In order to understand what is happening globally in the Catholic Church there is no better country to look to than Australia, according to Vatican expert Christopher White.
The US journalist, who is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and has written about Pope Francis for the past 10 years, is in Australia on behalf of the Diocese of Parramatta for a series of talks, the first of which was in Parramatta on Thursday 9 November.
He told Catholic Outlook that the “synodal energy” in Australia was a big influence on the Church in Rome, especially its Synod on Synodality, the first session for which has just wrapped up.
He said many of Australia’s Catholic Church leaders were among the first to embrace the Pope’s vision of an inclusive Church, and as a result had been blazing a trail for the rest of the Catholic world. This was seen with the Diocese of Parramatta’s own Synod, convoked by Bishop Vincent OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, held last month.
“I think that in many respects what’s happening in Rome, at the global level, has been so influenced by what’s happened here in Australia,” White said. “Primarily this is seen through the Plenary Council, but also because there’s so much synodal energy in Australia, as exhibited here in Parramatta.
“I think that’s because a number of Church leaders in Australia really share the vision of Pope Francis.”
White said it was Archbishop Mark Coleridge who first decided, as then-president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, to hold the Plenary Council. “And he did that because he was so moved by his experience at the early synods with Pope Francis.
“Here in Parramatta, you have Bishop Vincent who has never been shy about allying himself with Pope Francis and taking those concerns that Pope Francis has so emphasised in Rome and trying to echo them here in his own backyard.”
‘Something significant is underway’
White said the Pope’s mission – and the one thing he wanted to be remembered for – was to uphold the aims of the Second Vatican Council, where the whole Church, not just bishops and cardinals, felt included and had a say in its future.
And after attending the recent Synod on Synodality in Rome and speaking to delegates, he said it was clear “that something significant is underway; there are tectonic shifts happening in the Catholic Church”.
The Synod in Rome had “launched a new way of being Church, one that invites the people of God to speak freely about issues on their heart – their hopes, and their dreams their aspirations, their concerns – and to do so in a way in which they get to feel like they have a share in the decisionmaking, and in the Church’s future”, White said.
It was also an opportunity for the Church to re-examine all its structures – a necessary process, White said, before it could address particular issues, such as expanding the role of women’s ministry, or changing Church law on how to handle abuse cases.
For a Church that was 2,000 years old and used to operating in a hierarchical manner, this new way was “revolutionary”, and was why the Synod had attracted so much “energy and buzz”, as well as criticism, he said.
Clearing the hurdles for women
Of all the issues discussed at the Synod in Rome, expanding the role of women in leadership positions within the Church was seen by many participants to be the most important.
“To quote one cardinal, the only time the word ‘urgent’ is used in the Synod’s final document is in describing the need for greater recognition for women in the Church,” White said.
There was consensus that this recognition was not happening fast enough, he said, but that Pope Francis had accelerated the pace at which the Church was expanding leadership roles for women, while at the same time making it easier for them to take up these senior positions.
He said an example of this was a new constitution that for the first time allowed Vatican departments to be run by laymen and laywomen.
“The Pope has legally cleared the hurdles for women to lead, and now he needs to just actually follow through and name a woman to lead,” White said.
Change is happening at the top
Unlike national governments, which are generally formed quite quickly, it had taken the Pope almost 10 years to put “his own government in place, if you will,” White said. But now every dicastery, or Vatican department, was led by someone appointed by Pope Francis, “so that means that change is happening at the top”. It was the next layer down – the “mid-level management” – where reform was taking longer to sink in, he said.
White said another significant change that he observed at the Synod, and which was written into the final document, was the greater use of digital mediums to speak to young people, who inhabited what the church called the “digital continent”.
This would be especially important as the Church took the outcomes of the synod back to its congregations over the coming year, in time for the Synod to reconvene in 12 months’ time.
“If [the Church] wants to reach young people where they are today, and where they will be, they have to engage the digital sphere, in a more intentional way,” White said.
Diversity of the Church
During his time covering the Vatican, White has been on a dozen trips with the Pope to countries in Europe, as well as further afield to Mongolia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It was to these places especially, he said, where the Pope’s visits were seen as “life-giving” at a time when people needed hope and to reminded that they were not forgotten.
It was also part of the Pope’s reform of putting the “spotlight elsewhere”.
“We’ve seen this in the way he’s travelled. He’s chosen to go places that popes traditionally have not gone to, or places where there aren’t many Catholics. But it’s been his way of putting a spotlight on these small Christian communities.
“We’ve seen it and the types of people that he’s named as cardinals. Historically the College of Cardinals has been very Eurocentric. Now, almost 30 countries that have never received the Cardinal’s red hat before have Cardinals. I think that’s his way of trying to bring in more voices from the outside.”
View images from Christopher White’s public lecture in the Diocese of Parramatta here: