It is probably the dread of every Catholic parent that some day their child will say: “I do not believe what you believe.” As a result, we may be reluctant to get into conversations about faith because at some level we feel it is better not to enquire too deeply, to open up too challenging a conversation, to encourage too much honesty. Instead we can choose to live in a comfortable, if dubious state of unknowing and game-playing.
It strikes me that the same could be said of attitudes towards the upcoming synod. I have heard the view expressed that this is a ‘dangerous venture’, one that should not be undertaken, that we cannot know what Pandora’s box we will open. I understand the concerns but surely we have to consider where the Holy Spirit is in all of this. My sense is that we are being invited into a dynamic of renewal and even if it may carry echoes of cross bearing and times of tomb-darkness it is ultimately about resurrection.
I can honestly say that over recent years I have grown in faith and understanding through conversations I have had with my children. These conversations are challenging, robust and hugely thought-provoking. My children have not ‘lost’ their faith but their relationship with the institution can be fraught and they have a lot of very legitimate questions about their faith and about the Church. I am aware that if I want my children and in time, my grandchildren, to have faith then I need to have the courage to enter into these conversations. In the same way, if we want the Church in Ireland to have vitality and authenticity for future generations we need to have the courage now to open up those conversations about faith, church, mission, life and more.
We cannot possibly look at the Church in Ireland and insist that all is well. The brokeness and dysfunctionality of the Church has been revealed by many scandals. Added to that, the past year has been hugely challenging and many people may not return. For others the question is “What is there to return to?” where we have failed to build nurturing faith-filled communities. Sacramental preparation is in crisis, there are questions to be asked of our Catholic schools and the lack of adult faith development has left parents utterly ill-equipped. We cannot go forward with a notion that if people would just get back to practising their faith we would be all right. In reality we need to explore those big questions about what it means to live lives energised and directed by faith.
In order to have an honest and fruitful conversation perhaps first we need to explore what it means to listen – within families, within parish, within the Church. How do we listen to those who have different and challenging opinions? How do we discern the truth which lies within the complex weave of our shared and disparate experience? What would happen if we really listened to each other, with mutual respect?
Ignatius of Loyola and his early companions struggled with the idea of forming a religious order.They gathered to explore their options and Ignatius in his wisdom instructed the group to spend the full day speaking about all that would be positive in choosing a formal religous structure and constitution. The next day they were all to speak about the drawbacks or challenges of such a choice. Ignatius had developed a process of communal discernment so that together the group could seek the will of God without being adversarial, without getting involved in debates and indeed rows. Perhaps we need something similar. It would certainly be useful within family life never mind a synod!
Because the reality is, if we are going to be transformed we need to be challenged, we need to articulate our strengths and our weaknesses as a Church. We need to listen to each other, whether we stand on the margins of the Church or comfortably at its centre. Perhaps in preparation we should begin at home, sit down with members of our own families and with open hearts and open minds open up that conversation. Honest conversations are hard work but they can build authentic relationships which are resilient and life-giving – the stuff of resurrection.