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A Synodal History

Synodality is experiencing growing pains, which is to be expected. Ever since the close of Vatican II, synodality has had a very uneven career, both in the various local churches and in the universal church.

Under Pope Paul VI, the synod of bishops was still developing, trying to find ways to facilitate discussion and draft a document in the allotted month, an astonishingly short amount of time. Then, in 1974, the synod fathers had a vivid discussion of the topic of evangelization, but the draft summation of their reflections was rejected by synod fathers. They left their notes for the pope to issue as a post-synodal exhortation. Felix culpa: This led to Papa Montini’s most consequential document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, issued the following year.

Pope John Paul II was no fan of synods, in large part because he had been one of two principal authors (Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro of Karachi, Pakistan was the other) of the draft summation at the 1974 synod that had been rejected as inadequate. As pope, he reduced the synods during his long reign to dry, formal affairs. Papa Wojtyla famously said he read books during the sessions.

Pope Benedict XVI tried to interject some new life into the proceedings by introducing a doctrinal karaoke hour at the end of each day’s session: For one hour, any synod member could go to the microphone and raise any issue they wanted. It made the events less dry but did not really achieve the kind of dialogue needed for true synodality. 

Only with Pope Francis did synodality really come into full flower. His commitment to synodality is rooted in his experience of CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano), the council of Latin American bishops’ conferences. In 1992, the year Jorge Bergoglio was consecrated a bishop, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, prefect of the Pontifical Council on the Family, tried to disband CELAM and they nearly succeeded. Pope John Paul II was persuaded to let the organization continue. Three years later, then-Archbishop, later Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga took the helm as President of CELAM. He would go on to become Pope Francis’ closest confidante.

In the United States, the provincial and plenary councils of Baltimore in the 19th century served as a means by which the hierarchy forged common policies on a variety of ecclesial issues. Between the last such council in 1884 and the start of the U.S. bishops’ conference in 1917, the annual meeting of the nation’s archbishops served a similar function. There were severe divisions within the ranks of the hierarchy, especially over issues of assimilation and the proper attitude towards the ambient, Protestant culture, but those fights were mostly kept within doors and within bounds.

Once a formal bishops’ conference was launched in 1917, it served as an arena for dialogue and forging consensus. There was never unanimity. For example, Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, the senior churchman after the death of Cardinal James Gibbons in 1921, tried mightily to get the conference shut down by Rome, viewing it as a threat to his own importance. Later prelates like Cardinal Francis Spellman would remain aloof from the conference. Only in recent years, when the culture wars came to the hierarchy and to the staff at the conference has it ceased to be an effective vehicle for synodality.

Unsurprisingly, in many dioceses, the current synodal effort is engaged in lukewarm fashion. In San Francisco, they even farmed the task out to the Catholic Leadership Institute, which may be a fine organization, but farming out a task always sends the signal that the bishop is not taking it too seriously.

The German Church’s “Synodal Path” has garnered much attention, most recently when a group of English-speaking prelates signed a public letter to their German confreres expressing concern about some of the approaches evidenced in the published documentation coming from Germany. The decision to make the letter public was an example of bruta figura, a violation of the norms by which bishops normally communicate with one another. You can imagine what a brouhaha would have occurred if some German or Italian bishops had written to the U.S. hierarchy complaining about, say, their abuse of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty in recent years.

George Weigel, however, took to the pages of First Things, ostensibly to defend the letter to the German bishops but, in reality, the article reads like a reprise of some of his own greatest obsessions. That, and a despicably careless use of the epithet “apostasy.” It should by now be clear that Weigel’s principal contribution to the Catholic mind has been to encourage a reflexive culture warrior stance among his followers, including some in the episcopacy. If you do not agree with him, you are labeled a bad Catholic, even an “apostate.” I have reservations about some of the conclusions coming from the German Synodal Path too, but I do not question the Catholicity of those who were involved in the deliberations. 

If synodality is to succeed, we all need to learn to take deep breaths, and to allow the process to run its course. People need to spend less time maneuvering to achieve a particular ideological outcome and more time listening to one another. The enemy of synodality is not the other, it is ideology.  

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

“Tenebrae Now”

I did not expect to be so moved by candlelight when the lights went out. I was looking forward to the symbolic enactment of the Christ’s descent to the dead, light’s refusal to be subsumed. Plunged into near total shadow, the altar radiated. I knew the general structure of Tenebrae, a special form of sung prayer for Holy Week: choral psalms, lamentations, a candelabra extinguished one candle at a time. Tenebrae prays movement into the Triduum Sacrum’s drama of suppers, gardens, horrors, abandonments, descents and wonders.

The Tenebrae hearse (sometimes called a harrow) blazed. Isn’t that a marvelous name for this special liturgical prop, fifteen lit candles forming a triangle, death and light at once? At the Tenebrae I attended, some “house lights” remained on during the service so we could read along. Tenebrae builds to a spectacular denouement: the center candle, representing the light of Christ, is not extinguished. Instead, the candle gets hidden behind the altar. Light radiates even if its source descends out of sight.

After entombing the candle, someone shut off the electric lights. I was reminded of the arresting phrase from Lucy Kirkwood’s 2017 play The Children: “You don’t have a right to electricity.” The Tenebrae image had power precisely because the room turned off ordinary conveniences. I needed less light in order to notice light’s meaning.

I cannot remember the last time I went to Tenebrae, but I have spent the better part of the ongoing pandemic reading the Irish ecological mystic John Moriarty. Moriarty’s spellbinding work sits with a hard truth that our Church needs to hear and proclaim: the planetary environmental crisis is a symptom of a spiritual crisis. Dominant ideologies and myths insulate us from feeling part of the environmental whole like an immune system. Moriarty praises Tenebrae as a ritual antidote, an integrating spirituality. In Turtle Was Gone a Long Time I: Crossing the Kedron, Moriarty writes, “In Tenebrae, it is by the light of candles quenched not by the light of candles lighted that we continue,” (183). With Jesus as guide, we must be willing to descend and harrow the hells within ourselves.

Pope Francis continues to invite the Church to consider the same intersection of spirit and climate. Serious reflection on what is happening to our “common home” risks a real existential despair. Climate catastrophes are urgent, dire and profoundly overwhelming. Individual choices will not stop climate change. Individual quests to drive less, to recycle more plastic and paper, to install solar panels or take reusable totes to the grocery store—no matter how virtuous or cost effective—will not save the world. Some feel called to tiny houses or subsistence farming; many become overwhelmed. How can there be flourishing life, family and future if we need to change everything about how we live? Future generations will grapple with different coastlines after sea-level rise, lost biodiversity due to desertification, more intense storms and more unquenchable wild fires. The planetary future seems impossibly dark.

Moriarty poignantly describes human civilization as the iceberg into which Titanic Earth has crashed. We numb the anguish of impending doom with sentimental confidence in starship lifeboats. Far worse is the apathetic spiritual shrug: Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, so our planet might as well burn (and given the many evils humans perpetuate, perhaps it even should). Addiction to economic sameness takes the lead, ensuring a descent into hell on earth, with hosannas of “Drill, baby, drill.” How else could we keep the lights on all night?

To be clear, modern comforts and technologies are not inherently evil. Perhaps the dark isn’t as sinister as our consumerist consciousness makes it out to be. Moriarty’s Tenebrae offers ritual formation into an alternative spiritual position. Perhaps the ecological unknown can be like the dazzling darkness encountered in a mystic’s openness to the divine. Moriarty himself indulged a life of heroic simplicity. But not everyone needs to abandon their lifestyle to become hermetic gardeners and prolific writers. Instead, Moriarty claims in his first major book Dreamtime that “Settling for less was a way to wonder,” (194).

What room do we leave for wonder in our climate anxieties? Tenebrae embraces the necessary lamentation for our common home on an ecological collision course. It hurts to admit there can be no return to consumptive “normalcy.” The Church, as a pilgrim people of God, can help mourn the loss of unsustainable lifestyles rather than pile on unproductive guilt and shame. Truly integral ecological reform will mean sitting in the unknown dark together, acknowledging scary realities, and refusing to abandon hope. We can remember to turn off the lights sometimes and wonder. A Tenebrae spirituality helps us see what St. John Henry Newman calls the “Kindly Light” that leads a pilgrim people onward through darkness, never alone.

Charles A. Gillespie is an assistant professor in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.

The First Step in Healing: Pope Francis’ Apology

Our intrepid blogger, Colleen Dulle, in her recent entry spoke of the pending publication of a report issued by the Department of the Interior on the history and legacy of government-funded and church-operated Native boarding or industrial schools in the United States.  Indeed, the Secretary, Deb Haaland, is Indigenous and as a consequence this report has, as we now say, an existential meaning for her.

And so it should for us all.

Secretary Haaland made it clear that her immediate inspiration for acting was based on the horror of the unmarked graves in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Who can deny the traumatic impact of the discoveries of these unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School in the spring of 2021? But if we were shocked into awareness, ought we to have been? Did we not already know this from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report? What stilled our tongues, stoppered our ears and deadened our hearts?

Tim Lilburn, Canadian poet and philosopher, rightly situates our intellectual and spiritual malaise when he said in an essay that he sent to me shortly after the grisly discoveries, “Roman Catholics must identify what attitudes in Catholicism instigated the vicious, thanophilic  culture in residential schools that religious orders ran … These dispositions, missiological, ecclesiastical, spiritual, inter-personal and the thought-words backing them must be purged.”

That purgation moved to a new and more intense phase when Pope Francis gave his much sought-after apology for the Catholic Church’s role in operating the residential schools in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina to a gathering of Inuit, Métis and First Nations representatives, as well as to a smattering of Canadian bishops and papal officials. All present spoke of the experience of hearing this apology as profoundly moving. This pope was attentive to the pain of the Indigenous peoples, declined to offer spiritual blandishments and holy bromides, listened compassionately to their narratives of sadness and suffering, and did not skirt accountability for the wounds of humiliation and degradation inflicted on the First Peoples of Canada.

This apology was a long time in coming. Recommendation #58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report also stipulated that such an apology should be given on Canadian soil, and although the first iteration of the apology was in Rome, there is a commitment to come to Canada, very possibly on the Feast of St. Anne in July.

Francis, the first Jesuit pope, is unafraid of facing the shadow side of the church’s history. In his final session with the Canadian Indigenous delegation he left no doubt that the residential schools and their mission to erase Indigenous culture, to instill feelings of inferiority, to deracinate the Indigenous are a counter witness to the Gospel and that “any truly effective process of healing requires concrete actions.”

And so, what form will these concrete actions take? Undoubtedly, in addition to releasing the complete and not redacted or strategically withheld records, there must be a renewed guarantee to honour the financial obligations the Canadian Catholic Church was signatory to and unlike its sister churches shockingly remiss in meeting.

The Canadian Catholic Church is called to bold leadership for it is the Catholic Church in Canada, and not the Vatican, that bears responsibility for reparation. Shunting matters to Rome avoids the deeper issue of accountability and compromises the importance of subsidiarity in church governance.

For sure, getting an official apology for morally corrosive behavior by the church from the institution’s top person, in this case the Successor of St. Peter, is important—cathartic, symbolic and constitutive of genuine remorse.

But there is much more to do and that leadership must originate at the local and national level. Francis, as he did in his 2015 trip to Bolivia when he humbly asked for forgiveness for the “crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” has set the tone, established the model and summoned the church to forswear any alignment of the “logic of the sword with the power of the Cross.”

Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod Office in Rome, speaking in March at Oxford University, called for an end to the “culture of silence” that has often frustrated lay Catholics from speaking their minds. Grech’s call to shatter the culture of silence, when applied to the Canadian context and the church’s responsibility for healing, means that our leadership must get the job done: no more delays, no more legal legerdemain, no more financial and pastoral prioritizing that relegates Aboriginal justice needs to a subordinate status.

For Canadian lay Catholics, Pope Francis has created a new momentum to get things done. Time to break the culture of silence.

This applies as well in the U.S. context. In fact, in anticipation of the release of the Haaland investigation the Conference of Jesuits in Washington issued its own report, acknowledging the schools over which it had oversight, pledging full cooperation, highlighting pastoral and corrective strategies of the past and repudiating unqualifiedly the government, public and ecclesiastical mentality that allowed such schools to exist in the first place.

I asked an Indigenous knowledge keeper what she would say if she had had time with the pope. She reflected for a few moments and then said, “I would forgive him and then ask that he respect us.” Out of that respect will come a reverencing of the other as other, a treasuring of the Indigenous peoples and their diverse cultures as a gift to be honored and not as problem to be solved.

Francis got that right.

Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s and president of Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Recovering the Sensus Fidelium

Reading Cardinal Mario Grech’s Oxford lecture on synodality recently, I was struck by his account—which draws heavily on St. John Henry Newman’s—of the consultation of the faithful that happened before the declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Grech writes:

“[Pius IX] defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (8 December 1854) based on the ‘singularis Antistitum et fidelium conspiratio’ (the remarkable agreement (harmony) between the bishops and the faithful). In order to arrive at such a consensus between the Bishops and the faithful, he launched a real consultation, asking all the bishops to inform him with respect to their faith and the faith of the People entrusted to them regarding this doctrine.”

Newman, in his famous article “Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” does not seem entirely convinced of the veracity of this narrative, but he does support the underlying idea that would be affirmed by Vatican II, that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (cf. 1 Jn 2:20) cannot err in matters of belief” (Lumen Gentium 12). Newman adds, “because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.”

From my own perspective as a young American who grew up in the age of what Massimo Faggioli recently called the period of “Vatican II historicized and lamented” and now working in Catholic media with a front-row seat to church divisions, it is nearly impossible for me to imagine the faithful being able to reach any universal consensus, aside from on the church’s most basic doctrines. It raised the question for me: Does the sensus fidelium exist anymore? Did it ever, really?

Pope Francis believes that it does, even if the faithful cannot reach a consensus. He writes, “In the dynamic of a synod”—like the one he has ambitiously called to hear the sensus fidelium on all things church—”differences are expressed and polished until you reach, if not consensus, a harmony that holds on to the sharp notes of its differences…Therein lies its beauty: the harmony that results can be complex, rich and unexpected,” (Let Us Dream 81).

In his series of lectures on synodality for the London Jesuit Centre, Austen Ivereigh points out that this harmony is not always harmonious: He says it is “tense,” “dynamic,” even “conflictual.” In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis says that we face two temptations when we are in conflict: One is to cling to our own conviction that we are right so tightly that we exacerbate the conflict; the other is to wash our hands of the conflict completely.

“The task of the reconciler is instead to ‘endure’ the conflict, facing it head-on, and by discerning see beyond the surface reasons for disagreement, opening those involved to the possibility of a new synthesis, one that does not destroy either pole, but preserves what is good and valid in both in a new perspective. This breakthrough comes about as a gift in dialogue, when people trust each other and humbly seek the good together, and are willing to learn from each other in a mutual exchange of gifts” (80).

Last week, I heard evidence of this sort of reconciliation in the Archdiocese of Regina’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which aims to reveal the truth of the abuses committed in Canada’s largely church-run residential schools. In a group interview ahead of three Indigenous delegations’ meetings with the pope last week, members of the Regina committee—Indigenous survivors, diocesan employees and Archbishop Donald Bolen—told me that they had been transformed by their dialogue with one another over the past several years. They had discussed their painful history together, discovered common ground in their faith in the Creator and their desire to care for creation, and had ultimately been able to chart a way forward towards healing and reparation. (I pray that the U.S. church can have a similarly fruitful reckoning with its own history of these schools, which has yet to be examined as deeply as Canada’s.)

The Synod on Synodality’s broad mandate to consult the entire People of God—even and especially those on the margins of the church—seemed at first to me as naively ambitious as the idea that the faithful could reach a harmonious synthesis in our disagreements. But the testimony of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee challenges my skepticism. In this case, the kind of transformative synodal encounter with others that Pope Francis always talks about has changed hearts and minds and brought two sides together onto one common path forward. It’s not a consensus, and certainly not all Canadian Catholics nor all Indigenous people are on board, but those who have chosen to participate and face their painful histories together have been able to create a harmony in difference.

Pope Francis’ vision of evangelization in Evangelii Gaudium posits that attraction is more powerful than imposition. I think that is also true of this kind of harmony: It cannot be imposed, but it can attract, and my hope is that it can inspire more people to join the chorus.

Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.

Calling Her a Saint

On December 8, 2021, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Timothy Cardinal Dolan presided over a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York marking completion of the archdiocesan phase of the cause for the canonization of Servant of God Dorothy Day. During the course of the service he read an official statement and blessed a sample of the thirty-four boxes of documentation ready for shipment to Rome. There, if this process reaches its intended conclusion, Dorothy Day may one day be called St. Dorothy.

This prospect has aroused mixed feelings, even among those who admire her. For myself, having advocated for this cause for the past 25 years, it is hard to describe what this this occasion meant to me. Quite apart from this special Mass, I had long enjoyed a front-row seat on the evolving process, which began on November 8, 1997, the centenary of Day’s birth, when John Cardinal O’Connor, during Mass in the same cathedral, announced his intention to convene a gathering of people who had known her to discuss her possible canonization. I was part of that discussion and all that followed; eventually, I would be appointed to serve on the historical commission charged with compiling the material to fill those 34 boxes.

So much happened along the way. One of the highlights was certainly Pope Francis’ astonishing speech in 2015 before a Joint Session of Congress when he cited Day on his shortlist of four “great Americans” who offered a “new way of seeing and interpreting reality.” It was remarkable confirmation of David O’Brien’s oft-quoted line from his 1980 Commonweal obituary, wherein he called Day the most “important, interesting, and influential figure in the history of American Catholicism.”

And yet not all who agree with that statement are keen about her possible canonization. Some disapprove of the (considerable) expense involved or dispute the notion of measuring Day’s holiness by the strict canonical yardsticks of a Vatican bureaucracy.

There are those who fear that canonization will inevitably reduce her radical commitment to peace and justice in favor of some innocuous piety. (They cite statements by conservative prelates that seem to point in that direction.) Yet, I believe that Day’s writings speak for themselves. Having just edited her writings from the ’60s and ’70s, I am confident there is no way to diminish her radical critique of the capitalist system, her bold solidarity with the poor and oppressed, or her revolutionary commitment to gospel nonviolence. By the same token, there is no doubting the deep spirituality that underlays her witness and her activism. As Pope Francis observed, that witness was rooted in her reading of the gospels and her study of the lives of the saints.

But didn’t she say: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”? If that sentence is among the most famous things she supposedly said, I have no one to blame but myself; I cited it in the introduction to my 1983 edition of her selected writings. Whatever the provenance of this famous “quote,” the important question is: What did it mean?

Certainly, I never knew anyone with more devotion to saints than Day. She didn’t just venerate them—she tried to emulate them. They inspired her on her own quest for holiness, a vocation, she believed, that was shared by all Christians. What she objected to was being idealized, put safely on a pedestal, where her example posed no challenge to “ordinary” people. She knew that for most people, “saints” were perfect people; no one could be expected to follow their example. As she once said to me, “When they call you a saint, it means basically that you aren’t to be taken seriously.”

For Day, to be a saint meant taking Christ seriously. And that she certainly did: as a lay woman, as the leader of an apostolic movement, whose solidarity with the poor, resistance to a system that diminished human dignity and freedom, promotion of the gospel message of peace and concern for the earth, put her far in advance of church teachings in her time. Today, her stance is remarkably aligned with the agenda of Pope Francis. 

Those who fear that canonization will diminish Day might consider the ways in which her inclusion in the canon of saints may help to enlarge the church, offering a new model of holiness for our time. As a child she had expressed her admiration for those saints who cared for the sick and poor—but, she asked, “Where were the saints to change the social order, not just to care for the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” That question set the course of her own vocation. And with Day’s canonization, future generations would not need to ask that question.  

Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books. A former managing editor of  The Catholic Worker, he is also the editor of five volumes of writings by Dorothy Day. @RobertEllsberg