From the moment of his election eight years ago, Pope Francis laid down a marker that the Church is not a debating chamber but exists to bring Christ to the world.
Speaking the morning after his election he warned the cardinals who had just thrust him to the papacy: “We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the bride of Christ”.
It was a stark warning and one that bears repeating as we continue on the synodal pathway in the Church in Ireland. The Pope has made it clear that he passionately believes that this is a decisive time for the Church to live in a synodal fashion and he is due to launch the global programme on synodality at the Vatican this weekend.
It’s a word that is relatively new in our vocabulary as Catholics, though one that has a noble tradition in the first millennium of Christianity. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council breathed new life into the concept of synodal governance in the Church by underlining the importance of all Christians listening attentively to the Word of God and discerning what God is asking of the Church in every generation.
It is often said that the Church is not a democracy, and this is true – but the Church is so much more than a democracy: it is a communion of believers dedicated to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ “in season and out of season” (II Timothy 4:2).
A communion of believers means a trustful relationship built on co-responsibility for the Church shared between laypeople, religious, priests and bishops. But, we can never lose sight of the mission of the Church: to preach Christ and invite people into an intimate encounter with Jesus by which they find themselves transformed and able to serve those around them.
There is a danger in the synodal way if it becomes very process-driven, then the process becomes the most important thing. This will only attract the interest of people who are – by nature – officious and love meetings. Anyone who has ever sat on a committee will tell you that there are people there to work and people there because they love meetings.
One priest – long since dead – used to joke that meetings are really a sign that no-one really knows what to do, and many meetings are a sign that we are hopelessly lost.
Another danger is that it becomes little more than a forum for the exchange of interesting ideas and that five years where we really should be mission-driven is taken up with dull – even if worthy – semantics.
This is not to say that the mission of the Church is anti-intellectual – it is anything but – or that we should retreat into pietistic or fideistic pseudo-solutions to the real issues facing the Church. But, it also means that we cannot allow the mission of the Church to be diverted into sub-strands to be addressed by committees or fora, however well-meaning.
Francis’ vision is that everything that the Church does should be done in a synodal way. This means putting flesh on the bones of this in every parish and faith community in the country. At one level, it is a daunting prospect – but at the same time the way forward is simple. Christianity thrived in the pagan culture of the Roman Empire precisely because Christians were able to transform that culture by service and love. There is no reason to doubt that we can do so again.