by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
On April 24, 2021, Pope Francis surprised much of the Catholic world when he rolled out a three year process which would culminate in the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to take place in October of 2023. What captured the attention of Catholics and many others familiar with the Roman Church was the nature of this synodal process. Despite the formal, episcopal language in the announcement, Pope Francis explained that preparations for the 2023 Synod would draw from the entire Church, the whole People of God.
This has come to be taken very seriously by a myriad of Catholic entities across the world. Despite some significant opposition and skepticism toward this stated process, lay people, clergy and religious have actively engaged in its first phase: called “Local Churches and other Ecclesial Realities”. It has turned out to involve the contributions from groups such as New Ways Ministries, Women Church, and Intentional Eucharistic Communities to name just three which would previously have been considered improbable for any Vatican bureau to consider.
Now as we approach the end of its first phase it seems appropriate to take another look at this remarkable initiative, especially with an eye to the central role Pope Francis plays in it.
A little-known or ignored reality regarding this “revolutionary” pontiff strikes me as the key to all that he has accomplished in his short eight years as pope and now his call for this type of a totally inclusive Synod of Bishops. That is, Francis’ roots in the Latin American Church. For the past fifty years, since the miraculous event that was the Second Vatican Council, the local churches in the southern hemisphere have appropriated its spirit in creative, visionary ways. And the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, has paralleled almost exactly this providential evolution.
In 1968, three years after the close of Vatican II, the Latin American churches sent delegates to the famous Medellin Conference in Colombia. Laity, religious, clergy and liberation theologians joined bishops in social analyses of their churches’ pastoral role in the life of that world. As a result, concepts such as “institutionalized violence” and “preferential option for the poor” emerged as guidelines for the spirituality and ministries of their faith communities.
After that Spirit-driven event, similar meetings took place in 1979 and 1992. All of them featured the same social analyses of existing realties, reflection by the participants on them in the light of the Gospel, and the practical consequences for the churches of Latin America. These were the years of Bergoglio’s development as a person, a Jesuit and a bishop.
In 2007, now the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was the moving force in composing the final document of the latest of these gatherings, held at the Marian Shrine in Aparecida, Brazil. Aparecida stressed the mission of the Church which, as noted, is now one of the goals of Pope Francis’ synod.
As we evaluate the initial results of this three-year consultation and recommendations, we should listen for two of Pope Francis’ fondest hopes for them – voices from “ordinary Catholics” and voices from the peripheries of society. This mindset comes directly out of his rootedness in the Latin American Catholic Church and its half-century history of viewing Gospel life and ministry from the “bottom up”.
A last note. In the light of that history the hope is that Catholics of the affluent North will avoid excessive introspection in contributing to the synodal process. As important as many of these intra-ecclesial questions are (women’s ordination, clerical celibacy for example) it is the crucial mission of our Church to bring the Gospel of Jesus the Christ to bear in relevant language on this world of privilege and individualism. As it did for Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Latin American Church, this vision will revitalize our own gray and tottering institution.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.