What is Unfolding Before Us?
I participated in a recent gathering of bishops hosted by Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Wisconsin. While the gathered bishops took a day to discuss multiple issues facing the Church today, we focused primarily on the synodal process unfolding before us. While we readily admitted that we do not have all the answers, I believe certain important truths welled up in our conversations. I offer some of these reflections for your consideration.
The first issue we spent time on is the fact that the upcoming synod on synodality is built on the foundation of listening. This really shouldn’t surprise us as the three previous synods hosted by Pope Francis [the Synod on the Family in 2014-2015, the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocation Discernment in 2018, and the Synod on the Amazon of 2019] were all marked by intense listening sessions. These three synods were times of open and charitable communication, followed by discerning a path forward for the Church. In these events our Holy Father, Pope Francis, was modeling the importance of gathering together under the influence of the Holy Spirit, listening to one another, and then discerning a path forward. Some have remarked that this is true discernment — discernment as we find it in the Church’s tradition — leading to graced moments of transition and growth.
This discernment, which can be messy and time-consuming, is not something everyone wants. Actually, it has been noted that discernment can be counter-cultural for Westerners who oftentimes prefer a simpler, shorter way of arriving at the truth. There’s something that feels almost dangerous — even risky — about allowing each person to find their unique voice and to speak from the heart. At the same time, if we were to use an example from the secular world, we know that no good architect designs blueprints before having listening sessions with those who will be occupying the building. Every good architect knows that listening sessions with those who will use the new space are critical for the future building’s success. It is this approach of listening and discerning that the Holy Father wants woven into the universal Church so that we might build well for the future.
A second point we spent considerable time discussing is the temptation to “circle the wagons” at a time when the Church — along with much of our culture and society — feels under assault. The temptation is to want to protect the Church from the storms that rage in our world. But a mentality of “reinforcing the fortress” is not what we find in the early centuries of the Church. Quite the contrary, the Church of the first century was focused on mission precisely at a time when Christians were facing immense persecution. The opposite of this missionary mindset is found in today’s unholy temptation — a temptation for laity and clergy alike — to remain quietly content in our small communities, insulated from the storms that rage outside in the world. This “reinforcing the fortress” mentality is closely related to the scourge of clericalism and it reminds us that clericalism is not always initiated or sustained by the clergy! At times, groups of the lay faithful succeed in fashioning their priests into pampered personal chaplains who reinforce a closed-world view — isolating the shepherds from the lost sheep. Perhaps we need this synodal process for a host of reasons, not the least of which is to challenge our fears and to lead us back out into engagement with the world.
Some have expressed curiosity in what this process may look like. I would suggest that we look to recent examples of how intense and charitable listening, followed by discernment, resulted in a plan for the future. An excellent example comes from the 2019 Synod on the Amazon. It was here that the possibility of ordaining “viri probati” to the priesthood was surfaced. The background to this decision is the painful reality that millions of the Catholic faithful in the Amazon region are able to celebrate the Eucharist only once or twice a year because of the terrible shortage of priests. With this challenge before the Synod, the idea of ordaining "viri probati" to the priesthood was discussed. The Latin phrase “viri probati” can be translated as “proven men,” typically older and married. Such an approach would have been out of the ordinary, much as the decision of Pope St. John Paul II to admit married men to the priesthood when converting from certain Christian communions was out of the ordinary. But while Pope Francis and numerous others appeared open to this consideration at the Synod on the Amazon, the discernment process — as acknowledged by the Holy Father himself — did not draw this conclusion out of the participants. Diverse voices were heard and many viewpoints were shared but in the end, the discernment of the participants did not take the Church in that direction. Again, in this example we see intense discussion marked by charitable listening, followed by prudent discernment, plotted the Church’s path forward.
A different result emerged from the listening and discernment witnessed in the earlier 2015 Synod on the Family. The pain of those unable to approach Holy Communion because of a prior marriage (whether on their part or that of the one they wanted to marry) was voiced by bishops around the world. We must remember that 60% of the world’s annulments are granted in the United States where tribunals are very accessible. However, approaching the Church to petition for an annulment is virtually impossible in many developing nations. While some bishops advocated for a change in the Church’s protocols, asking that Holy Communion be given in certain instances to those in secular marriages or irregular unions, the decision taken after the period of listening and discernment was quite different. Procedural laws that made approaching tribunals around the world challenging or impossible were changed by the Holy Father. The ability to petition for an annulment in accord with the Church’s long-standing teaching became far more accessible to the faithful everywhere. Again, through careful listening and discernment, a pastoral solution was surfaced.
A final point that emerged in the recent discussion with my brother bishops was that the best image for going into the synodal process arises from the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. While the ancient Israelites were anxious to leave the slavery into which they had fallen, the prospect of leaving behind what was known to them and journeying to a strange new land was frightening. They found themselves called to two critical tasks: they had to overcome their fears and they had to begin to dream a new future. The ensuing journey in the wilderness for forty years was at times tedious, painful, and wearying, and sins and failings were a part of the journey. But along the way they were quietly and powerfully formed into the people of God! Perhaps it was only when they finally emerged into the Holy Land that they fully understand that the journey, and all it entailed, was necessary.
I pray that many will join with me on this spiritual journey about to begin. Inspired by the generations of faith-filled women and men who have gone before us, may we also cast out our fears and then, together, may we dream a Church that calls all humankind into the truth of God’s mercy, love, and life.
May God bless you abundantly!
+Edward J. Weisenburger