A publication of Sacred Heart University

« October 2022 | Main | December 2022 »

Entries from November 2022

Building a Relationship

“Liturgy implies a real relationship with Another…” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 36)

This blog space is not unfamiliar with commentaries about the hard reality of Catholic churches and Catholic schools (including seminaries) emptying and finally closing, and of younger generations walking out of and away from the Church—or rejecting the Church and their families’ Catholic faith altogether. It does seem that many of the younger generations are indifferent to the particularities and peculiarities within the Church that the older “we” (especially those of us in the academy) energetically discuss and debate: the appropriate language and expression of the Mass, insights into Vatican and other ecclesial personalities or even the demarcations between “traditional” or “progressive” Catholicism. Such are concerns for individuals who, usually, have the long vantage point of history and/or are well-schooled in Catholicism, its rich theology and symbology. Yet such debates—as those of us teaching young people realize—have no compelling interest to most of the younger generation(s). They not only lack that historical perspective but, if class discussions are any indication, they do not even understand much of the core of Catholic Christianity, especially its basics: the Mass, the Eucharist, the sacred liturgy. The absence of a richly detailed and thorough theological formation, even in the basics, has resulted in generational apathy or dismissiveness about an entity and a system about which they know little and, as a result, care not at all.

The reality of that condition of generational unfamiliarity seems to have been the inspiration—at least partly—for Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter “Desiderio desideravi,” released on June 29 of this year. In brief, it is a clarion call for the liturgical (re?) formation of contemporary Catholics, especially but not only the young, in the fond hope that a constructive education of the Catholic faith and its essential practices might persuade Catholic youth (but also the general Catholic diaspora) to find a way back to the Church. Some of the letter is, indeed, a valid reprimand to those who persist in their resistance to the liturgical decisions of Vatican II, but, again, that is for those who know the history of the debate and is not really an engagement with absent Catholic youth. I prefer to focus on what I perceive to be the Pope’s overarching message in the letter: that a more intentional restoration of the sacred liturgy to its central place in the life of Catholicism, and a serious recovery of informed instruction about so essential a dimension of Catholic religious life, might inspire in the lost generations reconsideration of their devotional/religious paths, perhaps leading them back to the Church.

In the letter, Pope Francis laments that the sacred liturgy has seemed to diminish increasingly in interest and significance for each successive generation since Vatican II, or has been manipulated by “ideological vision”:

I simply want to invite the whole Church to rediscover, to safeguard and to live the truth and power of the Christian celebration. I want the beauty of the Christian celebration and its necessary consequences for the life of the Church not to be spoiled by a superficial and foreshortened understanding of its value or, worse yet, by its being exploited in service of some ideological vision, no matter what the hue... (Francis, Desiderio Desideravi,16).

Pope Francis beseeches us to move beyond the politicizing and weaponizing of the faith(ful) (the “ideological vision”) and recognize that, before anyone can “choose a side,” they must fully understand the matter at hand: it is not a matter of ideology, it is partially a function of education. How many of us have heard students (family members, friends) assert that there is no need to attend Mass, they can “experience God” in the safety and comfort of their personally designated space? Of course, private and individual devotion has always been a rich aspect of Catholic spirituality, yet the blithe dismissal of the Mass (a more communal, less subjective and more abstracted spiritual encounter) reveals a distressing lack of understanding about the liturgy and about sacramental praxis in the life of Catholicism. The liturgy creates a sacred space wherein the faithful can encounter in real time the Living Christ. It is universal and timeless and not hampered by specificity of people and place: as Benedict XVI (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote, the liturgy

… is the worship of an open heaven. It is never just an event organized by a particular group or set of people or even by a particular local Church. Mankind’s movement toward Christ meets Christ’s movement toward men… [In the liturgy] everything … comes together: the horizontal and the vertical, the uniqueness of God and the unity of mankind… (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 63).

The Church cannot be “rebuilt” without an intentional redirection of generations toward the liturgy that (among other attainments) connects the sacred with the profane, the divine with the mortal, the substantial with the incorporeal. As Benedict XVI explains, the lack of particularity and subjectivity of the sacred liturgy raises it from a simple service of human devotion to the realm of mystical encounter.

Yet, there is a more troubling wrinkle to the need for theological formation and existential engagement, one that Pope Francis identifies that might be familiar to many of us:

…the challenge is extremely demanding because modern people—not in all cultures to the same degree—have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act… (27).

Pope Francis is addressing the pervasive cynicism of post-modern thought that has resigned people to live with a “fragmentation” that makes it “impossible” for them to appreciate symbolic action, the broad and deep “horizon of meaning” inherent in the human condition. While his claims might be somewhat controversial, I think Pope Francis has a point. There does seem an inability to experience awe and wonder (so overwhelmed are we by dread and anxiety) and a desire to resist layers of meaning and depth of interpretation. Thus, the matter of liturgical formation is not simply a matter of language or stylization but of how to share meaningfully so metaphysical and unequivocal a concept so that it may be experienced. What is necessary, then, is a new approach to theological formation for a new generation, that they might be able to understand and then enter into the timeless encounter of mystical sacredness. That must be one of the essential “building blocks” in the rebuilding of the Church.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

Now, Whither Synodality?

With the publication in October 2022 of the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) we are in a better position to judge the trajectory of the synodal project of Pope Francis.

As I reported here in June about the Irish stage of this process, there was clearly a sense of joy among the admittedly limited, but committed, number of participants worldwide. People were so glad to have their voices heard, many of the same concerns emerged globally (albeit with particular national and regional emphases), and there was a sense of momentum engendered. This has been helped to no small degree by the openness and transparency with which the process has been almost universally conducted: and where this has not happened, it is clear that a template has been established, to which non-conforming episcopal conferences may be held to account in on-going iterations of the process.

The DCS notes tensions that accompany the process. Let me focus on one. The Continental Document calls for discernment on the part of the universal Church of the desire for a more welcoming space for marginalized groups such as remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in polygamous marriages and LGBTQ+ people (n 39). It also calls for discernment regarding the role of women (n 64—with a seeming positive inclination towards diaconate ordination and a “much greater diversity of opinion” around priestly ordination). What is already extraordinary is the fact that these issues are so universally noted. For example, with regard to the full and equal participation of women in the life of the Church, it is stated “…a growing awareness and sensitivity towards this issue is registered all over the world” (n 60).

What might the discernment on the part of the universal Church involve? Well, take for example the desire “to enlarge the space of your tent” (title of the DCS) by adopting a more welcoming attitude to LGBTQ people. Does this mean opening our hearts to “sinners” (which of course, in Catholic teaching, includes all of us), or does it mean reconsidering the Church’s teaching about sexuality as applied to gay people? Similarly, does the desire to offer women an equal role in Church life mean the creative expansion of decision-making roles for women within the existing discipline around ordination, or does it also call for a reconsideration of the teaching on diaconal and priestly ordination?

Of course, it is clear that whichever way we as the Church proceed there are tensions and political implications. It is to be hoped that part of the genius of the synodal pathway is the opening up of a culture of encounter and dialogue that allows us to go beyond “culture wars” to an appreciation of those who hold different views to ourselves, and a rediscovery that what we have in common is more important than what divides us. Nonetheless, as the early Church taught us at the Council of Jerusalem about the issue of the Gentiles, differences, too, must be confronted and, when the time is mature, resolved.

To this end, in the issues that I have highlighted above, I note a very significant point highlighted in n 8 of the DCS, which states that the document is not conclusive nor is it of the Church’s Magisterium, but “…nevertheless it is theological in the sense that it is loaded with the experience of listening to the voice of the Spirit enacted by the People of God allowing its sensus fidei to emerge.” Not definitive teaching then, but neither just a sociological report—no, this is an expression of the “sense of faith of the faithful.” The study issued by the International Theological Commission in 2014 (SF), under the aegis of the then-Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, outlines clearly how the Church is to proceed in the event of a clash between current teaching and the sensus fidei fidelium. In particular, it advises “clarification or reformulation” of such teaching (SF, 80), even to the point, with the aid of theology, of indicating “…in which areas a revision of previous positions is needed” (SF, 84—my emphasis).

As I noted above, there is a fair wind blowing behind the sails of synodality and a growing sense that “we are all in the same boat.” This augurs well for a time in the not-too-distant future when difficult issues can be confronted and when discernment at the universal level can lead to decisions. In the Ignatian tradition, discernment is precisely for decision, it is not a mere talking shop with the conscious or unconscious desire to avoid decision-taking. We are now in the phase of decision- making, and this needs to be remembered, even if we also need to ask for the grace to know when it is wise to move to the phase of decision-taking.

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

A Moment of Grace and Healing: One Year into the Synodal Process

On October 27, the Synod Office released a working document, entitled, “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” a distillation of reports from 112 of the 114 episcopal conferences, 15 Eastern Catholic Churches, 17 Roman dicasteries, religious communities and lay movements on the synodal process to date. The working document is intended to form the basis of further reflections in seven continental ecclesial assemblies that will gather between now and March of 2023.

I will be the first to admit that when Pope Francis invited the whole of the Catholic Church to enter a process of sustained spiritual conversation and reflect together on how we experience and might become a more synodal church, I held my breath. Should one even dare to hope?

Little in the recent history of Catholic ecclesial life has really prepared us for such an exchange. The report of the Canadian Conference of Bishops notes on several occasions how participants shared their experiences of “difficulty speaking out freely and authentically in the Church, whether because of fear of being ‘shut down’ or fear that their contributions would have no effect.” Despite a deep faith and love for the church, they embarked upon the process with misgivings, feeling “that the Church’s capacity to listen was poor and that concrete responses were rare.”

Generations of committed Christians might be forgiven for harboring such hesitations. They have witnessed a host of concerned and well-educated laity, survivors of sexual abuse, the LGBTQ community, divorced and remarried persons, former priests, religious women and others being shunned, banned from church properties, uninvited from church-sponsored events, unfairly accused of disloyalty and otherwise alienated. A church often given to the politics of condemnation and exclusion now invites them to speak—boldly, with parrhesia—and offers to listen “in an open and non-judgmental way.” That we are having a conversation at all is remarkable, and long overdue.

Pope Francis’ huge wager is that we will learn along the way. By leaning into the process of dialogue and walking together on the path of shared discernment, our eyes are opened to recognize the Spirit at work in the collective wisdom and rich diversity of gifts just waiting to be received. His call reflects a profound faith in the Spirit who has anointed all the baptized faithful and who never fails to guide them.

The Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) is not the product of a single theology or ideological agenda but is the fruit of a lived experience of synodality, one which is reawakening the awareness of our common dignity as baptized Christians. Reports from various episcopal conferences do not hesitate to describe the synodal experience as one of “liberation,” “the end of a collective alienation from one’s identity as a synodal Church,” and even “the first steps of the return from an experience of collective exile, the consequences of which affect the entire People of God.” These observations are at once a stinging indictment and a profound insight into the grace and healing afforded by the revival of synodal culture, one rooted in the equality of baptismal dignity.

It might be tempting to focus on the sadness expressed at the failure to really reach, welcome and fully hear the voices of those too often marginalized: women, the elderly and the young, the LGBTQ community, those belonging to marginalized racial, ethnic, indigenous communities, the differently abled, the poor, other Christians, those belonging to non-Christian religions and those of no religious affiliation. Beneath the weight of disappointment is an aspiration to listen and learn, to be more hospitable, to overcome the gap between the message proclaimed and the reality of our communities, to be a more credible church.

What shines forth on every page is a deep desire to continue on the synodal way, to nourish a more synodal culture, one that is supported by structures, practices and especially “renewed forms of leadership” that will foster greater communion and participation in view of Christ’s mission in the world. The scale of conversion required will not happen overnight and cannot be left to chance. One of the most frequently used words in the DCS is “formation” and its corollaries, which appear more than two dozen times: “to function in a truly synodal way, structures will need to be inhabited by people who are well-formed, in terms of vision and skills.” It is high time to rethink the curricula of Christian initiation, seminary, theological, pastoral and adult faith formation programs. More adequate training in the habits of authentic listening and dialogue, and the development of a capacity for discerning the movements of God’s Spirit will be essential to fostering genuine synodality and a deeper consciousness of the coresponsibility of all the baptized for the life and mission of the church.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

Skunking Synodality

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

That the process of synodality has unsettled conservative Catholics in the West is nothing new. It has been a feature of the right’s critiques of Pope Francis and the synodal journey since the pontiff launched a revival of a consultative ecclesial method with consecutive global meetings on the family in 2014 and 2015.

That the critiques have morphed into increasingly alarmist campaigns against the synodal process is, perhaps, a sign that this shift to a more inclusive and missional style of Catholicism is taking hold. Last year Pope Francis not only expanded the traditional month-long synod meetings at the Vatican to be preceded by a global consultation, but he also extended the October 2023 “Synod on Synodality” in Rome to a second year to allow greater time for wider engagement and deeper discernment.

The fear of synodal inevitability seems to have focused the approach of the critics from praying that the synod process would flounder or go away, or that Francis would flounder or go away, to a tactic of turning the very term “synodality” into something sinister. It’s a clever and common, if insidious, move: No one knows what synodality really is, they claim, and that “confusion” actually proves that synodality is a cover for some Bolshevik-style takeover of the church.

It’s a circular and self-propagating strategy, much in the way that the American right has turned phrases like “Critical Race Theory” and “wokeness” from calls to fight racism and work for social justice—basic Christian commands—into leftist brainwashing propaganda that will destroy God and Country. Heads they win, tails we lose.

This maneuver has been part of the anti-synodal arsenal since the beginning. In October 2014, before the first synod under Francis was even over, then-Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a devoted culture warrior, declared that the message coming out of the Vatican gathering was one of “confusion.” And, he noted for good measure, “I think confusion is of the devil.” Chaput later argued that he was misunderstood, but in subsequent years doubled down on his criticism of synodality and Francis, himself, as “confusing.”

More recently, JD Flynn of The Pillar, a conservative Catholic blog, tweeted that synodality was simply just another church “slogan”:

This shouldn't surprise us. Before it was synodality it was accompaniment. Before that it was dictatorship of relativism and before that the new evangelization.

Nothing matters, it seems. Let’s tear down the whole temple rather than let our enemies win. It’s a view that betrays a profound and disturbing cynicism about Catholicism, all the more so because it comes from those who claim to be the most devout Catholics. When people who spend their careers in ecclesiastical precincts promoting those other terms as definitive markers for what it meant to be a “good” Catholic suddenly declare that it is all empty sloganeering and you can’t trust any of it, well, that’s truly a new kind of evangelization.

The release in October of a 45-page synthesis of the various local and national synod reports from around the world was an occasion for more dunking by the Catholic Right on what they saw as groupthink argle-bargle rather than clear doctrinal declarations. Of course, any document-by-committee is always going to slide into jargon or infelicitous phrasing at various points, and word clouds ought to be swept away. But the conservative critiques would carry more weight if they weren’t coming from the same crowd that argued for the transcendent beauty and dogmatic clarity of liturgical brainteasers like “consubstantial.”

Synodality, on the other hand, has a venerable history in the church. Google “John O’Malley” and “synods” and you will come up with a long list of accessible articles by the late great Jesuit historian explaining the history of synods and councils and the process of deliberation and discernment that they entail.

The only ones sowing confusion about the synod process are those standing on the sidelines. They don’t like what’s going on, but they don’t want to participate because they may not get all that they want. That’s their problem, because synodality is something that needs to be lived to be truly understood, and millions of Catholics around the world are doing just that.

The synthesis recently released by the Vatican notes at the start that the document “does not provide a definition of synodality in the strict sense … but expresses the shared sense of the experience of synodality lived by those who took part. What emerges is a profound re-appropriation of the common dignity of all the baptized. This is the authentic pillar of a synodal Church and the theological foundation of a unity which is capable of resisting the push toward homogenization.”

That doesn’t seem confusing at all.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.