Dilution, clericalism, overshadow national syntheses

Matters India [New Delhi, India]

September 19, 2022

The Synod on Synodality was kick-started in October 2021.The first phase, the national level, was to conclude by August 16 and the National Syntheses (NS) were to be sent to the Synod Secretariat at the Vatican.

A communiqué from Rene Reid, Director, Catholic Church Reform International (CCRI) states that of 104 NS submitted to the Secretariat, more than half have not been made public. That would include the three NS from the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches in India.

The CCRI organized a zoom meeting on September 17 to get a world-wide feedback on the progress of the Synod, now that all the NS would have been submitted; and preparations are on for the Continental phase.

CCRI’s preliminary survey showed that 93 percent of the respondents were deeply concerned about how the people of God would actually be represented in the Continental phase. Just 60 percent had faith in their bishops for a fair representation. This is far from the spirit of synodality as envisaged by Pope Francis!

Representatives from 5 of the 7 Continental groupings participated in the zoom meeting. The notable exception was South & Central America that are often viewed as more participatory than more traditional or institutional ones; and the Middle East.

The meeting began with inputs from Europe. Mary Varley of Root & Branch UK began with a report on England and Wales. The takeaway from the 22 dioceses of the territory was dismal. The key word was “dilution,” the watering down of what people had actually expressed.

A groundswell of opinion had been reduced to pious platitudes. Nevertheless, some of the critical issues addressed were: clerical abuse and violence, women’s ordination, embracing persons with disabilities and co-responsibility. Because of rampant clericalism ecclesiastical authorities were more concerned about the “reputation” of church personnel than about the pain of the victims of clerical abuse.

The NS condensed 900 pages from the dioceses; done by a group of 8 persons, most of whom were church employees, giving rise to the fear that the people’s actual aspirations were not reflected in the NS. Valerie Stroud, also from England, opined that the synodal process was controlled by those sitting on the dais. It was not a roundtable.

Colm Holmes, of We are Church International Ireland, had a refreshingly positive experience. The 26 diocese had submitted a 30-page report that was in the public domain. Even bishops considered conservative had shown openness to the synodal path. It affirmed women’s involvement in both ordained and non-ordained ministries and sought inclusiveness for the LGBTQ+ community.

The NS also called for shared decision making. Schisms often occurred because people stopped talking. Dialogue was imperative. The Irish steering committee had 8 clerics and 12 lay persons. Forty years ago 90% of Ireland’s Catholics were regular Mass-goers. That figure is now down to 10%!

Rosa Murray of the Scottish Laity Network said that they were not going to wait for reform. They would press forward regardless. The Scottish NS was largely reflective of people’s aspirations.

Rene then mentioned that though Germany was not represented in this meeting, the Germans had been in the vanguard of the synodal path with the bishops and people working in tandem.

Kevin Liston, Australian Catholics for an Evolving Church, said that his country’s NS had very little by way of practical suggestions. For example, it talked of social justice but did not propose a way forward. There was also no strategy for reaching out to those who had left the church. Most had become estranged because of the Church’s own inherent deficiencies. The Australian Plenary Council was not impressed by the NS. The bishops had voted against equality for women.

There seemed to be a lack of commitment to synodality and the ability to listen. The majority of Australian bishops were comfortable with their autocratic and bureaucratic style of functioning. Peter Johnstone of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform expressed concern about what would happen after the “good guy” Pope Francis was no longer around?

Ann McIntyre from Canada said that even prior to Pope Francis’ visit, reconciliation with the indigenous people was a major issue. She observed that Sunday homilies were insipid and unconnected with people’s daily lives, with too much of unfamiliar theologizing. Lay people should be allowed to preach Sunday sermons. Canada too supported women’s ordination and greater laity-clergy collaboration to counter clericalism.

Rene, from the USA, said that it was at the bottom of the heap when it came to synodality. The US bishops had even asked for an extension of time to submit their NS that may now become public by end October. Ann from Canada then expressed the apprehension that the USA could overwhelm them as they were in the same Continental grouping.

Alan Doulton from Pune, India, said that the synodal process was not being followed. Bishops were just going through the formalities, like an event, not a process. A faulty formation system was perpetuating clericalism. Redressal systems were non-functional.

chhotebhai, Convenor, Indian Catholic Forum, shared some salient points from the survey that they had conducted earlier. Vatican II teachings had not been implemented; parish and finance committees should be made mandatory; the community should be involved in the selection of bishops and they should have a 10-year tenure; the Right to Information Act (RTI) should be implemented in the Church; women who procure an abortion should not be ex-communicated automatically; Divorced and Remarried Catholics should be admitted to communion after due catechesis; and the Synod findings should be translated into law.

Ed Gerlock, a former Maryknoll priest from the Philippines, said that though it was the only “Christian” country in Asia its situation was similar to that of India. Ashiq Naaz Khokhar from Pakistan indicated that the synodal process in his country was a non-starter.

Alloys Nyakundi of Young Adult Seekers, Kenya, said that clericalism was rampant in Africa too. Catechists in outstations (remote mission stations) conducted services and preached better homilies than the priests, as they were in tune with the people. There was large scale denial of LGBTQ+ rights. Women were treated as second class and given servile roles in the Church. The Small Christian Communities were a sign of hope, but now the priests were using them for fund raising.

Rev Joe Healey, a Maryknoll priest from Kenya, said that Africa had submitted 30 NSs. The best was from South Africa that was the most liberal. They too advocated a larger role for the laity in preaching ministries. Church leadership needed to shed its autocratic and bureaucratic ways to overcome clericalism.

Sr Caroline Nzuya of the Nairobi Synodal Office said that in Kenya the people had been given the freedom to express themselves.

Rene regretted that there was no representation from South and Central America where they had a beautiful synodal experience. She asked what would now be the way forward? chhotebhai opined that knowledge is a power, as is dissemination of information, as CCRI was already doing.

The next meeting is scheduled for 29th October, in the expectation that by then the NS from the USA would be in the public domain. The big take away from this international zoom meeting was the apprehension of people’s aspirations being diluted, and the ever lurking shadow of clericalism, that Pope Francis has described as the biggest scourge in the Church. The participants expressed their gratitude to Rene Reid for gathering people together from across the world and diverse time zones.

(This reporter is the convener of the Indian Catholic Forum that collaborates with CCRI on synodal issues.)