environment. Hence, we should not pollute. Good stewards that we are designed to be would ensure that we did not. Living with the people in the slums of Argentina, the Slum Pope knows all about the terrible harm caused by unhealthy natural and socio-spiritual environments.

        • It is YOU who said: “Today, the descendants of our first parents have different cultures, racial features, concepts of God, and philosophies of life but they are still equipped to be stewards of creation.”
          Obviously your commentary was predicated that truth is not innate and universally endowed by providence, as Catholicism teaches, contrary to what many Catholic theologians believe, including those who have influenced Francis, but you clearly indicate that what people believe is essentially determined by their cultural circumstance. This constitutes a rejection of natural law, which happens to be something Francis redily admits to. And he is wrong.

          And who said no one should not be concerned about the environment? I clearly did not. Even Hitler and Stalin cared about the environment.
          Right after you make the claim of not being a neophiliac, you act like one as you did in your prior comment as though concern for the environment is a relatively newfound concern. Every human being who ever walked the face of the earth has cared about the environment.
          There is an underlying evil in the delusion of originality such as when Francis avoids understanding why the proscriptions in the moral law that allow for capital punishment are unchangeable. Francis never illustrates any capacity to acknowledge that there is another side that might counter whatever his strawman trivialization of any moral argument he might make, arguments in a moral understanding that are immutable as all truth is immutable, a rejection of which is something Francis has admitted to.

    • Blessed be the Unholy Roman Church of George Orwell as prelate after prelate abandons the Catholic faith or acts out the underlying reality that they never had one as they side with other tyrannical elitists of the world promoting a false narrative regarding the nature of science and social responsibility. All scientific theory contrary to vaccination as our savior is suppressed, even to the point where it has become obligatory for Catholics to be isolated from their Savior through their Sacraments while they are accorded to those who make sacramental life a mockery while they promote the culture of death. In the not too distant future, as a non-vaxer, with a doctoral degree in real science, I will be banned from all public places. I will be banned from the Latin Mass, and I will even be banned from the Novos Ordo Mass while mass murdering culture-of-death politicians are welcomed. That’s okay. I knew at my adult baptism after my conversion that I signed up for heavy duty crosses.

  9. Mr. Weigel, you continue the incredible tradition of two of the greatest Catholics of the past 120 years—- G.K. Chesterton and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Your always scintillating essays cut to the heart of the matter ” without using a useless word, ” as Archbishop Sheen said of G.K.C. Thank you.

    John A. Lombardi, Maryland

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