The October 2023 session of the Synod on Synodality has ended “not with a bang but a whimper” and, apologies to T.S. Eliot, some howls of frustration and cries of disappointment from both supporters and opponents of the process.
Pope Francis’ commitment to continue Vatican II renewal and his call to “encounter, listen and discern,” in the synodal experience, in the face of some vicious opposition, give me hope. I have been captured by the Synod images of clergy, religious and lay participants sitting together at tables in ordinary attire in sharp contrast to the usual rows of formally-garbed clerics waiting to receive a definitive proclamation. The seating plan was more than decorative as it transformed relationships from vertical to horizontal.
I had a flashback to my experience as a Sister of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, when we embraced the Vatican II call to renew mission, governance and work in light of the changing needs of society. In Chapters of Renewal, we adopted small table group sharing and, informed by the leading theologians of Vatican II, committed to deep listening, with a focus on the pain and suffering in the world. Our years of learning are recognized as “tested practices of synodal life and discernment in common that communities of consecrated life have matured over the centuries” (10b). Early on, we had to overcome the denial of some to accept the difficult and contentious issues facing Church and world. We learned to express differences in an honest and respectful way as we moved from debates, with winners and losers, to contemplative prayer and discernment.
While theological and ideological debates rage on, sisters throughout the world, at personal risk, provide care to the sick, hungry, homeless and victims of war and violence. We are aware that Apostolic Religious life, as we have known it, is coming to completion in the post-Christendom West. The International Union of Superiors General (UISG) of women religious has been intensely involved in Synod preparation. In July 2022, they contributed many insights from sisters’ global experience that are echoed in the Synod Summary Report.
They identify God’s dream for creation and the centrality of relationships in the “Trinitarian dynamic by which God comes to meet humanity.” This is not hierarchy but radical equality of all three Persons in continuous loving and giving. The “seeds of synodality” are recognized in the life of the early Church, rooted in the dignity of baptism and co-responsibility of all for evangelization and the Eucharist. Sisters embody that the “…Church ‘is’ mission.”
Sisters also identify “weeds that threaten the seeds” and focus on clergy sexual abuse, women in the Church, moral theology, anthropology and divisive polarization.
The Summary report states, “The Church needs to listen with special care and sensitivity to the voices of victims and survivors of … abuse by clergy.” Tragically, victims’ voices have been actively suppressed. Sisters acknowledge they have been responsible for some abuse. They have also been victims of abuse. They have seen its tragic toxic effects as they provide support for victims as teachers, health care professionals and pastoral workers. Failure of Church leaders to recognize the magnitude of the harms to victims, non-offending clergy and the whole Church is devastating.
Despite new norms and two motu proprios, clergy abuse continues across the globe from Chile to Australia, Africa, Western Europe and North America. The focus has shifted from priest offenders to bishops and cardinals, revealing a toxic culture of power and privilege.
Clericalism is identified as “an obstacle to ministry and mission,” not the deep corruption it is. Francis’ focus on pedophiles, fewer than 5% of clergy offenders, fails to address the systemic causes and dynamics of abuse, including power, special status and psycho-sexual and social immaturity, operative in the other 95%.
Jesus’ countercultural interactions with women as disciples and first witnesses to the Resurrection support the calls for justice for women and combating violence against them in society. Sisters have personal experience of the Church’s failure to “walk the talk.” There is an urgent need to act on studies on women deacons.
The environment, migrants, refugees, the poor and Indigenous peoples are given priority. “People who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because their marriage status, identity or sexuality” suffer from outmoded teaching.
There is no quick fix to becoming a “constitutively synodal” Church. The Synthesis Report identifies convergences, issues to be addressed and practical work. Sisters can help priests and bishops to develop synodal encounters in their parishes and dioceses.
Religious life is called a prophetic life form in official documents and spiritual writings. Prophets are called to respond to an urgent need of the time. They lament the situation contrary to God’s will and help us imagine a Spirit-filled future. Sisters are living out their charisms to the last breath. Conscious of legacy in our decline, we witness to Resurrection hope and share Pope Francis’ dream: “…a Church that is the servant of all … welcomes, serves, loves, forgives … with open doors that is a haven of mercy.”
Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.