by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
It is utterly impossible to overstate the seismic challenges which Pope Francis’ synod will place before the Catholic Church at every level. A necessarily brief scan of the Instrumentum Laboris (working document) for the Synod published just this week felt like Vatican II on steroids.
We are again witnessing one of those epochal moments in the history of the Catholic Church after which nothing was ever the same again: for example, the decision at beginning of the Christian era that the Gospel was open to Gentiles as well as Jews; the conversion of Emperor Constantine; the Franciscan movement with its return to basic Gospel life at a time of serious ecclesial corruption; the Protestant Reformation; Second Vatican Council.
To begin an attempt to describe this moment, here is a direct quote from the Instrumentum: “What is at stake is the ability to proclaim the Gospel by walking together with the men and women or our time, wherever they are, and practicing the catholicity that emerges from walking together with the Churches that live in conditions of particular suffering.”
That says it all. From a Church institution guided for recent centuries by the dictum “Roma Locuta, Causa Finita” (Rome has spoken – the issue is settled), the Holy Spirit has broken through with another “new grace.” It is called a synodal spirituality and “is at the heart of the renewal of the Church” in the words of Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, official Vatican reporter on the Synod.
The Instrumentum goes on to describe the nature of this Spirituality. It is focused on listening to the Holy Spirit and discerning the signs of the times. Further it is described as Conversation in the Spirit (mentioned 23 times in the Instrumentum) through “personal prayer, listening, sharing, making space for others and the Spirit and group discernment.” In a word, synodal.
We stand in awe at Pope Francis whose absolute confidence in the Holy Spirit’s working in and through the people of God and the signs of our times is fostering this “new Pentecost.” He knows the stakes. He lived through decades of passive aggression to the Vatican Council even at the highest levels of the Church’s hierarchy. He knows the danger of the indifference which too often met even the most benign changes in Catholic practice engendered by that Council. He understands the magnitude of this new direction being proposed for the Church. He has experienced the bitter opposition which his papacy has provoked and which will deepen as the
Synod is implemented. Still, he pushes on with serenity. We are blessed to have him and pray for his health.
An important word of caution here. Just as with the remarkable “Querida Amazonia” (Our Dear Amazon) synod held in 2019, we tend to accept the secular media’s explanation of these Catholic issues. In other words, we get our theology, ecclesiology and even our spirituality from sources which quite frankly report only the dramatic or divisive aspects of such religious events.
Specifically, we will have to avoid the media’s near-exclusive concentration on such (important) issues as priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, changes in attitudes toward LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers. These admittedly vital questions for the institutional Church will simply be symptomatic of the deeper transformation taking place in the Synod. A good place to turn in this regard is to summaries by competent observers of the Instrumentum Laboris, then take the trouble to read the fairly concise text of the document itself.
Pax Christi at every level has practiced a synodal style throughout its 75-year history. The fact that we are acknowledged as the official peace movement of the Catholic Church, yet not part any of its official institutional organizations, speaks volumes about our fundamental synodality.
In this new day our vocation will be to articulate this synodal spirituality and encourage its practices at every level of Catholic life.
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.