Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church
Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops Via della Conciliazione 34, Vatican City
Dear Secretary General,
Mindful that, “much of the richness of this listening phase will come from discussions among parishes, lay movements, schools and universities, religious congregations, neighbourhood Christian communities, social action, ecumenical and inter-religious movements, and other groups,1” we are one of those other groups named Synodality in Central Illinois who met for four listening and sharing sessions through March and April of this year. It is with great hope and joy, faith and devotion to our beloved church that we share this report.
Riverside, Iowa United States of America
I attended the synod held in my local parish last week. It was disappointing. The synod listening and discussion session was held right after the parish council meeting. Eighteen people participated—sixteen members of the council and two non-members. After a fifteen-minute introduction, the people broke into three groups of six with a two-part questionnaire: “Based on your personal experience, what fills your heart and what breaks your heart about the Catholic Church.” Each group made a list for each part of the question—no "mutual listening and communal discernment," was allowed. The entire synod lasted for thirty-five minutes; thus, the consultation of the people of God was reduced to a mere question.
The Vatican instructions that “special care should be taken to involve those persons who may risk being excluded: women, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, the elderly, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith, etc., were certainly not followed. The goal of the synod was to foster real communion and community through lived experience of discernment, participation, and co-responsibility. This synod session fostered none of this. I should have known better than to believe the Church actually wanted us to gather as equals, allowing the Holy Spirit to move among us as the director of our discernment.
I believe that the Holy Spirit directs me to submit an independent synod report [attached] which has been guided by the Spirit for more than sixty years. My hope is that it will be read and considered. My hope and prayer are that some of its seeds will fall on good ground, and bring forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. What you do with this report is, of course, up to you, but the Holy Spirit and I have done our part by letting our discernments be known.
The following submission is made by a community of the Congregation of Christian Brothers established in Gaillard, France in 2008.
We welcome this opportunity to participate in the Synod process and share our thoughts in response to the questions posed:-
How is this 'journey together' happening today in our local Church?
What steps does the Spirit invite us to accomplish in order to grow in our common journey?
We acknowledge that our experience and knowledge of the Church in France is limited. However, community members are from a variety of different backgrounds (Australia, India, Ireland, South Africa) who have travelled extensively in the course of our ministries. Our submission should therefore be seen as reflecting more on the Church in its global rather than local context.
The Church is in crisis, at least in the western world. Numbers are declining and those who continue to identify with the Church are ageing.
Despite the many good things that are still happening in our Church today, the reality is that the Church is no longer seen as relevant by many – even though at the same time there is evidence that many people remain interested in Spirituality. We believe that one reason for the perceived lack of relevance of the Church is that much of its language and rituals have lost their meaning.
To take just a couple of examples, we still hear references to the ‘sacrifice of the Mass’ of Jesus ‘dying for our sins’ in order to ‘redeem us’ and of his ‘opening the gates of heaven’. Yet what kind of God would seek to be appeased by the suffering and death of someone? Similarly, the use of terms and expressions such as ‘Lord’ and ‘Lord I am not worthy’ together with references to ‘glory’, ‘might’ and ‘power’ when speaking of God in many prayers in common use create the impression of a remote, separate and distant God rather than a loving and caring God.
Further, the very term ‘God’ now carries so much baggage and fixed anthropological interpretations, that we believe the term ‘the mystery we call God’ better reflects our attempts to come to some understanding of the ‘More’ to life and existence.
Then there is the language of the Creed which is recited at Mass. The Nicean Creed was drafted in the 4th century. Leaving aside that it skips from ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ to ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’, thereby ignoring the bulk of Jesus life and teaching, it speaks of God as ‘Father’ for example (although we know God is not male) and of the creation of heaven and earth (and yet we now have a greater understanding of the ever-expanding universe we live in). The point being that we can reformulate such prayers that better express a modern understanding
Whilst Scripture and Tradition are fundamental to our faith, it is also true that both need to be subject to continual re-interpretation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As noted in ‘Divino Afflante Spiritu’, Catholic exegesis freely makes use of the scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary, sociocultural, religious and historical contexts, while explaining them as well through studying their sources and attending to the personality of each author. However, a literal interpretation of Scripture still appears to characterise much preaching and teaching in the Church.
The ministry of Jesus was characterised by love, compassion and acceptance of others. In the Gospels, references are made to Jesus eating with sinners eg Mk 2:15. He welcomed and mixed with all kinds of people. In contrast the Church can fail to welcome, or seek to exclude, whole groups of people from sharing fully in the Eucharist – eg those in irregular marriage situations, in same-sex relationships, or as has been seen recently in the USA, politicians who support legislation that goes against Church teaching.
Authority in the Church is exercised in a hierarchical manner. There is an emphasis on orthodoxy and what to believe. Alternative voices are suppressed, and discussion about matters of faith that challenge traditional expressions of faith are discouraged. For example, questioning the reality of the Virgin Birth or Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Yet in the case of the Virgin Birth for example, we know that the description of a miraculous birth was a way of the biblical author drawing attention to the significance of the person (eg Samuel, John the Baptist, Jesus). Whether the event was historically true or not is unimportant, what is important is what it says about the person. In emphasising a literal interpretation of Biblical texts, the Church not only distracts from the significance of the text in question, but alienates many thinking people and reinforces the idea that the Church is out of touch with the modern world.
As stated in ‘Gaudium et Spes’ the Church has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. The modern world has moved, at least in theory, from a patriarchal model of society to one where women are permitted to participate fully and equally with men. The Church has a long way to go to ensure this is the case within the Church.
There is also a reluctance to accept that traditional teaching and practices may need to be modified. For example, it is only now that the Church is considering rescinding the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ 500 years after it was promulgated authorising European conquest of indigenous lands. The teaching in Papal encyclicals ‘Dum Diversas’ and ‘Romanus Pontifex’ authorising the "perpetual servitude" of Saracens and pagans in Africa obviously would not be supported today, so Catholic teaching can change. Perhaps there is a need to revisit Church teachings on issues such as compulsory celibacy of the clergy, as well as on the use of artificial contraception (a teaching largely ignored in any case), on divorce and re-marriage, and on sexual orientation – issues which have alienated large sections of the population, and which do not reflect the love, compassion and acceptance of Jesus mentioned earlier.
Pope Francis has certainly clearly read the signs of the times in his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ and identified the need to care for our common home, an issue that clearly resonates with young people. Yet it seems to us that our parishes and much of the church are indifferent to the issue – none of us can recall hearing much mention of the encyclical in a sermon at a Sunday mass we have attended.
The Church also has a rich social justice tradition which has often been described as ‘its best kept secret’. As the US Catholic Bishops have stated “Far too many Catholics are not familiar with the basic content of Catholic social teaching. More fundamentally, many Catholics do not adequately understand that the social teaching of the Church is an essential part of Catholic faith. A failure to present this part of our tradition adequately, represents a missed opportunity to engage with many, particularly youth.