The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away

After nearly three decades in Rome, I have a new vantage point, from which the whole business in Rome suddenly takes on precisely that air of self-referentiality Pope Francis has warned about.

Pope Francis celebrates a Mass to open the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 10, 2021. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

As far as I can recall, this is the first time in more than a quarter-century that I haven’t been in Rome for a big Church event taking place there. The big event is the opening of the universal Church’s own “synodal path” toward the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, slated for October, 2023.

Towards a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission is the official theme, but everyone is calling it a “synod on synodality” or some such, because that’s what it is.

From this new vantage point, the whole business in Rome suddenly takes on precisely that air of self-referentiality, which Pope Francis has warned us from the outset we must dispel. One may be forgiven the impression that he has also frequently governed as though navel-gazing were the order of the day, and the conclusion that his modes and orders of governance have contributed in some part to the present malaise.

There’s an old saying: “Fish rots from the head, down.”

Rome is where the Church’s head sits, so it stands to reason that things would be at once headier and apparently in more urgent need of attention (from) there. It also stands to reason that those in Rome would be most thoroughly inured to the stench, and Francis has been in Rome for a good while now.

Church watchers have described the “synodal path” as a vast consultation – a great listening session – and that seems at least in part to track with a good bit of what Pope Francis said about the journey on which he set the Church last Saturday. “Are we good at listening?” he asked in his homily. “How good is the ‘hearing’ of our heart?”

Do we allow people to express themselves, to walk in faith even though they have had difficulties in life, and to be part of the life of the community without being hindered, rejected or judged?” he asked.

[W]henever we listen with the heart,” he said, “people feel that they are being heard, not judged; they feel free to recount their own experiences and their spiritual journey.”

That is not the universal experience of synodality as a mode of governance under Pope Francis. One could hardly blame devotees of the older liturgy, for example, if they don’t exactly feel welcomed. The Pope just told them they aren’t welcome in parishes. They may well feel themselves judged: They’ve been told they are at least suspected of disloyalty, and in any case the pope’s new law treats them as though they are in fact disloyal. I’ve yet to hear of their invitation to share their experiences and their spiritual journeys.

The mountains are high,” runs an old Chinese proverb, “and the Emperor is far away.”

Here, I’ve met dedicated priests in area parishes where the liturgies they celebrate sometimes have newfangled hymns and sometimes have traditional settings, who wonder what they did that was so wrong with the latter as to earn them a mark of suspicion from the Emperor – my interpolation, not their words – and they try to answer their parishioners’ questions but can’t, because they haven’t the wherewithal to answer them.

Here, I’ve met parishioners who just want their children to be Catholic, and don’t much care what stripe or flavor.

Here, I’ve met recent converts who are trying to figure out what being Catholic means and how to do it (better).

Here and nearby, I’ve seen all sorts of outreaches and charitable initiatives – all examples of real, creative fidelity – undertaken by people hard at work but hardly on display, with Latin Mass-goers and Gather! hymnal types working together diligently and in harmony. I know – or reasonably surmise – how they prefer to worship, because I’ve listened to them and worshipped with them here and there. I can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, how many times the so-called Liturgy Wars have been a subject of conversation.

Occasionally, it’ll get out that I might know something about how the Roman sausage is made, and someone will ask me something about it. It’s also happened that I’ve interjected myself into a discussion of some issue or other. Then, I’ve found that folks care little for who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, or even what the document – the law, the exhortation, the homily, what have you – really was or really said. It’s all one to the folks with whom I’ve spoken.

It’s not that distinctions among, for example, the kinds and levels of teaching documents are unimportant. It matters on some fairly basic level that a post-Synodal exhortation is not, in point of fact, either a teaching document or an instrument of governance. That a five-minute fervorino given off the cuff at morning Mass is not an Apostolic Constitution, is not a matter of indifference. The folks with whom I’ve spoken don’t really struggle with the distinctions, themselves.

The point is that such niceties make no dice with people who look at me askance when I mention “CDW” and the motu proprio (I think we were then talking Traditionis custodes, but don’t quote me on that), not only or primarily because they don’t know or don’t care (or don’t care to know) what those things are, but because they’re all part of a Roman milieu that is a gargantuan and very distant bureaucracy.

So, when it comes to “synodality” the question is: Why all the fuss?

What is it all about?

I have a friend, who works in publishing. My friend took a call from a prelate, who wanted to suggest they bring out something from the International Theological Commission – that’s the Vatican’s theological talking shop, by the way – something specific, but my friend didn’t recall what, exactly, but His Excellency thought it would be very helpful to the faithful.

So, my friend in publishing deflected the request – I’m sure quite tactfully – by suggesting that His Excellency write something pastoral by way of explanation, or something explanatory, by way of concrete pastoral solicitude.

The gist of His Excellency’s answer was that he’d very much like to write something, but feels he doesn’t really understand the business well enough to write on it.

The mountains are high…

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About Christopher R. Altieri 179 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. No listening to … several cardinals who wanted to chat some years ago about Amoris letitia.
    No listening to … folks who, wanting clarity on Church teaching, are called hypocrites and pharisees.
    No listening to … Catholics who want more financial transparency from the Vatican.
    No listening to … Catholics who find it scandalous that a pro-abortion US Catholic president or Speaker of the House can still receive communion.
    No listening to … Chinese Catholics who have suffered persecution for decades.
    No listening to … a Cardinal who knows the government of China far better than Parolin.
    No listening to … people who disagree with suicidal western European progressivism.
    And, as you mention, no listening to people who want the Tridentine Mass.

    Yeah right, let’s listen with the heart … whatever that means. I guess it means first decide to whom you are going to listen and to whom you will not. Synodality. What a joke.

    By the way, “who is he to judge” that we need “synodality?”

    • The Vaticans amazing willingness to let the CCP do anything it wants can easily be explained. Chinese intelligence has eavesdropped on the many homosexuals that Pope Francis brought into the Vatican, and the Chinese have the goods on all of them.

    • Excellent questions, John. You put the whole exercise in perspective.

      The very word, “synodality,” reeks of bureaucracy. Regular people say, “cooperation” or “collaboration” or “unity.”

      In fact, I think I can honestly say I have never had a conversation in which the word, “synodality” was uttered.

      Which is, I think, telling. It reinforces Mr. Altieri’s point that Rome is increasingly remote, detached and irrelevant.

      And, considering this immature, hectoring papacy we are suffering through, that may not be an entirely bad thing.

  2. We read, “why all the fuss [and of] “a prelate, who wanted to suggest they bring out something from the International Theological Commission.”
    So, a comment here about long-term history, and about amnesia…

    On the first question, part of the fuss might be about fostering a more synodal form in the West as a step toward reunification with patriarchal churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. Who knows what might happen in another thousand years?

    On the second point,the International Theological Commission (ITC) introduced the synodal dimension of the Church in the 2018 document “Synodality in the life and mission of the Church”. How closely the new synodal guidelines respect this already-existing and balanced presentation, or not, is one question raised in my critical opinion piece carried on these pages less than two weeks ago:

    • The ITC also issued a document, “Sensus Fidea” in 2014. Worth a look, it allows that a ‘sense of the faith’ exists in every level of the church. Of course, the interpretation of ‘sense’ swings in more than one direction.
      “” offers insight into the Chinese proverb Altieri quotes:

      “Late in the Yuan Dynasty, corruption was rampant. Local officials known as Mandarins, would misuse large amounts of tax revenues with profligate spending.

      The treasury was facing bankruptcy,so the ineptitude of these leaders led to all sorts of new schemes to separate hard working people from their money. Those unable to pay these new taxes were arrested and beaten.

      It was not uncommon for bribes to be paid to purchase a position of power. Those who took these positions were inclined to taking property and victimizing the people. All this abuse lead to discontent in the populace and eventual rebellion.

      In Zhejiang province, a rhyme was composed to show the frustration that the common people felt regarding their plight.

      Heaven is high and the emperor is far away, the people are few yet officials abound.
      Three times each day we are beaten! We have to rebel — it is now or never!”

  3. From across the sea the mountains are negligible. Altieri’s exercise in futility impression is wellmade. And it’s true not that many even care to penetrate the inscrutable nature of a Synod on synodality. Many of us just wish to remain Catholic in faith and in what we do. Although some of us, priests who by commission must care need to assess what effect a never ending Journey as described by Francis will take. Altieri ‘hints’ by the Pope’s descriptive wording of those who have issues, struggle, simply seek acceptance rather than be judged wishing to be fully accepted despite [by suggestion of Francis’ Words] being practicing homosexuals, or living in irregular unions. Emperor Francis is not so distant that events don’t transpire as he wishes. An emperor rules by command, nowadays simply by suggestion. What will and what can result in ongoing discussion on the Church when there’ll always be competing opinions? And nothing is really binding? Something decisive. Effectively it will impress Church and world that nothing Catholicism teaches has permanence, that Christ’s revelation was simply an historical, not an eschatological event. His Holiness like water will find a way.

    • It appears Chris that underlying doubt may well explain the overall absence of firm, convinced faith. If we are convinced of the truth of his commandments we put them in practice. It also may be many admit to the truth inwardly but refuse to comply, rife homosexuality within clerical ranks a factor this pontificate seemingly supportive. We pray Christ will purify his Church.

      • I suspect the synod will succeed in manifesting apostasy for those with eyes to see. The angel of light will display his smoke and mirrors in technicolor. Christ and His following sheep will not accept the deception. They will choose everlasting martyrdom, following Christ. The goats will meanwhile glee and laugh at the cliff the martyrs took…until the realization dawns for some. The cliff is the one and only exit.

        • Meiron, during his address on the Synod on synodality Pope Francis in apparent response to criticism quoted Yves Congar on reform, which the Dominican presupposed would be to change the Church, not to create a new one. Eduardo Echeverria, a notable professor of philosophy and sacred theology [a contributor to CWR] posted an informative article in TCT. “Synodality runs the risk of treating a listening and dialogical Church as an end in itself. An open ended series of discussions about the normative content of Christianity, rather than as an instrument in the service of the teaching Church” (Echeverria). Echeverria went on to quote Congar’s rules for a legitimate reform, “ 2. Only through communion with the whole body, which itself is subject to the guidance of the magisterium [see Lumen Gentium, no. 12], can someone grasp a truth in its totality. It is clearly impossible that individual persons might know and profess the whole truth by themselves” (Yves Congar). This rule summarizes the remaining. To date I haven’t seen reference to Congar’s prescription. This raises concern that the “forever” Pope Francis Synod really has no determinate purpose except to recreate the Church into a forum for endless indeterminate discussion. An image comes to mind of a papal Diogenes, lantern in hand leading the Church, with the accompaniment of Protestants, non Christians, atheist camp followers into the dark corners of the world in search of a purpose.

          • Quote from NCR, 2013, on Congar on reform:

            There is a risk “that the ecclesiastical apparatus [of the church] might overshadow the action of the Spirit and of grace in people’s lives.” {MEIRON’S INTERPOSITION: The idea that the Church can somehow ‘overshadow’ or blunt the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual strikes me as EXCEEDINGLY strange.} This, he says is the “temptation of Pharisaism,” a deep attachment to habitual forms of religious expression than to the spirit of life they aim to express….

            “The church needs reform, and this is not the task of one single person, the sovereign pontiff or a certain number of cardinals … but the task of the entire world.” New ideas and movements arise in response to regional and local opportunities, he says. “They need both the freedom to develop and the approval of the authorities.”

  4. The synodality of the synod seems to be an exercise in self-absorption by this pope and the bishops. Unless and until they can stand firmly for Church teaching, I don’t see the synod as anything except a waste of time. Pope Francis opines that bishops need to be “pastoral” in discussing support for abortion joined with the reception of the Holy Eucharist, but he doesn’t seem to understand that the most pastoral act of any bishop or priest is to correct the thinking of a presumed believer when it comes to Church teaching. I hope he “pastorally” told Nancy Pelosi when they met last Saturday that her position supporting and funding abortion is a direct threat to her salvation. To do otherwise would be to “politically” avoid the elephant in the room. Stop meeting to discuss the “synodality of synods” and do the pastoral work Jesus has called you to do.

  5. K. I got CDW figured out. It would have helped to spell it out. (Hint: I’ve reached my lifetime quota of acronyms).
    Trying to keep an open mind on this Synod on Synodality but reading the names of some of the promoters does not inspire confidence.

  6. “stench”
    “Fish rots from the head, down.”

    This article uses all those to describe the governance of Pope Francis. Hmmm.

    I am nobody.

    But, even so, I think Catholics need and want Catholic journalists, theologians, and homilists who can help us make sense of what’s happening in a way that gives hope, builds faith, inspires optimism, fosters complete trust in the Good Shepherd, stimulates hard work for the good, and cultivates compassion for all.

    • Gus, I’d like to see all of those things as well myself. But a the moment, I’m having a very hard time finding any reason for optimism or anything in Rome that will “build faith.”

  7. What is so complicated about being Catholic that some people constantly try to reinvent the Church? Believe and live what the Church has always taught. As a wise Monsignor once said to me, give a theologian or bishop an opportunity to talk about the Church and God, and he’ll complicate the issues to the point of confusing himself and everyone else. If we love Him, we’ll keep His commandments, Jesus says. I am so glad and thankful to God for leading me to a community of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter. There is no confusion about who and what we are as Catholics, which is ironic. A bunch of Anglicans – i.e., separated brethren – coming back into the Church have more to teach Catholics about being Catholic than most of the current generation of cradle Catholics, bishops and cardinals who seem eager to soft soap the message and mission of Jesus Christ rather than speak the hard (and saving and merciful) truth of the Holy Gospel.

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