Among some Catholics, there is outright opposition to the upcoming Synod on Synodality. On EWTN, for instance, Robert Royal described the synod by saying “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.” Spoiler alert: his anticipation is not of the joyful sort. Similarly, Father Raymond J. de Souza, writing for the National Catholic Register, pessimistically portrays the Synod as a waste of time, and a potentially disastrous waste at that. Many of the critics take a cynical stance, predicting that the synod will be an entirely political affair, and ignoring the fact that such predictions can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, traditionalist outlets such as One Peter Five view the whole business as just one more devious attempt to subvert traditional Church teaching and practice.
The United States Response
This opposition is predictable given that for many years every action of Pope Francis has attracted criticism and opposition. More concerning than such opposition is that the US Church is not showing much enthusiasm for the synod. It is now more than two months since the launch of the synod, and US dioceses got off to an uneven start. Because so many of them were so slow off the mark, the process has left many individual Catholics confused about how to participate and about the meaning of the synod.
When the USCCB met in Baltimore, the synod was discussed but attention centered around the Eucharistic Coherence document. I appreciated their final document on the Eucharist, but this seems to have been a missed opportunity to center the attention of the US Church on the Synod. The USCCB meeting was also marred by the shadow of the political infighting that had occurred at their June meeting, and by the bureaucratic nature of the whole process.
The “Synodal Path”
In contrast, another national Church appears to be invested in synodality. The German Church is now drawing toward the end of the second year of its “Synodal Path.” The process has stirred up world-wide controversy, and many of the proposals made by Synodal Path participants are not in line with Church teaching. Although some proposals that challenge Catholic doctrine were approved by the synodal assembly, whether such proposals will ultimately be implemented by the German bishops (who are a minority of the participants) is another question, since the bishops have said that any changes involving doctrine will have to be referred to the Vatican.
Beyond the controversies, however, lies a more systemic problem. The Synodal Path seems strangely bureaucratic and procedural, even political. Speaking to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Austen Ivereigh said that the Synodal Path focused too much on juridical and legal changes, and became divided in a political way into “left and right”.
Politicization versus the Spirit
For all the seeming differences, these two local Churches have fallen into the same trap. They are trying to determine outcomes by votes and political-style processes and have become influenced by the “synod of the media”. In the speech mentioned above, Ivereigh quoted Georges Bernanos:
It is a fact of experience that one reforms nothing in the Church by ordinary means. Whoever pretends to reform the Church with the same means used to reform temporal society—not only will he fail in his undertaking, but he will infallibly find himself outside the Church. The only way of reforming the visible Church is to suffer for the invisible Church. The only way of reforming the vices of the Church is to lavish on her the example of one’s own most heroic virtues.
Ivereigh went on to say:
Structural changes can turn out to be superficial or even damaging if they don’t reflect the deeper cultural change. The Church has to change according to the power that the Church has been given, and the power the Church has been given is fundamentally the Holy Spirit.
This reflects the vision of Pope Francis on synodality. During his general audience on Wednesday, 25 November 2020, he said:
At times, I feel tremendous sadness when I see a community that has good will, but takes the wrong path because it thinks that the Church is built up in meetings, as if it were a political party: the majority, the minority, what does this one think, that one, the other…. “This is like a Synod, the synodal path that we must take”. I ask myself: where is the Holy Spirit there? Where is prayer? Where is communitarian love? Where is the Eucharist?”. Without these four coordinates, the Church becomes a human society, a political party — majority, minority — changes are made as if it were a company, according to majority or minority… But the Holy Spirit is not there. And the presence of the Holy Spirit is precisely guaranteed by these four coordinates. … If this is lacking, the Holy Spirit is lacking, and if the Holy Spirit is lacking, we will be a beautiful humanitarian charitable organization, good, good … even an ecclesial party, let’s put it that way. But it is not the Church.
Similarly, in Let Us Dream, Pope Francis described the synodal process as one of being open and attentive to the Holy Spirit and to one another, making room for discernment, and waiting for God’s “overflow.” He writes:
My concern as Pope has been to encourage such overflows within the Church by reinvigorating the ancient practice of synodality … The term comes from the Greek syn-odos, “walking together,” and this is its goal: not so much to forge agreement as to recognize, honor, and reconcile differences on a higher plane where the best of each can be retained. …
What characterizes a synodal path is the role of the Holy Spirit. We listen, we discuss in groups, but above all we pay attention to what the Spirit has to say to us. That is why I ask everyone to speak frankly and to listen carefully to others because, there, too, the Spirit is speaking. …
Another temptation that so often confuses people is treating the Synod as a kind of parliament underpinned by a “political battle” in which in order to govern one side must defeat the other. Some people tried to drum up support for their positions as politicians might: by sounding warnings through the media, or appealing to opinion polls. This goes against the spirit of the synod as a protected space of community discernment.…
In walking together, reading the signs of the times, open to the new things of the Spirit, we might take some lessons from this ancient church experience of synodality which I have sought to revive.
First: We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas. The aim is not to reach agreement by means of a contest between opposing positions, but to journey together to seek God’s will, allowing differences to harmonize… Second: Sometimes this new thing means resolving disputed questions through overflow. Breakthroughs happen, often at the last minute, leading to a meeting of the minds that allows us to move forward. … Third: This is a patient process, which does not come easily to our impatient age. …Discerning in the midst of conflict requires us sometimes to pitch camp together, waiting for the skies to clear. (p. 81-94)
By contrast, the local Churches in other regions of the world seem to have embraced synodality and avoided all this politicization and cynicism. In a recent article, Mike Lewis highlighted the response of several African Church leaders to Synod on Synodality. He writes:
I was impressed with the clear plans of action sketched out by the bishops, and their determination to participate successfully in the process. They all seem likewise committed to keep tabs on the progress of how their local Church was carrying out the synodal process.
I sensed none of the hesitancy or cynicism from these bishops that I see in the US, and none of the infantilizing of the faithful that many US bishops have put forth in their own presentation. They don’t talk about the synod as if their flocks are kindergarteners, rather as adults who are invested in the life of the Church and who want to participate in the global Church.
The Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM) recently held a continent-wide “ecclesial assembly” in Mexico City. Austen Ivereigh was in attendance and wrote about his experience. He explains that the goal of the assembly was furthering the implementation of the Aparecida Document in a synodal manner. As Cardinal Grech said in an address to the assembly, the Church is only missionary when it is synodal. Synodality involves a humble and respectful attitude to others, willing to listen to the perspective that others bring. It also involves a desire for unity that can overcome divisions.
The conference didn’t want this assembly to be merely another bishops’ meeting. They wanted to involve the whole People of God. To achieve this, they held listening sessions before the assembly, and invited lay delegates to participate. These delegates made up 40 percent of the total participants.
Ivereigh comments frankly on the difficulties and challenges the conference faced. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic made in-person meetings difficult. Divisions between Brazil and the rest of the conference and various other issues hampered the listening sessions. While there were many lay people present, they were almost all “church people”: members of ecclesiastical organizations. Technical difficulties kept some conference members from fully participating.
Still, through all these challenges, the promise of synodality shone through. As Ivereigh concludes in his article:
And yet the fact that it happened at all was astonishing. In the time of Covid-19, to mobilize the church of an entire continent was an extraordinary feat. And for those taking part, it was transformative: people commented on the spirit of freedom and trust in the assembly. The torrent of ecstatic comments at the end of the small group conversations showed that assembly members were thrilled to have been given the space to help create a new future for the church. …
What mattered was that the people of God had been asked to take part in shaping the future of the church. And that—within its many limits—was what the assembly had enabled. A new agency—yet old, because synodality was normal in the church’s early life—had been created. “There is no going back,” Archbishop [Hector] Cabrejos said at the concluding press conference.
Later, in the basilica, he led the bishops and cardinals in consecrating the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had been skeptical. Were they not already consecrated? But when it was done, I felt differently. The people of God had assembled, the spirit had been evoked, things would no longer be the same. A new, synodal future beckoned, and it was right to ask for La Morenita’s blessing for the journey.
Synodality and Poverty
Why are there such stark differences in how local and national Churches understand synodality? There are obviously a lot of different factors at play here, but I think an overlooked issue is the wealth of the German and American Churches.
Wealth hampers the life of the spirit. A fairly cursory view of the Gospel or the lives of the saints proves that voluntary poverty is essential for the Christian life. Such simplicity of life is not, of course, an end unto itself. Rather, it is a necessary prerequisite for becoming “poor in spirit” so that we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Exterior material wealth is dangerous because it fosters an inner spirit of wealth that is inimical to the life of Faith. This spirit of wealth is responsible for the absence of true synodality in many affluent countries.
The problem is that wealth is fundamentally about power. It enables us to achieve results beyond our individual means. To a certain limit, this is beneficial. We need a certain amount of material goods to live a decent human life and to serve God. Exchanging a hundred dollar bill for groceries isn’t problematic. The problem begins when individuals have more wealth than is needed for the necessities of life. The Church teaches that surplus wealth belongs to the poor. Power is addictive, however, and the temptation is to use such surplus “power” to achieve control and security instead of giving it away to others.
The Gospel condemns such attempts at material security. In particular, the Gospel according to Luke uses the parable of the rich fool to illustrate this point. His wealth gave him a false sense of security, of being in control of his destiny. Rather than give generously out of what God had given him, he tried to hoard power for himself. Such attempts separate us from God and from one another.
In the “developed world” as a whole, but particularly in the United States, this false security is encouraged by society. We are told to invest, to save, to buy insurance. The “American Dream” is a suburban house, detached from neighbors and the poor and racial minorities, where the problems of the world are held at bay by a green manicured lawn and rot-resistant plastic siding. If we lived in close proximity to others, their problems and needs might intrude on our individual security and hamper our individual control. Instead, we use wealth to keep unwanted realities and unwanted people out of our lives. This desire for freedom and control has also dissolved the multi-generational households that were once common.
As the Gospel warns us, such a life of control through wealth actually makes us less secure. At the end of their lives too many Americans find themselves alone and afraid, living in large empty houses they can no longer maintain. They have been abandoned by children who are themselves pursuing the American dream of individualism and power.
This addiction to control flows out into our social structures. As a nation, we spend vast sums on military hardware to protect ourselves from danger, heedless of our duty to the poor and of the damage we inflict on God’s world. Not only do we have a vast and bloated military, but our favored analogy is war. We have wars on drugs, wars on crime, culture wars. Our institutions become bureaucratic in an attempt to manage reality, to cut it down to the confines of a standardized form, to minimize the risks and dangers that come from the stubborn and messy reality of individual persons. We deal with others as technicians, seeing them as technical problems in need of solutions rather than seeing others with a poetic vision.
This spirit of power and wealth that pervades the “developed world” tends to seep into the Church in the developed world. When this happens, the Church becomes, as Pope Francis says, more interested in “possessing spaces rather than initiating processes”. It takes on the spirit of a political organization, and becomes obsessed with programs, numbers, statistics, and institutions. Rather than becoming a poor Church for the poor, it becomes a Church influenced by the wealthy. Their power gives them an advantage over the poor in such structures. Wealth destroys community. With its disappearance, the Church becomes “rigid”. Lacking personal contact and love, it has to depend on generic rules. Obsessed with managing appearances and controlling outcomes, it no longer has room for the Holy Spirit. The wealthy-minded can not surrender to God and allow him to “surprise” them. Given all this, maybe it is not surprising that less wealthy countries have an easier time with synodality.
Pope Francis is calling us to be “social poets”, open to inspiration and to one another. It is easy to point fingers at politicized bishops’ conferences and wealthy media influencers. The more important question is a personal one: how can we renew our souls so that we are ready for the synodal action of the Spirit?
In his Christmas homily, Pope Francis pointed to the figure of the Christ child, the one who came in humility and gentleness, as the one who should guide us toward the true meaning of synodality. He said:
That is the sign: a child, a baby lying in the dire poverty of a manger. No more bright lights or choirs of angels. Only a child. Nothing else, even as Isaiah had foretold: “unto us a child is born” (Is 9:6).
The Gospel emphasizes this contrast. It relates the birth of Jesus beginning with Caesar Augustus, who orders the census of the whole world: it presents the first Emperor in all his grandeur. Yet immediately thereafter it brings us to Bethlehem, where there is no grandeur at all: just a poor child wrapped in swaddling clothes, with shepherds standing by. That is where God is, in littleness. This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what really matters . . .
Let us ask ourselves: can we accept God’s way of doing things? This is the challenge of Christmas: God reveals himself, but men and women fail to understand. He makes himself little in the eyes of the world, while we continue to seek grandeur in the eyes of the world, perhaps even in his name. God lowers himself and we try to become great. The Most High goes in search of shepherds, the unseen in our midst, and we look for visibility; we want to be seen. Jesus is born in order to serve, and we spend a lifetime pursuing success. God does not seek power and might; he asks for tender love and interior littleness. …
Everything is unified when Jesus is at the centre: not our ideas about Jesus, but Jesus himself, the living One.
So then, dear brothers and sisters, let us return to Bethlehem, let us return to the origins: to the essentials of faith, to our first love, to adoration and charity. Let us look at the Magi who make their pilgrim way, and as a synodal Church, a journeying Church, let us go to Bethlehem, where God is in man and man in God. There the Lord takes first place and is worshipped; there the poor have the place nearest him; there the shepherds and Magi are joined in a fraternity beyond all labels and classifications. May God enable us to be a worshipping, poor and fraternal Church. That is what is essential. Let us go back to Bethlehem.
Image: Second Synodal Assembly of the Synodal Way in Frankfurt am Main: in the Synodal Assembly (09/30/2021). © Synodaler Weg / Maximilian von Lachner.