Listening to each others’ concerns in the Church has often proven to be a cumbersome task, but there are ways in which we can harness the most out of our synodal experience writes Fr Paschal Scallon.
There has been a great deal of activity in Catholic dioceses around the country and among Catholics who are active in their parish communities in anticipation of the forthcoming synod(s). Members of religious communities have also been discussing the prospect and the possibilities of a synod at either local or national level. For those who have been able to participate, it has been an interesting and stimulating experience. It has also been a ‘curious’ experience, in that it has entailed hearing ourselves express divergent expectations, from the hope that there will be doctrinal change to the hope that a synod will simply steady the ship and give a renewed sense of purpose and direction to everyone.
Whatever expectations we have, however, there is a sense that the Catholic Church in Ireland is beyond ‘business as usual’. There has been, actually, more than just a sense of this for many years now due to so much that has altered the landscape of faith all around us. If, for example, the survey commissioned by the Council of Priests in Dublin several years ago, which revealed that by 2030 the number of priests in the diocese would decline by 70%, then we can see we really are in a whole new landscape. The situation all over the country, therefore, will necessarily see the emergence new leaders and maybe new elements in leadership.
Is there a need for concern? Well, even though our thoughts on what has happened to the church in our lifetime make it seem as if every reflection or conversation we have is like an asthmatic gasp caused by an environment over pollinated by all sorts of influences inimical or just unhelpful to the mission of the church, we still have faith, we still have hope and we are inspired by God’s love which is not an abstraction but which animates all we do and for which we repent when we are careless of it.
Our wonder that God still calls us and is still active and prompting in the lives of so many, is inspired in no small way by our realizing that the Holy Spirit moves within and without the formal structures of the church, and as the teaching of the church confirms, the church rejects nothing that is true and holy outside the tradition.
Examples of how this is happening are undoubtedly found in concern for the environment and in closer concern for the place of minorities in society and in the church. Pope Francis has written and spoken prophetically on issues which challenge us all. As well-off westerners, we still have much to reflect on but our reflection and our awareness are also part of the prophetic call to greater authenticity where our place in creation is concerned and greater integrity in our dealing with brothers and sisters who have always been made to feel they do not belong.
One of the proposals before the whole human family is the reform of how we conduct our public life. The West has for centuries extolled its democratic values and its egalitarian politics. Compared to some of the regimes that have plagued human affairs, our versions of democracy look quite good. But Churchill’s observation is still pertinent, ‘…Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’
We know too, though, Western democracy is under strain and there is a rise in preferences for various forms of totalitarianism and the bogus security of systems that lionize autocracy. It should not surprise us that so many are seduced by the cheap grace that such exclusivity promises, if I may borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, without, I hope, dishonouring him. Such seduction is surely one of the ways we may reflect profitably on Original Sin, not only as a matter of doctrine but as a phenomenon in human experience.
We struggle with transparency, in that there may be too much of it and too little. We are confused by the distinctions to be made and insisted upon between being candid and exhibitionist. We really struggle with liberty and license.
In that context particularly, I am most interested in how the church proposes to grow in its own public life in ways that can witness to the rest of the world and can contribute to the reform of public life generally so that human society in its secular forms move from totalitarianism to forms of public life in which people enjoy real freedom and agency, unmolested by ideology.
In the life of the church, I would be interested in elaborating on and extending the ancient practice of religious communities gathering regularly in chapter and assembly, at local and regional level and even globally. That practice, from the outset of conventual life, underlies, I believe, the wider use of discursive address and resolution of issues still only partially adopted in civic life and politics around the world.
The strange thing is that as parliamentary democracy has extended itself around the world (even though true democracies are yet to emerge everywhere), and while the Church calls for it in civic life, the Church itself has restricted the practice native to religious communities to religious communities and has not insisted on synodal governance in the wider Church.
Of course, democratic and synodal governance are not exactly the same. The issue of sovereignty, for example, has to be teased out. In one case it is the people through their representatives in parliament who are sovereign and in the other it is Christ alive in the Church, the body of Christ, the pilgrim people of God. In both cases human agency is the presenting ‘face’ of what is going on but to what end and in what way? These are the distinguishing features to be recognised and accorded their due in ecclesial and secular life..
All these, perhaps, theoretical considerations aside, it is important to make one practical point. It is critical that the synodal pathway remain precisely that, a pathway. It must not become an end in itself on this occasion. The most important thing about any synod that occurs now is not so much that it meets at all but that it meets again.
It would be bizarre if, in the life of a community like the Vincentians or the Franciscans, we were to learn that there were to be no more house meetings, regional meetings or Provincial Assemblies and while it is true many of us groan at the prospect of yet more meetings and Assemblies, our dismay would be beyond words were we to be marginalised by the leadership of our communities in such a way.
And this is perhaps the most important point to be made about the opportunity offered by a synod: it will give many who feel that have no place at the liturgy a platform from which to speak and be heard.
We cannot allow our apprehension at what may be raised for discussion at a synod to prevent us seizing this moment. There will of course be demands that will be difficult to hear and difficult to implement but with patience, prudence and above all charity, we can manage ourselves for the good of the church and life of the world.
Nor is it hyperbole to speak in this context of the life of the world. The Catholic Church seeks always to be a witness to the best that is in humanity incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ. Our failures are frequent and often grievous but we are called every day to turn again and, when we have recovered, to feed our brothers and sisters. If, as will seem true to many, we are coming late to a ‘democratic’ way of things, then so be it but for the life of the world and the good of the church, ar aghaidh linn!
Fr Pascal Scallan is President of Castleknock College and also Provincial Superior of the Irish Province of the Vincentians.