If you know me, you know that I love the Catholic Church. It’s not a Hollywood romcom kind of romance. I am as keenly aware of its woundedness as I am of its wondrousness. When I think about the church, I see it as multivalent. First, there is the faith I live out in my marriage and family that sustains me day-to-day. Then there is my local faith community - people, priests, liturgy, faith sharing etc that I rely on week-to-week.
I also experience church through a national on-line presence of writers, scholars, and other spiritual leaders I follow, who broaden my perspective as they teach and guide me. Finally, there is the universal church, which spiritually bonds me to the whole world.
Two years ago, Pope Francis began something designed to get these multivalent parts of the church interacting closely with one another. He called for a synod, which he said would offer us “the opportunity to become a listening church.” A “listening church” is perhaps the last words that many people would use to describe the Catholic Church. Some might use words like “orthodox,” while others might use words like “authoritarian,” or even “intransigent.”
Pope Francis has emphasized the synod as a way of listening to voices from all over the church, especially those who may not have been heard from before. In essence, he is asking all of us, “what is it you really believe and think?”
Sounds aspirational, and dare I say, very Christian, but we all know how difficult listening can be. So, it doesn’t surprise me that a whole segment of Catholic World is raising a ruckus over this synod. Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis, wrote that the synod will foster “confusion, and error, and division.”
The ruckus at times gets vitriolic. As Fr. James Martin, S.J. wrote in America, “Pope Francis has been the subject of what seems like unrelenting criticism for several years. At times, it is difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of critiques and attacks on the Holy Father coming from Catholic media outlets, Catholic journalists, columnists, and writers; as well as, more surprisingly, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests. Some well-meaning critics try to be respectful of Pope Francis; other critics seem to have jettisoned even a modicum of respect for the successor to St. Peter.”
Respect is a key factor in any kind of communication. Without it, listening to divergent voices on difficult topics is doomed to failure. Before we can become a “listening church” we will need to learn to carefully choose our words. Our words may originate in an angry heart, or a broken heart, or a frightened heart, but the right words will likely come only after that heart has softened a bit and realizes that care needs to be taken in just how to express itself.
In my last blog, I raised a topic with you, the community of faith that reads this blog, which originated in my broken heart, and which I couldn’t sweep under the rug. In it I expressed my confusion and heartache around a priest friend’s suspension from priestly duties due to sexual misconduct, and mused about what forgiveness might look like. It took days to write, trying to get the words and tone just right. Once published, I lost sleep over how it would be received and what people would think of me. Who was I to open up this can of worms?
What happened was something I never could have imagined, and nothing less than miraculous. In a church emerging from years and years of cover up and secrecy, priests and lay people alike thanked me for respectfully addressing the subject. I discovered that the blog had encouraged heartfelt conversations within groups. Others told me that it helped them better understand their own feelings around the matter.
What I learned was that this faith community is strong and can withstand a difficult setback. I also learned that when a faith community finds a way together to hold their pain and disillusionment, something unexpected happens. Something sacred happens.
For me, this was a microcosm of being a “listening church” - a synodal church. I gave a difficult situation a voice and, as a result of community, something fruitful grew out of what had only been defeat up to that point.
This experience gives me hope for what can happen in the universal church through the synod process. It will take time. It will take a leap of faith on the part of many. Such a shift will not likely be accomplished in my lifetime. But if we trust that the Holy Spirit is in this action, I have every reason to believe that something unexpected is going to happen. Something sacred is going to happen.