Last night I watched the EWTN program The World Over. In one segment, Raymond Arroyo brought together his “papal posse,” Robert Royal of The Catholic Thing and Fr. Gerald Murray of the Archdiocese of New York. Once again, Arroyo failed to mention Pope Francis’s comments about EWTN’s relentless attacks on the pope being “the work of the devil.” What they did discuss was the Synod on Synodality, which began its two-year process on Sunday with a Mass in St. Peter’s in Rome and begins its diocesan phase this weekend. Robert Royal’s prognostication for the outcome of the Synod was, “I think that basically it’s going to come down to a committee appointed by the pope who are going to write a document or make recommendations that we can kind of anticipate in advance.”
It astounds me how those who oppose the pope while professing to be devout Catholics can look upon every initiative undertaken by Pope Francis with stubborn pessimism and predictable grumbling. As Pedro Gabriel wrote last year, “The barrage of criticism raised against the Vicar of Christ night and day speaks poorly about the reliability of his detractors. The longer their litany of accusations, the less likely their narrative becomes. In their eagerness to find anything to spin against the Pope at any possible time, they have unmasked their bias.”
At this point, however, they aren’t even pretending to wear masks. It’s become so lazy that everyone knows what will happen when the Papal Posse shows up: Arroyo will ask Royal or Murray a leading question like, “There was a lot of concern about that quote [by Pope Francis], ‘make the Church different.’ What does that mean to you?” Then Royal or Murray will respond by saying something like, “Difference in and of itself has no content. We need to make the Church more what it is and that would involve returning to the roots of Christianity, the roots of Catholicism.” The task here is to answer the question negatively and defensively. There’s no context and no wider perspective. It’s not even clear that Fr. Murray had even seen or heard that quote before Arroyo asked him the question. Speaking as someone who follows Pope Francis closely and who has benefited greatly from his teachings, it frustrates me that these men who regularly take up the task of “analyzing” his words for a television audience clearly don’t understand Pope Francis at all. But they are very convincing grumblers.
Besides discussing the synod during his television appearance yesterday, Royal also published an article on the same topic entitled, “Seriously, Synodal?” Royal’s piece echoed the cynicism on display in the televised discussion. It’s clear that he sees the Synod’s eventual failure as a foregone conclusion. He wrote, “It’s not cynical, merely realistic, to believe that a process like this cannot possibly speak to the different situations of the Church in Europe and America, Africa and Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.” It seems for this trio, Pope Francis is a disaster and can’t get anything right. If only he’d be more like them.
To his credit, Royal does refer his readers to the official texts of the Synod documents, although he doesn’t exactly put a positive spin on them. He writes, “You can read the whole ‘Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality’ here. And if you’re a glutton for punishment you can give the more extensive ‘Preparatory Document‘ a try.” What does Robert Royal think of these documents? “They both display the familiar mix of weak social science and vague ecclesiology that has lately marked deliberations in the Church.”
A search for content about the Synod on The Catholic Thing website reveals a slanted perspective, to say the least. In addition to “Seriously, Synodal?,” the list of article titles on the topic feature a hefty helping of scare quotes and question marks: “Synodality raises many questions,” “Who Needs Synodality?,” “Synodality as as an endless ‘journey,'” “Is synodality the path to secularism?,” “Deciphering synodality,” “A Church in permanent synod?,” “Concerning ‘Synodality,’” “The pope’s ‘phony synodality,'” “Synodal Path in US would mean: what?,” and “The ‘synodality’ masquerade.”
This is a strategy of slow sedition against Pope Francis. Unlike screamers such as Fr. James Altman and Michael Voris, men like Royal, Murray, and Arroyo—not to mention others like George Weigel, Cardinal Raymond Burke, and Pillar co-founder Ed Condon—have an air of intellectualism and professionalism about them. Ultimately they’re headed in the same direction, but along a more erudite road. And their path is anything but synodal.
Rather than end on that note, however, I would like to share with you some words from the Papal Nuncio to the US, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who was in San Antonio last weekend to help kick off the two-year synodal process. It was a lengthy address, and I suggest you read it all, but there were a few things he said that I believe truly captured the pope’s vision and hope for the synod.
His presentation touched on many of the essential themes of genuine synodality. Early in the talk, he discusses how the Second Vatican Council used the image of the family to describe the Church—the Church is the Family of God. He explained:
The family is a place of belonging, a privileged place to experience love and growth, an original sign, given by God the Father. It is both a building block of society and a critical means by which we are introduced into a decisive relationship with God. The family exists to help generate life and to deepen companionship between individuals as they journey toward their common destiny.
Every family has a mission to build up the Church and to increase the Kingdom of God in the world; to be a community of love in which people experience a sense of belonging; and, to be a beacon of light and hope to others. For Catholic Extension the locus of the mission happens to be among the poor.
In the Family of God, we continually meet and encounter the Event or Person who “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Cf. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, 25 December 2005, 1). In the family, we behold the Mystery of Christ present as a face. One learns to confront one’s difficulties and to face the realities of life, enlightened by His Presence; there we encounter Christ in the other. In your Dioceses, in the parishes and missions, the people’s sense of companionship coalesces or comes together in a space, in daily living and working together, on a common journey with a common goal: a destiny with God.
The early Church addressed its members as adelphoi or brothers. The community of believers is not principally an administrative grouping, the way a company is organized, and occasionally re-organized; rather, the distinctive characteristics of the Church as the Family of God are prayer and Eucharistic worship.
Believers have been drawn together and constituted as a family by the Holy Spirit. As you know, no family is perfect, and there are always family members with different temperaments and sometimes different economic means, but there is one fundamental bond: faith.
He also discussed how synodality is a permanent way of life in the Church, and is central to evangelization and even in how we listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit:
The Holy Father wants a synodal Church to help support the mission of evangelization. Synodality is a way of living the faith in a permanent way at every level: in your dioceses, parishes, the family, and at the peripheries. All Church members, not just the clergy or experts, are to be engaged in this way of living.
Cardinal Mario Grech adds that “synodality is not only a methodos but an odos, not only a method but a way towards a re-thinking of the Church’s role in contemporary society.” (Cardinal Mario Grech, “Towards a Synodal Irish Church. Address to the Bishops of Ireland,” 3 February 2021):
In 2015, Pope Francis said that it is “precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” (Address during the ceremony commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, October 17, 2015) Echoing Pope Benedict XVI that synodality was a “constitutive element of the Church,” he described it as “nothing other than the ‘journeying together’ of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord.”
A synodal church is one that listens and “which realizes that listening is more than simply hearing.” This involves listening not only to each other, but also to the Spirit to know what “he says to the churches.” (Rev 2:7) Austen Ivereigh notes that a distinctive element of the Pope’s vision of synodality is pneumatological, writing, “For Bergoglio, there is no synodality without not just the presence but also the action of the Holy Spirit.” (Austen Ivereigh, “Hearing the Spirit in the Assembly of the People: Pope Francis’s vision of synodality,” Studium (n. 3), 2021, 359).
The final bit I want to share is Archbishop Pierre’s reminder about how, when there is a true spirit of synodality and an openness to discernment, the Holy Spirit assists and the Blessed Mother intercedes if the process reaches a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or impasse:
If in the economy of salvation, the Holy Spirit represents the condition of possibility for the self-communication of God in Jesus on the part of the Divine, Mary, with her fiat, represents the condition of possibility of this communication on the part of humanity. Through her attentive listening and openness to God, she fulfilled her mission in bringing Christ to the world. She demonstrates the characteristics of living this journey.
She journeyed with and in the Trinity, willingly receiving the love of the Father, bearing the Son within her womb, and becoming a temple of the Holy Spirit. The Mother of God is an icon of synodal life, reminding us of the universal call to listen attentively to God.
What happens when we listen attentively to God, particularly when there is a disagreement or a seeming impasse? Usually, there is a breakthrough or what the Holy Father calls an “overflow” – an overflow of the Spirit which “breaks the banks that confined our thinking, and causes to pour forth, as if from an overflowing fountain, the answers that formerly the contraposition did not allow us to see.” (Pope Francis, Let Us Dream, 80)
These words about an “overflow” in the face of disagreement are encouraging, and quite possibly prophetic. The fact that there are impasses in our Church right now, especially concerning receptivity to the Holy Father, but also on our understanding of the Faith and the Magisterium at times seem insurmountable. Perhaps an area where we can work for common ground is receptivity and openness. As Catholics, our unity is crucial, and we need to find a starting point if we’re going to walk together.
Image: Adobe Stock.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.