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Synodality, Spirituality and Silence

The documents of the 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality that are available online make for sometimes genial, other times frustrating, reading. One text is of particular interest, the document titled “Biblical Resources for Synodality,” organized and written by the Biblical Sub-Group of the synod’s Commission on Spirituality. Like many of the other documents, this one is quite accessible to a wide range of readers and pleasing to the eye. It posits the amenable—and familiar—claim that Scripture is “at the heart of the synodal journey” and is the physical and metaphysical space wherein the faithful can experience an authentic encounter with Christ. With that, the document seems to admit that a kind of Scriptural and spiritual illiteracy persists among contemporary Catholics. And so, it proffers as a remedy for such a vacuum in religious education and spiritual life two spiritual modes of engagement: the application of the “imaginative contemplation” to holy texts and personal experiences, and the monastic practice of lectio divina as a modality for the praxis of prayer. Such techniques, the document avers, are movements as much “of the heart as of the mind” and so enlarge the compass of reason with the rich creativity of the ensouled heart and original inspiration. It is worth noting that private contemplation reconfigures the space of spiritual engagement, properly, to encompass personal and individual, and not just clerical, authority.

One cannot deny the merit of cultivating “imaginative contemplation” and performing lectio divina as habits of devotion but also as habits of being in the world. As the document explains, “imaginative contemplation” is akin to a “heart that has eyes,” that is, being present with a spiritual, aesthetic and emotional openness before Scriptural texts that can inspire prayer. Yet how transformative for daily life to be present before the world with such openness, releasing the creative energy of a benevolent imagination to envision possibility and conceive in different directions and dimensions. While it is an important praxis for piety, it seems it might also be a vital practice for meaningful engagement with a confusing and chaotic world, especially for young people. For them, the world is so mired in hopelessness, cynicism and doubt, that we ‘elders’—and the Church—are obliged to encourage in them the quiet thoughtfulness of contemplation and the innovative potential of imagination. Imaginative contemplation defies the limitations of reason, excites hope and invites into daily life the extravagance of creativity: beauty, mystery and wonder.

Lectio divina is also a traditional practice of affective piety and constitutes a four-fold process of engaging Scripture (and reading in general): reading the text deliberately; reflecting on the text personally; entering into a prayerful state through the inspiration of reflection; and, finally, contemplating in silent (wordless) stillness the presence of God. Like “imaginative contemplation,” lectio divina is a private devotion and independent of clerical or ecclesial authority.

With regard to those referents, then, the document does merit consideration, especially since those two kinds of practice are relevant to the spiritual health of Catholics and are sorely lacking in the devotional lives of most faithful. Yet, there still remains a troubling lacuna, not unexpected (unfortunately), that might seem petty to mention, but that is still an omission that exemplifies the depth and persistence, and perhaps even acceptance, of the patriarchal culture of the Church, which is the most toxic obstacle the Church must overcome if it is to retain in its community women and their children (Gen Z and beyond). Without women, the condition of the Church will become (has become) precarious.

Although the group responsible for the creation of the document consisted of five men and two women (one religious, one lay), only men wrote the actual text. That seemingly minor fact, however, might explain how, in the 94 pages of text, there is not one mention of women (with the usual exception of Mother Mary, who of course does not count in this instance). All the Biblical passages incorporated as examples for study, for example, are about (and of course by) men. All the examples of spiritual teachers and practitioners of lectio divina that the document cites are men, and all the quoted passages included for reflection are the words of men: Bede; St. Anselm; St. Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, to name just a few. Where are the stories of Sarah, Rachel, Esther, Naomi, the Magdalene? Where are the references to female models of lectio divina: Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Gertrude the Great, or Bridget of Sweden? Why the persistent notation in the document of “the voices of the Fathers” and not one mention of the voice of a Mother?

This might seem a minor issue to some, but for women, it is not minor. In a document that purports to be a token of synodality, an invitation for community participation, women’s voices, women’s stories, women’s ideas, women’s reflections, are still not part of the major narrative. Rather, it seems now as ever, women are expected simply to amalgam their piety with the piety of men. Yet, if each individual has dignity and value, where is the woman to tell her story, to be the author of her narrative? What does the silence of and about Catholic women say to younger generations of women who ache to have some representation in the story of the Church or who know that there are voices out there but those voices are still ignored or silenced?

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

Breaking the Silence

In the 1837 folktale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Hans Christian Andersen leaves it to the voice of a small child to make the pertinent observation: “But he doesn’t have anything on!”

With his radical project of ecclesial synodality Pope Francis has gifted the Church with free and open speech. Time and again he has urged us to exercise parrhesia, to say what we honestly feel and think, always combined with a desire to listen with generosity and patience (hypomene) to those with whom we disagree. His synodal convenor, Cardinal Mario Grech, has urged us to break the silence. Francis does this always with a view  to renew and reform our church in order that it can engage more credibly in the mission of bringing hope to our wounded world and cosmos, rather than to become ensnared in self-referential debate.

In a piece in the Irish monthly The Furrow, I wrote about Pope Francis’ recent contribution to the debate about the ordination of women in America Magazine. You will recall Francis drew on the reflections of Hans Urs von Balthasar concerning the Petrine and Marian principles to show how it was theologically inappropriate, and indeed impossible, for women to aspire to priesthood (the diaconate was not directly addressed).

With my own background of doctoral studies in von Balthasar, I queried whether his genial intuition concerning the equality-in-difference between men and women could bear the weight of the kind of essentialist, ontological separation it acquires in his own theology, and in the papal application of it, concerning the ordination of women. I also acknowledged our debt to Pope Francis in speaking out in this kind of way, true to his own synodal instincts. Rather than staying silent, and clouding the justification for the continuing ban on female ordination in opaque mystification, he made an attempt to explain and to persuade.

However, it is unlikely that too many will in fact have been persuaded by von Balthasar’s rather arbitrary and idiosyncratic use of symbolic discourse around the issue of female ordination. His position is a much-critiqued, minority opinion among the wider theological community.

How to proceed, then, on this controverted issue? I draw on the stimulating contributions already published on this blog over the years, and, in particular, from the more recent contributions of Michelle Loris, Tina Beattie, and Myroslaw Tataryn. The deeply Trinitarian-based project of synodality has at its core the discernment of the “sense of faith of the faithful.” One obvious way of proceeding at this point is for us all—Pope, bishops, priests, the faithful—to invite those women who experience a vocational call to ordained ministry to tell their stories (in the way that abused people or people with various sexual orientations have been encouraged to do, to good effect).

Many such women will, understandably, be hesitant to come forward: in the past they have suffered great pain by being silenced in a pretty brutal way. But it is becoming more obvious that Pope Francis has significantly changed our ecclesial culture, that openness is prized, that peripheral voices are increasingly made to feel welcome. And, after all, it was not so much theological argument as the witness of experience that allowed that first Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) to move to a decision on the much more thorny issue of Gentile inclusion that faced the early church and threatened to divide and fragment it.

The other obvious way to proceed—as argued for many years by another contributor from this parish, Phyllis Zagano—is for some urgency to be shown around the introduction of the diaconate for women. This is clearly an issue around which the Document for the Continental Stage of the synod is open. I see it as both a need in itself and as a preparatory way to aid the Catholic imagination to become accustomed to the hopefully eventual priestly ordination of women.

Along the way all this will require theological revision (see the 2014 document of the International Theological Commission on the Sense of Faith in the Life of the Church, n 84). In the end it is not so much theories around complementarity (a version of which is to be found in von Balthasar’s Petrine and Marian principles) or representation (in persona Christi) that are crucial here, but rather the strong affirmation in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) that the Church does not consider it has the authority to ordain women. This—and the claimed “definitive” status of this document—would require further theological scrutiny, not least in the context of the provisional judgment of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 that this was not a question that could be determined by Scripture alone.

I write in Eastertide, at a time when we hear of Peter and John running to the tomb, having listened to the women. So, by all means let us exercise prudence and discern wisely, but let us do so with urgency, always in the context of a resurrection people, open to the God of Surprises, who want to be part of a church which values the dignity of all its members. A credible church is important if the Christian witness of hope is to be understood in our needy world.

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

God Raised this Jesus; of this We are Witnesses

In this Easter season spanning the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost, we listen again to the proclamation of the Resurrection and to stories that recount the slow birth of the early Christian community. The scriptures paint a picture of pain and confusion among Jesus’ disciples, their hopes dashed by his violent execution at the hands of Roman imperial power and egged on by religious authorities. His project, and any expectation they might have had of success, now seemed an abject failure. 

On Easter Sunday we heard how the women belonging to the community of Jesus’ disciples, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1; cf. Mark 16:1; Luke 23:55-56; John 20:1;), came to the tomb looking for Jesus on the first day of the week. The other disciples, all of whom had denied or abandoned Jesus following his arrest, stayed away in fear. Even these most faithful followers of Jesus were caught off guard by the angel’s message: “you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised up just as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6). Jesus defies all human expectation. The presence of the angel at the empty tomb attests to the impossibility of tying him down, of relegating him to the realm of the dead and confining him to the parameters of human hope.

Accounts of encounters with the Risen Jesus are stories, not of unfailing faith and insight, but more often of the disciples’ blindness, as they persistently fail to recognize him. One has Mary Magdela taking Jesus for a “gardener” (John 15:20); in another the disciples on the road to Emmaus take him for a fellow traveler, since “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). Mary’s tears (John 20:11-13), her mixture of bewilderment, fear and joy at the angel’s news (Matthew 28: 8; Luke 24:4-5), convey the sense of grief they must have felt. The letting go of their hopes for a triumphant and powerful messiah and the slow process of re-educating their vision of faith had just begun. Still, in her fledgling faith and hesitant comprehension of resurrection, Mary accepts her mission to “go and tell the brothers” what she has seen and heard, and of Jesus’ call to set out for Galilee, where they, too will see him (Matthew 28:10). Her budding faith is enough to witness to his resurrection.

On the road to Emmaus Jesus responds to the incomprehension of the disciples with no little exasperation—“How foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (Luke 24:25). As they recount their experience to him, they relate the basic elements for a confession of faith: how Jesus was a “mighty prophet,” “the one to redeem Israel,” how he was “condemned and crucified,” and how the women recounted seeing “a vision of angels who said he was alive” (Luke 24: 19-23). They were “astounded” by the women’s story, but not seeing for themselves, they were reluctant to believe. Jesus patiently explains to them the meaning of the scriptures. Their apprenticeship did not end with Jesus’ resurrection. It begins here. They must now reflect again on his whole life and ministry and come to understand it in light of the resurrection, relearning the story of salvation in Christ. Slowly, they come to recognize the Risen One as he nourished their faith with the Word and the breaking of the bread.

These images of the nascent church might serve as a meditation on the life of the church in our time. Today, no less than in the early church, we experience continued resistance to the witness of women. In so many ways our all-too-human expectations have been disappointed by the displacement of the church in Western societies; by the collapse of certain models of ecclesial life, including models of ministry and vocation; by revelations of abuse and betrayal by those in positions of power; by the failure to welcome the gifts of all the baptized. We have measured the “success” of the church by worldly standards: financial wealth, the favor of state power, strong and influential institutions, armies of religious workers, the count of “bums on benches,” baptisms, confirmations and marriages. These gages of ecclesial life are not to be dismissed lightly, but they do not tell the whole story. They fail to assess the most vital dimension of ecclesial life and mission, admittedly unmeasurable by human standards: is this a community where one encounters the Risen Christ and goes forth to proclaim his love?

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are challenged to let go of false hopes and mistaken expectations if we are to learn how to live as witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. It is not by chance that the image of the first disciples walking in the company of the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus has come to serve as a paradigm for the synodal process upon which we have embarked as a global church. The many issues identified through the diocesan, national and continental phases of the process reveal the joys and the painful disappointments experienced by many. This is as it should be on the path of conversion—a necessary process of mourning and re-education in the ways of the Gospel. There is much to mourn. There are bitter deceptions and fears concerning the unknown future. We will find joy again in the presence of the Risen Christ if we have the humility to listen and learn like true disciples.

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

The Numbers Game

This column is posting during the somber days of Holy Week, as Christians commemorate the death of Christ on the cross, abandoned by his closest friends and betrayed by the crowds that had welcomed him to Jerusalem with palms and hosannas just a few days earlier. Then we turn right around and on Sunday celebrate Easter and the Resurrection. In keeping with that rebirth, Catholics begin a new season of liturgical readings featuring the Acts of the Apostles in which the dominant theme is a striking contrast to the darkening arc of Holy Week. Instead of suffering and a state execution, we hear stories of miracles and growth, as a small community of believers preaches and teaches and draws thousands of converts.

These contrasting narratives separated by a few moments in time—the righteous martyr persecuted for the faith versus the exuberance of divinely-inspired growth—have shaped the church’s path through history in different eras and different places, and each has their appeal, and a degree of authority: the tiny mustard seed sown in fertile soil becomes the largest of bushes, a sanctuary for the birds of the air.

But that paradox can also be turned into a kind of shell game by which partisans can claim vindication for their side. If they are a small minority rejected by the world that proves their holiness, the reasoning goes, and if they are a burgeoning movement whose numbers are increasing it means they have the wind of the Holy Spirit at their backs. Conversely, if the ranks of their foes are tiny it shows that their enemies have clearly lost touch with the true faith, and if the ranks of their opponents are growing it means they have simply curried favor with the secular world, going with the flow to inflate their numbers.

Heads I win, tails you lose.

Never mind that imperial decrees or colonizing powers or simple demographics can undergird the greatest episodes of church growth every bit as much as right belief. The allure of the numbers game has grown in modern times, especially among conservatives and traditionalists who are scrambling to find their footing amid the social upheavals. Dean Kelley’s 1972 study, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” set the tone as a bully tract championing the success of denominations that he termed “conservative.” Kelley argued that conservative churches focused on spiritual growth and demanding commitments, as opposed to laxist liberal churches that focused merely on ”do-gooderism,” were those that retained members and drew converts because people want to be challenged and to ponder ultimate things.

Kelley’s thesis was praised for far longer than it should have been. Social trends of recent decades ought to have spiked Kelley’s thesis once and for all. Today the only “denomination” that is growing is the cohort that identifies as religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “nones,” people of no religion. In the United States, the “nones” account for nearly three-in-ten adults, far outstripping Catholics and any other denomination.

Faced with these grim realities, the self-styled “orthodox” have sometimes resorted to “remnant theology,” the idea drawn from the Hebrew Bible that a saving remnant of true believers will keep the flame alive. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a proponent of such a view, arguing that a “creative minority” of faithful Catholics would be the salvation of the church until some future Christian Springtime. The rightwing writer Rod Dreher took that idea of internal exile literally with his “Benedict Option” book in which he argued that conservative Christians should form small, intentional communities to survive in this strange secular land.

But the temptation to win by the numbers has never gone away. In the Catholic Church, devotees of the Old Latin Mass claim that they are not only nurturing the true faith in the “Mass of the Ages” but their numbers are growing rapidly; that claim isn’t true, but never mind.

In the pages of the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat regularly argues that the Second Vatican Council was “a failure” because of the downward slide in church attendance and vocations and everything else since the 1960s, and that the slide has worsened since Francis was elected pope. Yet Douthat’s argument is marginally plausible only if you examine a tiny slice of Catholicism in America and ignore the enormous growth in the church globally since Vatican II; or, vis-à-vis Francis, if you ignore the trend lines that were moving steadily downhill under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, two popes whose conservatism we were told would save Western Christendom.

Whether numbers are going up or down, and for whatever reasons, it’s best to recall that conversion is at the heart of Christianity, and souls are not pelts you collect to show off. The numbers game reveals a temptation to believe that it’s what we ourselves do that will bring about the Kingdom of God. If we adopt this policy or make that argument or run these ads in the Super Bowl, Jesus wins. If we don’t, Jesus loses.

That’s not how it works. The real growth in the Acts of the Apostles derives from the examples of the disciples loving each other, living in communion, sharing all in common. That is the witness that drew so many converts to this early church, forming a multitude of one body rather than a head count to lord over your opponents.

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