by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
Leave it to Pope Francis to come through once again with appropriate and unique reflections for another occasion, this time Lent, 2023. (One concludes that the prodigious output of the pope with fulsome messages for every occasion suggests a cadre of smart Jesuits around him who put his thoughts into words!)
The Holy Father takes this Sunday’s Gospel of the Transfiguration of Jesus and joins it with the current synodal process in the Catholic Church. Here is a brief overview of his letter.
The background of the Transfiguration is Matthew’s account of Jesus rebuking Peter for his error of saying that he will not allow what Jesus is predicting: Jerusalem, capture, torture, condemnation and crucifixion. The pope says that Peter and the others needed a deeper experience of the Lord, hence he takes them apart (in a Lenten manner) “to fully understand and embrace the mystery of Salvation.”
Then the Holy Father makes the point that Jesus takes three disciples on the journey just as the current synodal journey and our whole life of faith is an experience that is not done alone, it is shared. Further he says that, like the path to Tabor, the synodal path is a mountain trek and may often seem arduous, and at times discouraging. Yet what awaits us at the end is something wondrous and amazing. Just as the three disciples saw Jesus resplendent.
The most important part of Francis’s Transfiguration/synodal identification is his commentary on the Heavenly Father’s words to the apostles: “This is my beloved Son… listen to Him.” The pope says, “[L]istening to Christ often takes place in listening to our sisters and brothers in the Church,” which is the entire point of a synod.
Finally, the pope speaks about the journey down from the mountain. Using Jesus words to the three disciples after their transfiguration experience: “Rise and do not be afraid,” Francis interprets this to mean, “Let us go down to the plain and may the grace we have experienced strengthen us to be artisans of synodality in the ordinary life of our communities.”
This message of Pope Francis demonstrates once again an ongoing phenomenon in Catholic life and practice, the Development of Doctrine. When we consider our belief systems it is clear that the gift of faith is anything but static and hardened into unchanging formulas. It is a living faith which understands that its doctrines and practices are constantly challenged by human experience. For example, in the last 60 years, since Vatican Council II, our understanding of the Eucharist has moved from “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” to “the Supper of the Lord,” from obscure Latin to the vernacular.
What will probably be seen as Pope Francis’s enduring legacy, the current synodal experience of the Catholic Church, is based on his understanding of the Development of Doctrine. He is moving the Institutional Catholic Church from a rigidly hierarchical organization to a community of communities wherein the “sensus fidelium” is honored and lived out.*
A final word about this synod. The continental phase of the synod is currently underway – a mammoth undertaking involving the churches of every continent in the world. Unfortunately, the media, Catholic and secular, do not appear to be covering seriously these historical gatherings. Yet, judging from several such meetings in the last half-century, especially in the Latin American/Caribbean Church, this continental phase surely is pointing the way to a seismic shift in the Roman Church.
*The most famous exponent of the Development of Doctrine is John Henry Newman, a 19th century English convert to Catholicism, priest and cardinal. His classic essay on this subject, written in 1845, shows how Catholic doctrine has not changed essentially, but has become more explicit and detailed over the centuries. Cardinal Newman was beatified by the scholarly Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, canonized by Pope Francis in 2019.
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.