The Catholic Church is out of touch with the women and men of the 21st century who prefer empirical evidence to dogmatic statements. At least that’s the view of Pope Francis, who believes that “realities are more important than ideas” and that a church should lead by example. This project, he insists, cannot be carried out by the clergy alone. The old model of bishops and priests deciding the right course for the Church to follow must be replaced by one that can discern Christian truth in the experience of the laity. This was Francis’ intention when he commissioned the “synodal journey” – a global consultation among Catholics launched last October in Rome.
Catholics are right to expect a lot from this process of dialogue. Expectations, however, must be grounded in reality, and experience demonstrates the difficulty of institutional reform in the Catholic Church. For example, the Second Vatican Council (1965) promised a complete renewal not only of Church structures, but of what is needed for the Church to be a credible witness to the faith it teaches. These reforms have been hampered by ideological skirmishes and contradictory tactics, leading Italian Archbishop Piero Marini to insistently ask, “Would the bishops of the Second Vatican Council recognize the faithful implementation of their decisions” in the Church of ‘today ?
Pope John XXIII, who called this council, wanted it to be a catalyst “to open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and people can see in.” Unfortunately, the history of denial and cover-up of clerical child abuse and the secrecy surrounding his complicity in the residential school program leaves one wondering if Pope John’s wish for openness and transparency was ever taken seriously.
On the positive side, the Catholic Church in Canada has adopted strict protocols regarding reporting and responding to abuse. In addition, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference has publicly taken responsibility for keeping promises made to residential school victims. Despite these changes, many both inside and outside the Church rightly wonder why so many Catholics continue to hope and pray for structural, attitudinal and relational changes.
One of the reasons for this optimism is the charismatic figure of Pope Francis. Unfortunately, his vision of a church that embraces the poor, cares for the environment, welcomes migrants and refugees, and claims the joy of the gospel has drawn, at best, lukewarm responses. Distrust and resistance to his agenda continues to simmer in more traditional pockets of the church and is a signal to those anticipating change that it will not come easily.
As Catholics across Ontario embark on the “synodal way,” they must remember that more than an opportunity to express their views, it is a responsibility they share, a power they they have to talk to and with their bishops and priests, but especially with each other, about what God and the world expect of their church today.
How the initial phase of this process will unfold is not yet clear. According to Pope Francis, “Synodalism is a concept that is easy to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.” Consultation is a dialogue that requires critical reflection and substantive discussion overtime. For most Catholics, being listened to, being heard is not a familiar experience. But what parishioners across the diocese need to keep in mind is that by embarking on the “synodal path” they will publicly show how the Church is undertaking the process of change and adapting to the challenges. of a new historical era. In these days when the credibility of the church is in question, this will be no small task.