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…
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!