I am a cynic by nature on just about anything, including my Church. When the Synod on Synodality was announced, therefore, I was skeptical about what value it might have, assuming the same old voices would be saying the same old things—to the same old response.
As the rollout began, my cynicism seemed validated, as conversations with friends across Canada and the United States suggested an uneven embrace of the listening and information-gathering process, depending not only on who was at the helm in your diocese but even, sometimes, who your pastor was. The very concept of subsidiarity, it seemed, remains optional.
But then a colleague was appointed by the Vatican’s Dicastery on Human Integral Development to join the North American working group of a global project entitled Doing Theology from the Peripheries, designed to ensure that voices of people on the margins were not only consulted but included in the reporting process.
The North American findings were presented recently at a gathering at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College and the information was stunningly moving. As participants—both from the working group and spokespeople from groups who were consulted—spoke it became increasingly clear that it was time to set aside at least some of my cynicism.
The committee was made up of nine theologians from across North America and, as an unintended consequence of COVID, they found their reach extended because of the new acceptance of online meeting tools. And so, the working group was able to speak with migrants on the Mexico-United States border, people living with disabilities and people who were incarcerated. They spoke with people experiencing poverty, members of the LGBTQ community and women who feel excluded and diminished due to their gender. In other words, many of the people you don’t necessarily hear from at the average parish council meeting. (Similar consultations were held around the world.)
The North American consultations resulted in a 70,000-word report. As discussed at the presentation of the findings, a recurring message was that while the Church is comfortable serving the comfortable, its central motivation should be to serve those who face struggles, those whose lives include unique challenges as these people, too, are the Church.
As participants talked, I felt a sensation I hadn’t felt for some time, and that was that my Church was actively engaging in the kind of work it should be doing and, by extension, demonstrating for those of us still in the pews—or feeling a lifelong attachment, even if not still in the pews—that the Catholic Church should be a place of engagement and action, especially with and for those who face extraordinary challenges. This, I realized, was Francis demonstrating his sincerity and his goal of really serving his flock.
But as I listened, I was also forced to do some soul-searching and more than a little squirming. The work of the Peripheries project was powerful, but it highlighted for me how easy it is to insulate oneself from the lives happening around us. I had plenty of opportunities to sit down with street people in my community when I was involved in a supper program at my church, for example, but usually the conversation was over whether it was spaghetti or stew being offered for dinner rather than topics of faith, and my conversations with a gay relative are more likely to be about popular culture rather than examining ways he has been hurt by the Church.
In no way is that to suggest that anyone owes me, a privileged white woman, very personal, often private, details about their lives. Instead, it is confessional, demonstrating how the Peripheries report made me mindful of my lack of appreciation for my own good fortune, something I have always maintained comes with responsibility. If I hold my Church accountable, shouldn’t I be holding the same mirror up to myself?
It is up to me to figure out how I attempt to bridge the divides in my life, my city, my Church. How do I learn about the experiences of others without objectifying them? How do I increase my empathy and understanding and translate that into action?
If the Church is to be what I understand, confess and hope it to be, it should serve as a guide, providing times of encounter when we truly can see the face of Christ in all. And those encounters shouldn’t be only of the often-necessary imbalanced kind, where a volunteer dishes out a meal to a homeless man and then goes home feeling better about him/herself.
My imagination is limited and I’m not sure what that might look like. But hearing from participants in the Peripheries work made me realize Francis is seeking out those who do have ideas about substantive change, including those most affected by that change.
He’s a smart man, that Francis. Now let’s see what happens with the information gleaned.
Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.