Talking to people in Catholic circles in Ireland in recent weeks there are mixed views about the plan of the Irish bishops’ to move towards a national synod of the Church.
From my reading, the closer one is to active participation in the life of the Church, the more apprehensive one is about the potential pitfalls of such a synod.
Let me explain: when I speak to younger Catholics who are active in their parishes, chaplaincies or youth movements within the Church views at this stage range from disinterest to concern bordering on alarm. There is an anxiety that the synod will be little more than a ‘talking shop’. Further, one young woman told me she was worried it would be cynically used to try to “water down” (her words) what Catholics believe to make it more palatable to loud voices who – in reality – aren’t that interested anyway.
I shared the concerns that I have heard with a priest friend of mine. “But they’re all conservative,” he said to me. I asked him to point me to the youth groups within the Church in Ireland that are what one might describe as liberal. He admitted that there aren’t any.
The reality is that the younger people who are engaged in the life of the Church reach for authentic Catholicism rather than “I’m okay, you’re okay” pseudo versions of the Gospel. In embracing Catholicism in contemporary Ireland, these young people have definitively swam against the tide and they deserve credit for that.
They also have a right to be heard rather than patronised or taken for granted by people in positions of responsibility within the Church.
This is where bishops might find themselves with somewhat of an ‘older brother’ problem.
Think of the parable of the prodigal son. Bishops have said they are (rightly) very keen to hear the voices of those who have left the Church and want little or nothing to do with Catholicism. These people undoubtedly have insights, and the Church has a sacred responsibility to set the light of the Gospel before them and hear how they feel the Church can better be the face of Christ for them.
But, if the synod process is about killing the fatted calf for the prodigals, what of those who have overcome the easy temptation of the post-modern world to live their lives as if God doesn’t exist and instead embraced the Catholic Faith?
If this is the case, they will wonder why their counter-cultural witness is under-valued by the Church at a time when they have taken a hammering from their friends and families for their Faith. These people have been exemplary in their witness and have often faced ridicule and scorn for being committed Catholics.
Are we so demoralised and lacking in confidence as a body that we get to the point where it matters more what the critics of the Church say than what people inside the Church think?
Faithful Catholics are also not without their quibbles and criticisms of the Church. People I speak to talk about a lack of leadership, a sense of not being nourished and a profound sense sometimes that the Church in not on their side.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) teaches us that the Church – established by Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit – continues the salvific ministry of Christ in the world today. That means we have to reach out beyond our borders because we believe that everyone has the right to salvation. Christ might have put it more succinctly when he underlined the mission of the Church to go after the lost sheep.
But the shepherd must also have the courage to stand firm and protect the Faith and the flock and not flee or falter for fear of the wolves.