January/February/March 2022

On synods

Anthony Towey

Many moons ago, I was involved in a two-year exercise designed to redraw the contours of Religious Education. This involved a series of fact-finding engagements up and down the country, a detailed survey involving over a thousand participants and a whole list of consultations with experts and policy makers. Unfortunately, towards the end of the process, our discussions were necessarily telescoped to meet a self-imposed deadline such that despite the vast amount of evidence gathered, a set of proposals was made which bore little relation to the opinions of those expected to implement them.

I have been reminded of this lately by the Pope and Brian Clough. I recently watched a documentary on the latter, a legendary football manager. He was notoriously opinionated and famously dealt with disagreements by saying ‘well, we have a little bit of a chat before agreeing that I’m right’. While this might work when forging unity among a relatively small équipe, Pope Francis has a much more complicated challenge on his hands, attempting to unify and galvanize the billion or so souls who identify as ‘Catholic’ across the globe, however loosely or intensely. His chosen instrument – a synod – is in preparation already with forms of consultation taking place in dioceses and parishes far and wide.

So far, so good. But I confess to a nagging worry that for all the good intentions of the synodal process, we might be walking a pastoral plank by stirring a global pot of expectation. In my lifetime, going back to the Liverpool ‘Easter People’ Pastoral Congress, I’ve learned to be a little suspicious of euphoric gatherings which powerfully express a sense of Church but are powerless to effect canonical change. Perhaps the most notorious was a synod where a religious sister wished to raise the possibility of a female priesthood, only to be told by her archbishop that she was ‘invalid matter’. It is one thing to invite opinion, it is another to live in charity with the opinion giver and still another to accept that in matters ecclesial, some opinions carry more weight than others.

The Church is no stranger to sincerely held disagreement, and I am always consoled by the account of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. The identifying features of the Church were being challenged, and for different reasons Peter and Paul may for once have been on the same side (cf. Acts 10.15 and Rom. 14.1–4). The proposal that consuming unclean food should now be permissible seemed too big a step for some believers brought up more intensely than any of us with the creed ‘You are what you eat’. Christianity became a new wineskin in so many ways, but we would be religiously insensitive not to register the pain of those changes for some and the letting go of cherished identifiers.

Although it is hard to plot an untrodden path, we might be consoled by the invitation – Duc in altum – ‘put out into the deep’. Michael Hayes in his work with doctoral students would occasionally chide the presumptions of applicants with the question ‘Why would you spend years supposedly discovering something if you already know the answer?’ If the synodal consultation is an honest attempt to assay the sensus fidelium, it must be open to hearing views that recommend a return to older practices as well as those that are novel and suggest canonical change.

Secondly, at the risk of circumscribing the scope of the event, I wonder if being clearer about the terms of reference might be a buffer against disappointment. Establishing exactly what is up for discussion universally rather than at diocesan level may limit the range of topics covered, but it might also limit the scope for disappointment. On the one hand, the ambitions of the synod can’t be too far ahead of the community expected to implement them, on the other, it would not be helpful for Pope Francis to do a Brian Clough.

More than courses and groups: Christian formation in the parish

Philip Dyer-Perry writes that the concept of formation is central to any Christian community, including a parish.

Formation doesn’t always have a good press. Some of the comments in the letters page of The Tablet seem to suggest that ‘formation’, especially of priests, is basically a form of clericalist brainwashing. Yet formation is something the whole Church is engaged in – it is the way that individuals and communities become who they are called to be, and it goes without saying that it is an ongoing journey.

The last two years have been tremendously disruptive to parish life. You’d have to be particularly heartless to describe the Covid-19 pandemic as anything less than a terrible tragedy and a traumatic trial, but nevertheless a side effect was that it exposed a lot of things to the light, which is arguably a positive. It has certainly forced us at parish level to take a good hard look at what we get up to.

It is with this in mind that I want to say a few things about formation in a parish setting.

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Not a crisis of vocation but of culture: Formation for religious life today

Gemma Simmonds CJ writes on recent research into the reasons for entering religious life and the challenges which new entrants face on joining new communities.

‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away’ (2 Cor. 5.17).

A recent research project on the experience of British and Irish women who explored a vocation to religious life in the years between 2000 and 2020 makes clear that, despite the drastic fall in numbers of those joining religious congregations, the guiding story or ‘myth’ that religious life represents is still strongly attractive to many today.1 In this sense, there is no crisis of vocation as such. Women and men of widely varied ages and life experience are still hearing the call to join religious communities. The crisis that appears to exist is one of culture, where perseverance in a religious vocation can depend on the ‘fit’ between the individual and the community entered and the understanding on both sides of what religious life is. This requires effective vocations strategies but also an understanding of the kind of religious formation that is fit for purpose in the face of the radically different landscape of today’s religious life from that of previous generations.

Those who respond to the primordial baptismal vocation through religious life live it in relationship with the rest of the people of God and the world in general. Learning to live the life of the vows within community requires formation in both the private and communal dimensions of religious life. This involves personal conversion but also the acquiring of the skills and instinctive virtues needed to negotiate community life and develop a new identity as a person given over to this way of being one’s truest self. In that sense, it isn’t far distant from the way in which marriage is not just about two people coming together and negotiating each other’s living patterns but about a fundamental change in identity, through which an ‘I’ becomes a ‘we’, although for that to happen successfully, neither ‘I’ needs to be entirely subsumed by the new ‘we’.
This growth into a new identity within religious life can be a powerful draw with its connotations of starting afresh, healing, personal renewal and a different way of constructing society in a desired and deliberate rejection of today’s consumerist secular culture. It is inevitable that when a person gives up some of the standard markers of adult, autonomous life such as their own home, freedom of movement and of determining their finances, work, lifestyle and relationships, they will feel a strong initial sense of disorientation and dislocation. A formation which encourages an autonomy predicated on freedom in Christ is essential if the new religious is to become a mature, integrated and fully rounded person.

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A season of discovery: Dimensions of priestly formation in seminaries

Pia Matthews writes about the four dimensions of priestly formation in seminaries, which aim to create an integrated whole and form priests in the likeness of the Good Shepherd.

Inevitably, once it is known that I teach in a Catholic seminary, I am inundated with checks and requests: Do the seminarians learn how to cook or do first aid? Do they know about climate change? They should be taught about the role of women in the Church, the lives of people with disabilities, with dementia, with mental health issues, what it is really like to look after a family, finances and building maintenance. They should be up to date on safeguarding and protection of vulnerable people against abuse. These are all valid and important requests, and they should be factored into seminary studies. But they do not go to the heart of seminary formation. Formation in the seminary is more than about acquiring information or gaining theological expertise or being culturally aware or developing the tools needed for running a parish, as important as all of these are. And formation is not directed towards forming good seminarians. Seminary formation is forming men for priestly life and ministry, for serving the people of God. This is not to ignore significant concerns about what seminarians should know. Rather, if we get formation right, then the other important issues will also slot into place.

Formation: transforming the heart, soul and mind

The first hurdle to overcome is the view that intellectual formation, understood merely as ‘knowing stuff’, being informed, is the main aim of seminary formation. There is no doubt that the intellectual programme in seminaries is rigorous: generally, seminarians study two years of philosophy followed by three or four years of theology. However, intellectual formation is not the same as the intellectual academic programme. Intellectual formation is one of four aspects of formation, the other three being human, spiritual and pastoral. These four aspects create an integrated whole: for instance, intellectual formation provides the rational tools to understand what it is to serve in pastoral ministry and how to communicate the faith, and it impacts on the seminarian’s human and spiritual formation; pastoral formation makes possible a fruitful service, and it directs the intellectual, human and spiritual aspects towards that service; spiritual formation helps shape the quality of priestly ministry as it centres the seminarian on God and ensures that the other aspects do not simply become social work or intellectual activity for its own sake; human formation enables the seminarian to make a true gift of himself in God’s service through a deepening of his psychological, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral formation.

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The synodal pathway begins in the parish

Catholic parishes in England and Wales have been invited to initiate the process of synodality. It begins with listening, writes Patrick H. Daly.

Pope Francis, often ambivalent or tentative in his pronouncements, assured his fellow bishops with categorical conviction at the close of their Synod in 2015 that Church governance and the fulfilment of the Church’s mission in the third millennium would be synodal. ‘It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.’ Synodality is thus henceforth the direction of travel.

For the pilgrim people of God, the most scripturally grounded image of the Church, which the dogmatic Vatican II constitution Lumen gentium proposed, the challenge issued by the Holy Father that we travel together is obliging all the baptised to reflect on our identity as a people defined by our relationship with God, to question how we embark collectively on this pilgrimage and to clarify where exactly lies our destination. This forward-planning is somewhat complicated by the knowledge that synodality involves a process, and an open-ended process at that. The initial suggestion one can glean from the copious documentation issued by the Synod Office in Rome is that Pope Francis hopes for a new way of being Church, driven by unpredictable ongoing conversation between all the baptised.

The immediate terminus ad quem to which the synodal pathway leads is the Synod of Bishops scheduled for Rome in the autumn of 2023. The principle of synodality as a model of Church governance and the views about the Church’s mission gleaned in the two years that the pathway has been rolled out ad experimentum will form the subject matter of the 2023 Synod. Sister Nathalie Becquart, the French nun who is Under-Secretary to the Synod, will have voting rights. It is not yet clear whether rank-and-file Catholics will be delegated to attend the synod, how many they may be and whether they too will have voting rights.

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