Our lives are filled with journeys. Some are anticipated and planned; others are dreaded or in crisis. Travels today are fraught with difficulty: complex security, canceled flights, missed connections, train derailments and road closures.
Two particular journeys in the Church reveal areas in need of deep conversion of minds, hearts, relationships and structures to “the mind of Christ”: Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada for the evils of Indian residential schools and the global “journeying together” of the Synod on Synodality.
Because of my commitment as a pediatrician to the care and protection of children, I immersed myself in Pope Francis’ Canadian visit. I was touched by powerful images of the elderly Pope willing to expose his vulnerability: the sorrowful, penitent Pope surrounded by Indigenous graves and the smiling Pope at the healing Lac Ste. Anne blessing the Indigenous crowds to drumming and dancing.
In jarring contrast, the Mass in Commonwealth Stadium was a traditionalist clerical extravaganza celebrated in Latin—clearly not one of Canada’s official languages.
I searched the images and words for credibility and possibilities for atonement in the three stages. The first stage related directly to apology and atonement for complicity with residential schools; the second addressed global political issues; and the third related to challenges for a post-Christendom Church.
Francis acknowledged systemic, ecclesial and cultural factors, including the pernicious intertwining of colonialism for wealth and power and evangelization.
His meetings with government officials raised major issues of justice and care for global leaders in our violent and commercialized world.
In Quebec City, clerics and religious were asked “to manifest Jesus’ concern for everyone and his compassion for the wounds of each … find new ways to proclaim the Gospel to those who have not yet encountered Christ … [S]ecularization … relegating God to the background … represents a challenge for our pastoral imagination.”
“We must begin with ourselves: bishops and priests should not feel themselves superior to our brothers and sisters in the People of God … The Church will be a credible witness to the Gospel the more its members embody … a welcoming community, one capable of listening, entering into dialogue and promoting quality relationships.”
Pope Francis’ For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission is a controversial commitment to “journeying together” in our wounded Church and world. It calls for listening to the Word of God, as well as to each other and trusting in the Holy Spirit.
Diocesan participation ranges from none to token, as in the U.S., to robust, notably in Germany, Australia and France. Lay-led synods include Bristol, Scottish Laity Network and Canadian Concerned Lay Catholics. These have identified crucial spiritual and theological goals for the journey:
Strengthen belief in a merciful and loving God, the Church as the People of God and the priesthood of all the baptized.
Revitalize the parish as a welcoming place of prayer, liturgical celebration and service.
Return to Jesus’ understanding of power and servant leadership, rejecting clericalism and “hierarchicalism” and fostering co-responsibility for mission.
Restore right relationships between clergy and laity and women and men, acknowledging the gifts of all.
Renew moral theology from sin to conscience and virtue and develop a healthy Christian anthropology for all “made in the image and likeness of God.”
Recognize the urgency of disaffiliated youth and young adults from the Church.
Address the practical issues needed to achieve these goals.
A successful journey depends on personal preparation and external factors. We undertake this synodal journey burdened by clergy sexual abuse, massive departures from the practice of the faith and pandemic lockdowns.
Traveling with others requires agreement on a destination. Polarization between liberals and conservatives is paralyzing the journey of reform and renewal.
As we travel, others join us. We now have 20 new Cardinals representing the global Church. Pope Francis has called them to exercise “unassuming power” and preach the Gospel to all “without exception.”
We know that even well-planned travel can be canceled, and we can miss connections by circumstances beyond our control.
The people of God are on a never-ending journey into the heart of Christ. We pray for resurrection hope to bring us home.
Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.