Expecting only those with a “religious vocation”, a miniscule percentage of the total Catholic population, to carry the mission of the whole is a recipe for disaster
“Synodality” is not a word that makes the heart leap with anticipation! It has something in common with those advertisements which pop up on Facebook: with this exercise routine, you could lose all those ungainly bumps in just thirty days! While the transformation is desirable, in all honesty, are you likely to persevere in the necessary demands?
We would all love our Church to look a lot more like the face of Christ: to actually be a sign of God’s love in our world. We would like them to change. But this is asking us to change – to listen to those who think differently – to try to understand where they are coming from, with them to seek the best way forward. It is asking that we speak honestly about the buildup of barnacles on the Barque of Peter, that we take a hand in scrubbing off the mess. But even deeper than that, it is asking us to risk coming closer to the one we are called to model our life on.
For 1500 years at least, an attitude has been fostered in our Church which limited the power and responsibility that flows from baptism to a few, to the ones who had “a vocation”. They were not all sleek and well-toned like the stars of the exercise routine, but they were the ones who were committed to really following Christ. In vaunting this more “heroic” following, a shadow message was clearly broadcast: those who chose to marry and have families and/or a profession or trade were the “also-rans”.
Contemplating the failure of one model of Church
There were two clear defining differences: the chosen few gave up the joys and struggles of a relationship supported by sexual intimacy, and they committed to giving time and effort to prayer and action for others. Looking down any list of saints, those who have taken this step outnumber married people about 100 (if not 1000) to 1! The message was clear: if you are serious about following Jesus, priesthood or religious life is the best direction to take.
Expecting a miniscule percentage of the total Catholic population to carry the mission of the whole is a recipe for disaster. Our Church is contemplating the failure of this model: we are seen as irrelevant, disgraced, divided. While the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) noted the split between faith and life (Gaudium et spes, 43), for many younger people, the message of Jesus has been negated by the actions of the Christian community.
Our Christian faith is based on an extraordinary claim. The divine Other, the One who set in motion our universe, cared enough to actually become one with us, to be enfleshed, to live – and die – among us to show us that we are loved in all our physical and moral frailty. One might well ask how we made sense of lopping off the central yearning for and expression of love in sexual intimacy, and then making its absence the distinguishing mark of the real disciple! Celibate love can indeed lead to greater union with God, but it is not an either/or pathway.
Not just the pope and the bishops
Vatican II reshaped the message. All are called by baptism to step up and live out “being Christ” in our world, the life of Jesus as a fully grounded human being – his prayer, his action for justice, and his shaping a community (as priest, prophet and king) is a call to every one of us. Pedestals need to be removed and all must contribute if our vision of a world where reconciliation, care for our planet, and peace is to gain a foothold.
Synodality – this listening to others, respecting them, speaking our truth, listening to the Spirit, and seeking together a way move forward – is not just for the pope and bishops, but is calling every one of us to transformation. As with the exercise routine, there are no short cuts. Attitudes have been embedded over generations. We need a long-term commitment to change mindsets.
The way can only be made by walking. As pilgrims we will stumble, we will get caught in false trails, but we have been promised the Spirit to keep reorienting us. We cannot give up because there is no overnight transformation. We have a message of love and reconciliation which the world sorely needs. With each person called to communion, participation and mission in family life, in work and in civil society we can offer something different.
Each continent may have different priorities, but if we hold to the core message of Jesus, our faith can handle differences: our Christian understanding of a trinitarian God reveals a relationship of Love, holding together difference, equality, and mission. Jesus’ message can gain relevance if we can listen to the insights of those have been relegated to the fringes. Responding to them will help close the gap between faith and life.
Christine E. Burke IBVM is a Loreto Sister from Australia who has been living and working in the Philippines the past ten years.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of La Croix International or of Catholic Outlook.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.