A publication of Sacred Heart University
Lost in Translation? Rebuilding a Comprehensive Christian Theology of Priesthood
When Silence Becomes A Betrayal

The Next Steps (Towards Church Reform)

In his December 20, 2018, blog here, Robert Mickens drew our attention to the radical reform message contained in  Evangelii Gaudium (2013)—in particular its call to a more synodal church. He wondered that “this revolutionary text remains largely unstudied and unimplemented at almost every level of the Catholic Church.” How stands the situation now?

Well, there are some encouraging signs. The two universal synods in Rome (on the family and then on young people) were occasions of real debate. Elsewhere, the Catholic Church in Germany, under Cardinal Rheinhard Marx, has undertaken to move in a synodal direction, in particular by setting up binding and inclusive  conversations around  the neuralgic issues of power and accountability (including the role of women), sexual morality and clerical life-style (including celibacy). There will be a plenary council of the Australian church in 2020 and already in the preparatory, consultative phase, there has been enormous participation. There have been several synods in French dioceses, and the Conference of Bishops is researching the issue more deeply. In October this year, the synod on the Amazonian area will take place in Rome, with issues like ecology, married priests and the role of women on the agenda. The diocese of Liverpool is already well into a three-year preparation period for a synod to be held in 2020. Arguably, there has already been a vibrant tradition of this kind of ecclesial model in Latin America since the 60s, evident not least in the Aparaceida document, a kind of template for The Joy of the Gospel.

There are some similar signs over here in Ireland too. There was a fruitful synod of Limerick in 2016, and assemblies have been held in many other dioceses over the past 10 years or so. More recently, several new bishops have expressed the need to move in a similar direction.

But progress is slow, both in Ireland and elsewhere, and one gets a sense of a lack of momentum and energy around the project. Why is this?

Well, Francis himself knew that when he asked for “an entirely snyodal church,” convinced that this was what God expects from the church in the third millennium, it was a big ask, an epoch-changing transition from the long-established model of church called “hierarchological” by Congar. He noted that synodality “is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.” It requires keeping in touch with the base, with the people and their problems. The deep listening, the means, that are required at every level—parish, diocese, nation, region and universal—can be wearisome, and yet it is only through this concrete translation that a synodal church begins to take shape.

I recall being a delegate at the 34th General Congregation of the Jesuits in 1995. More than 220 of us lived in Rome for the best part of three months, sharing faith, arguing, gossiping, forging alliances, not without political intrigue, feelings of alienation and even paranoia (I speak only of myself!), and yet we succeeded through God’s grace in our exercise of communal discernment. However in general as a Church—unlike the Protestants and Orthodox—we have lost our habit of inclusive communal discernment, an example of McIntyre’s collective practices. In seeking to regain it, we will have to become familiar with “methodologies of synodality” (Osheim) that include facing and resolving conflict. Without the ability to face conflict with equanimity, we risk that disagreements devolve into simple polemics that weary all but the most passionately engaged.

There is of course an appropriate prudence to be exercised in choosing means, times and topics for discernment. Just as in personal therapy, within a family, in a society there comes a moment (Heaney’s “hope and history rhyme”) when to talk is good. However, we have erred for far too long within our church in shutting down inclusive listening and speaking. We need now to err on the side of being bold in seeking to implement the project of Francis, in taking some risks. Why not a National Synod in Ireland, why not the laying down of foundations for the same in North America? Were there not “culture wars” at stake when the Council of Jerusalem met in the first century to adjudicate on the issue of Gentiles that so divided the early Judaeo-Christian community?

The well-known legend of St Denys, Parisian martyr, records how he was decapitated, picked up his head and, continuing to preach, walked several miles to where he is now buried. In such matters, it has been said, “it is the first step that is most important.”  Synodality means walking together: we are at the beginning of a journey, and need to take the next first steps. Might the American Catholic Council’s Peoples Synod in Baltimore from September 27-29 be one such step?

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.


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Sisters Lea and Consilia

Gerry, you write: "Were there not “culture wars” at stake when the Council of Jerusalem met in the first century to adjudicate on the issue of Gentiles that so divided the early Judaeo-Christian community?"

Yes, indeed! One thing not recognized about the Jerusalem Council is that it approved separation of Jewish and Gentile Christians as consistent with Jesus' desire for unity. Until we see that the oneness God seeks includes the separateness of plurality and diversity...that even Jesus chooses a "Separate Yet One-with" relationship with us and for us with each other...all this synodality work will lead nowhere.

The OPUS-EWTN Evangelical Church has spread globally under the affirmation and approval of 3 popes including Francis. The Opus-EWTN Church is here to stay, There is, however, no papally-approved counterpart of a global post-Vatican II Particular Church within the panoply of East-West Particular Churches in union with Rome (Particular Churches having different interpretations/practices of doctrine, governance and ritual)

While there are local post-Vatican II parishes, dioceses and lay movements, there is no papally recognized post-Vatican II Movement, let along Particular Church. As a result, the global Opus-EWTN Evangelical Church can claim ascendancy over progressive issues within the context of any and all efforts of synodality locally, regionally or globally.

The very strong opposition to Pope Francis regarding the universal synods on family, youth and the Amazon gives little hope to those of a post-Vatican II persuasion AND little hope that the next pope will be even close to Pope Francis pastoral orientation toward the Church.

Many of the advances made by the Vatican II Council came about as a result of the challenge and influence of the Eastern Melkite Rite/Particular Church. https://ritebeyondrome.com/2016/09/22/catholic-cultures-split-mind/

Each separate Particular Church brings new challenge and perspective to the universal Catholic Church. Perhaps that very diversity and plurality is what has pulled the Gospel message of Jesus forward throughout the ages...from its beginning within the Jerusalem Church, no?

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