The universal Synod, continues throughout this month of October in Rome. I find it refreshing, following the proceedings, with images of women and men actively engaging and discerning, around round tables, in a large auditorium. The round table, is an important symbol, one of inclusion, conversation, compromise and engagement. Gone are the days of high tables and tall hats, dictating and failing to connect with the ordinary folk, its rank-and-file members.
Participants (numbering 464 people) comprising clergy and laity will come from across the globe; 365 will be voting members. Over 90 others will attend as theological experts and advisors. Women will participate for the first time as voting members. (There will be 81 women present, albeit only 54 have voting rights.) Questions for discussion and further discernment include renewal of governance and decision making, and how to better include lay people. The role of women in the Church, which was raised at every Synodal gathering in dioceses throughout the world, is high on the agenda. The question posed thus: “How can the baptismal dignity of women, including their participation in governance, decision-making, mission and ministries at all levels of the Church, be better promoted.” Participants will discuss the restoration of the female diaconate, a ministry in the early Church, which was discontinued in later centuries.
Clericalism was also a problematic issue, which featured consistently in the consultation processes. The burning issue is the way authority is exercised in the Church. Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned clericalism whereby those in authority abuse power. The relationship between priests and laity will have to be addressed. As one leading theologian pointed out, a priestly culture should not usurp the roles entrusted to each and every baptised person by the Holy Spirit.
The Synod marks a defining moment for the current papacy. Pope Francis is endeavouring to embed a culture of Synodality in the worldwide Church; he firmly believes that this is the only way forward, the only possibility for renewal in a Church whose credibility is deeply undermined by the sexual abuse crisis.
There is, however, a growing threat from within the Church. The authority of Francis is being undermined by bishops and cardinals totally opposed to the whole Synodal process. They are co-opting support from many activists who in turn are manipulating Church doctrine to further their own populist agendas: opposing immigration, denying climate change and promoting fiscal policies which favour the wealthy.
The editorial in the Tablet magazine reminded us that the Synod requires “humble, open, and prayerful minds to hear what is being said”. It cannot be that decisions will be made by one side outvoting the other. The editorial cites the example of the General Synod of Church of England when it voted to ordain women in 1992; the motion was carried by two votes. The losing side felt marginalised and the wound still festers in the Church of England today.
By contrast, we are reminded that the documents of the Second Vatican Council were passed almost unanimously. That is because every effort was made to arrive at a consensus before a vote was taken. Open honest dialogue, frank discussion and fearless exchange of views is surely the only way to discern the guidance of the Spirit today. All voices must be heard. St John Henry Newman argued in the 19th century that sometimes the voice of the laity can be nearer the truth than the Magisterium of the Church.
The Synod assembled in Rome, is engaging in a process of transformation of ecclesial culture, which Pope Francis hopes will enable the Church to fulfil its mission: to be a symbol and sacrament of hope, peace and unity for the world, to be a field hospital where the wounded and weary find comfort and solace. He asks us all to pray for its success.
As I write this article I am deeply conscious of the brutality and desperation being felt by millions of people in the Middle East. An all too familiar war and deadly conflict, has awakened deep polarisation and hatred between different cultures and creeds. The vast majority of innocent decent civilians are the ones who suffer most. History has a cruel habit of repeating itself and we are yet again all left deeply vulnerable, in a growing volatile environment where a World War seems a continuous threat. I warmly welcome President Higgins, recent insightful comments, regarding the fundamental need to protect innocent civilians in this brutal conflict, particularly millions of people, fleeing war seeking refuge and new beginning. I pray that those whose hearts are hardened, will be softened, by the prayers of all creeds seeking peace and reconciliation at this time.
Prayer for Peace in the Middle East
God of mercy and compassion, of grace and reconciliation, pour your power upon all your children in the Middle East: Jews, Muslims and Christians, Palestinians and Israelis. Let hatred be turned into love, fear to trust, despair to hope, oppression to freedom, occupation to liberation that violent encounters may be replaced by loving embraces, and peace and justice could be experienced by all.