When I was growing up as a child in the Melbourne working-class suburb of St Gabriel’s parish, Reservoir, our life was fairly simple, even innocent!
Today, however, there are now so many competing narratives and options! People pick and choose from them at will.
Life in the Australia of 2023 sometimes feels like an endless series of arguments between people incapable of listening to each other.
If you want any proof about the futility of our obsessively argument-driven culture, just watch our Federal Parliament!
But let’s face it, who was ever really changed by an argument?
People are led and only changed by insights. They must well up from within; they can never be imposed.
Yes, we do have a beautiful treasure in our Catholic faith. Divine Revelation goes on. The Spirit keeps teaching us through the Word of God; our profound Catholic Tradition especially the Sacraments and the “signs of the times”.
This treasure, however, cannot just simply be imposed by external authority, in a culture such as ours.
Religious freedom is vital but we can never go back to a Christendom model: where the Church simply commands and decrees. Those days are gone forever in our global world.
People must now be encouraged to deepen the insights of the gift of faith. Faith always needs to well up from within. We must all listen as Pope Francis put it recently:
We must rediscover the word together. Walk together. Question together. Take responsibility together for community discernment, which for us is prayer, as the first Apostles did: this is synodality, which we would like to make a daily habit in all its expressions. Precisely for this purpose, in just over a month, bishops and lay people from all over the world will meet here in Rome for a Synod on synodality: listening together, discerning together, praying together. The word together is very important. We are in a culture of exclusion, which is a kind of communication capitalism. Perhaps the usual prayer of this exclusion is: “I thank you, Lord, because I am not like that, I am not like that, I am not…”: they exclude themselves. We must thank the Lord for so many good things!
I am well aware that speaking of a “Synod on Synodality” may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, of little interest to the general public. But what has happened over the past year, which will continue with the assembly next October and then with the second stage of Synod 2024, is something truly important for the Church. It is a journey that Saint Paul VI began at the end of the Council, when he created the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, because he had realised that in the Western Church synodality had disappeared, whereas in the Eastern Church they have this dimension. And this years-long journey – 60 years – is bearing great fruit. Please, let us get used to listening to each other, to talking, not cutting our heads off for a word. To listen, to discuss in a mature way. This is a grace we all need in order to move forward. And it is something the Church today offers the world, a world so often so incapable of making decisions, even when our very survival is at stake. We are trying to learn a new way of living relationships, listening to one another to hear and follow the voice of the Spirit. We have opened our doors, we have offered everyone the opportunity to participate, we have taken into account everyone’s needs and suggestions. We want to contribute together to build the Church where everyone feels at home, where no-one is excluded. That word of the Gospel that is so important: everyone. Everyone, everyone: there are no first-, second- or third-class Catholics, no. All together. Everyone. It is the Lord’s invitation. (Address to the delegation for the Presentation of the ‘É Giornalismo (It’s Journalism) Award, 26 August 2023).
Only when we listen can faith dialogue with the culture around it and exercise prophetic imagination. That’s what is at the heart of the coming journey of synodality.
Helping people form such a mature adult Catholic faith, that will sustain them in the difficult but joyous decades ahead, is then a key challenge of our forthcoming Diocesan Synod and the Universal Synod in Rome – both to be held in October.
So is the rejection of clericalism. For the voice of the laity must be given much greater recognition and legislated for in canon law.
Since lay people – especially women – make up the majority of the Church, we urgently need to ensure there are practical structures to make their voices count at every level of our Church.
Don’t be fooled by a small but vocal minority – Catholic extremists – whose agitprop via some blogs and Catholic newspapers consists in personal attacks on the motivations and orthodoxy of their fellow Catholics.
It all masks a breathtaking arrogance. The real object of their rage and dissent is opposition to the leadership of Pope Francis and his call for synodality and the full implementation of Vatican II.
Pope Francis sums them up perfectly: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, sourpusses” (Evangelii Gaudium).
These “culture warrior” ideologues entirely miss the point of the pastoral mission of the Church, so marvellously articulated in the actions and words of Pope Francis.
It’s about mission not maintenance!
That mission certainly must centre around a faithful listening to God’s revelation to us. We are all called to live in obedience to the truth.
But only God has the total truth – we humans only ever glimpse it darkly here below – as historical beings always on a journey.
For we belong to a living dynamic Tradition that is constantly being renewed and nourished by the very same Word of God.
The Holy Spirit continues to breathe over all of creation, including the community of graced sinners that make up the Catholic Church in Australia and globally.
This is the heart of Catholicism – Incarnation. The Word was made flesh, sharing utterly in all the sorrows and joys of being human. So must we, if we are to witness authentically to the joy of the Gospel.
What a grace it is to have this mission today, to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the face of God’s mercy!
May the Spirit guide our Diocesan Synod and the Universal Synod in Rome.
Yes, it’s only a beginning but it’s an important step in the right direction, for: “The vision still has its time; presses in to fulfillment, it will not disappoint; if it delays wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late” (Habakkuk 2:2-3).
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications and the Editor of Catholic Outlook in the Diocese of Parramatta. He is also the Pope Francis Fellow at Newman College, University of Melbourne.
During October, Br Mark will be publishing a series of weekly ‘letters’ to the diocese, reporting on the Universal Synod on Synodality from Rome.
A version of this article was originally published on 4 February 2020.