The picture here [in our Newsletter] is of Pope Francis celebrating Mass in St Peter’s Basilica last Sunday. On one level it seemed a straightforward Sunday Mass, with green vestments and the same readings as we and every other Catholic parish had – and indeed the Holy Father preached on these readings (https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2021/documents/20211010-omelia-sinodo-vescovi.html). But it was a very special occasion as it opened a Synod of Bishops – not, this time, a meeting lasting a few days or a couple of weeks, but an ongoing process for the next two years. Moreover this synod is not simply for bishops but for the whole Church.
The word ‘synod’ simply means ‘on a road together’ and this helps us understand what it is all about. So the pope said: ‘Celebrating a Synod means walking on the same road, walking together. Let us look at Jesus. First, he encounters the rich man on the road; he then listens to his questions, and finally he helps him discern what he must do to inherit eternal life. Encounter, listen and discern’. Over the next two years the whole Church is invited to do this – encountering Our Lord, listening to him and discerning the future.
I don’t need here to offer a commentary on the Holy Father’s homily; it’s much better to read or listen to him direct and easy to do so. He speaks plainly and doesn’t need me to explain what he’s saying. We need to see this initiative in the context of the whole teaching ministry of Pope Francis, and also the context of where the Church and the world are at the moment. It is nearly sixty years now since the beginning of one of the most important synods in the history of the Catholic Church – the Second Vatican Council – which did so much to renew the life of the Church precisely because it enabled the Church to ‘encounter, listen and discern’; I think the pope is trying to recapture that vision and help us to be inspired.
Three crises in the world provide the backdrop for this. First, the really critical crisis caused by climate change and threats to biodiversity. The moral and theological danger of this is something the pope has repeatedly warned us all about – hence his great 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ and the Season of Creation every year which we have recently celebrated. This is not simply about governments talking to each other – the behaviour of all of us has to change. The second is the toxic effect of populist nationalism – the results of which we have seen in our supermarkets and queues at petrol stations – so much at odds with Catholic teaching. The Holy Father addressed this in his encyclical of a year ago, Fratelli Tutti, which we looked at during Lent in this parish. Building up new links of interdependence and friendship, at all levels, has to be a priority. The final crisis is also still very much with us: coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. So many bad moral choices have been made and continue to be made, which have led to deaths; simply in the area of the availability of vaccines there is so much going wrong, as Fr Victor pointed out on this page two weeks ago. The world desperately needs a moral compass.
These three crises in the world (and there are others) are crises for the Church, but we have others of our own as well. The worst is the continuing scandal of the abuse of children and the vulnerable within the Church – France is the latest country for which a truly damning report has just appeared – and the culpable mishandling of this by bishops, Religious superiors and others. The pope has repeatedly pointed out the terrible sufferings of victims is linked to structures reflecting clericalism (and Deacon Séan has made the same point in this newsletter), which has bred a toxic sense of entitlement and a refusal to be accountable to anyone outside the clerical caste. Another crisis for the Church is worsening divisions and polarisation, much of it made worse in relation to liturgy and the actions of some enthusiasts for the pre-1970 Order of Mass. In the summer the pope addressed this danger by issuing new restrictions on the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 Missal. There are many other issues around, some of them very critical as we gradually emerge from the pandemic in terms of worship – such as the participation of laypeople in leadership within the Church, particularly women, the future of Catholic education and formation, and so on.
I wrote above that a feature of clericalism is a lack of accountability. A ‘synodal path’ addresses this problem head on. If we have proper and prayerful gatherings enabling us to ‘encounter, listen and discern’ we deliberately make ourselves accountable – to one another, and to the whole community. Dioceses are setting up structures to enable this to happen, and we will be sharing more about this shortly; and we also need to do this in parishes as well: here this will dovetail well with our plans for renewal, growth and mission. But what I would want to stress at this stage is the need to be inspired by the Holy Father’s vision. It is easy to be cynical (and clergy are good at that, sadly), especially if the pandemic has left us a little drained and weary; but such feelings could be disastrous for this process which the Church is embarking on. In the closing words of his homily last Sunday, the pope said that he wanted the synod to be ‘a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Spirit. In these days, Jesus calls us, as he did the rich man in the Gospel, to empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, including our inward-looking and outworn pastoral models; and to ask ourselves what it is that God wants to say to us in this time. And the direction in which he wants to lead us. Dear brothers and sisters, let us have a good journey together! May we be pilgrims in love with the Gospel and open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit. Let us not miss out on the grace-filled opportunities born of encounter, listening and discernment. In the joyful conviction that, even as we seek the Lord, he always comes with his love to meet us first’.
In addition to the homily referred to above by the Holy Father, here is a a recording of a special ‘Moment of Reflection’ which he led last Saturday:
This is also the subject of this weekend’s Pastoral Letter from the Archbishop. Material about the pathway from the Bishops Conference is here: https://www.cbcew.org.uk/synodal-church/.