Faith Matters

Pope Francis: The Catholic Church must change - 'We have always done it that way' is poison for the life of the Church

Change is coming to the Catholic Church, and the synod pathway that it has embarked on presents opportunities as well as challenges. Last October, as he launched the two-year process that will lead to the 2023 Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis explained why it is a journey worth taking if it leads to 'dialogue and interaction within the People of God, especially between priests and laity'

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in St Peter's Basilica last October at the opening of the 'synodal journey'. Picture by AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.

THE Synod has three key words: communion, participation and mission. Communion and mission are theological terms describing the mystery of the Church, which we do well to keep in mind.

The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that communion expresses the very nature of the Church, while pointing out that the Church has received "the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God, and is, on earth, the seed and beginning of that kingdom".

With those two words, the Church contemplates and imitates the life of the Blessed Trinity, a mystery of communion ad intra and the source of mission ad extra.

In the wake of the doctrinal, theological and pastoral reflections that were part of the reception of Vatican II, Saint Paul VI sought to distil in those two words - communion and mission - "the main lines enunciated by the Council".

Commemorating the opening of the Council, he stated that its main lines were in fact "communion, that is, cohesion and interior fullness, in grace, truth and collaboration... and mission, that is, apostolic commitment to the world of today", which is not the same as proselytism.

In 1985, at the conclusion of the Synod marking the 20th anniversary of the close of the Council, Saint John Paul II also reiterated that the Church's nature is koinonia, which gives rise to her mission of serving as a sign of the human family's intimate union with God.

He went on to say: "It is most useful that the Church celebrate ordinary, and on occasion, also extraordinary synods." These, if they are to be fruitful, must be well prepared: "It is necessary that the local Churches work at their preparation with the participation of all."

And this brings us to our third word: participation. The words "communion" and "mission" can risk remaining somewhat abstract, unless we cultivate an ecclesial praxis that expresses the concreteness of synodality at every step of our journey and activity, encouraging real involvement on the part of each and all.

I would say that celebrating a Synod is always a good and important thing, but it proves truly beneficial if it becomes a living expression of 'being Church', of a way of acting marked by true participation.

This is not a matter of form, but of faith. Participation is a requirement of the faith received in baptism.

In the Church, everything starts with baptism. Baptism, the source of our life, gives rise to the equal dignity of the children of God, albeit in the diversity of ministries and charisms.

Consequently, all the baptised are called to take part in the Church's life and mission. Without real participation by the People of God, talk about communion risks remaining a devout wish.

In this regard, we have taken some steps forward, but a certain difficulty remains and we must acknowledge the frustration and impatience felt by many pastoral workers, members of diocesan and parish consultative bodies and women, who frequently remain on the fringes.

Enabling everyone to participate is an essential ecclesial duty - all the baptised, for baptism is our identity card.

The Synod, while offering a great opportunity for a pastoral conversion in terms of mission and ecumenism, is not exempt from certain risks. I will mention three of these.

The first is formalism. The Synod could be reduced to an extraordinary event, but only externally; that would be like admiring the magnificent façade of a church without ever actually stepping inside.

The Synod, on the other hand, is a process of authentic spiritual discernment that we undertake, not to project a good image of ourselves, but to cooperate more effectively with the work of God in history.

If we want to speak of a synodal Church, we cannot remain satisfied with appearances alone; we need content, means and structures that can facilitate dialogue and interaction within the People of God, especially between priests and laity.

Why do I insist on this? Because sometimes there can be a certain elitism in the presbyteral order that detaches it from the laity; the priest ultimately becomes more a 'landlord' than a pastor of a whole community as it moves forward.

This will require changing certain overly vertical, distorted and partial visions of the Church, the priestly ministry, the role of the laity, ecclesial responsibilities, roles of governance and so forth.

A second risk is intellectualism. Reality turns into abstraction and we, with our reflections, end up going in the opposite direction.

This would turn the Synod into a kind of study group, offering learned but abstract approaches to the problems of the Church and the evils in our world.

The usual people saying the usual things, without great depth or spiritual insight, and ending up along familiar and unfruitful ideological and partisan divides, far removed from the reality of the holy People of God and the concrete life of communities around the world.

Finally, the temptation of complacency, the attitude that says: "We have always done it this way" (Evangelii Gaudium, 33) and it is better not to change. That expression - "We have always done it that way" - is poison for the life of the Church.

Those who think this way, perhaps without even realising it, make the mistake of not taking seriously the times in which we are living.

The danger, in the end, is to apply old solutions to new problems. It is important that the synodal process be exactly this: a process of becoming, a process that involves the local Churches, in different phases and from the bottom up, in an exciting and engaging effort that can forge a style of communion and participation directed to mission.

And so, brothers and sisters, let us experience this moment of encounter, listening and reflection as a season of grace that, in the joy of the Gospel, allows us to recognise at least three opportunities.

First, that of moving not occasionally but structurally towards a synodal Church, an open square where all can feel at home and participate.

The Synod then offers us the opportunity to become a listening Church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen - to listen to the Spirit in adoration and prayer.

Today how much we miss the prayer of adoration; so many people have lost not only the habit but also the very notion of what it means to worship God. To listen to our brothers and sisters speak of their hopes and of the crises of faith present in different parts of the world, of the need for a renewed pastoral life and of the signals we are receiving from those on the ground.

Finally, it offers us the opportunity to become a Church of closeness. Let us keep going back to God's own 'style', which is closeness, compassion and tender love. God has always operated that way.

If we do not become this Church of closeness with attitudes of compassion and tender love, we will not be the Lord's Church. Not only with words, but by a presence that can weave greater bonds of friendship with society and the world.

A Church that does not stand aloof from life, but immerses herself in today's problems and needs, bandaging wounds and healing broken hearts with the balm of God. Let us not forget God's style, which must help us: closeness, compassion and tender love.

May this Synod be a true season of the Spirit. For we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and spreads joy.

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