It’s hard to believe that, in the new year, I’ll have been writing this column in the Western People for forty years. Sometimes the writing was easy because there was something I wanted to say and sometimes, as is the columnist’s affliction, I wrote because I had to say something.
Sometimes I had to produce 900 words on something that didn’t interest me all that much and which I knew would give me little or no satisfaction and sometimes I couldn’t wait to get to the keyboard, because I knew that a column would write itself.
This column falls into the second category – easy to write and endlessly satisfying – because, after a lifetime of arguing for something, I find myself celebrating its unexpected arrival. Indeed the celebration is all the more satisfying and validating because, as we sometimes say when life surprises us, ‘I never thought I would live to see the day’.
After the long arctic winter of my discontent during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI when the vision of the Second Vatican Council was shamefully ignored and sometimes reversed, the Amazon Synod has crossed two blood-red lines in Catholicism.
While in many respects the focus on climate change was not unexpected, two other issues stand out like pylons on a desolate landscape.
One is that this Synod has begun the process of disconnecting celibacy from the Catholic priesthood. It’s not the end of clerical celibacy, as no one would doubt the value of a freely taken celibate choice for priests but it’s the Church saying definitively that there is no necessary connection between priesthood and celibacy – and acting on it. Above all, it’s a proclamation that the Eucharist – the centre and the summit of Catholic life – is more important than celibacy.
Once that’s understood, the immensity of the decision will take time to unravel over the next several years. But unravel it will. While the Synod discussions made it clear that any decision to ordain married men would be ring-fenced to apply just to the Amazon region, I suspect few doubt but that the boundary will continue to move. Because it isn’t just the Amazon that had become effectively priest-less, as we know that’s happening in Ireland too.
The other huge issue is that women’s ordination to the diaconate, shelved recently by Pope Francis, has forced itself back on the Church’s agenda. It was, as one bishop remarked, ‘very present’ in the deliberations of the synod. So Francis has now decided to recall and supplement his commission on Women’s ordination to the diaconate.
Before the Synod Pope Francis had made it clear that he would look kindly on the ordination of ‘elders’, men of good character who were married, but few imagined that the women’s issue would be resurrected so quickly.
It’s an exercise of the policy Pope Francis calls ‘synodality’ which he has mapped out for the Church of the future – people, priests, bishops and pope listening, discussing and allowing a consensus to emerge on the best way forward.
There were 185 voting members at the month long Synod – all male (and, no doubt, that will change too) – with around 800 amendments to the original text and each paragraph given a simple yes or no. The vote threshold for approval was two-thirds of the synod members present at the time of the voting.
Of the 181 present, the paragraph calling on Pope Francis to consider the ordination of married men as priests received 128 votes for and 41 against. That’s 71% for and 23% against. (6% didn’t vote).
Of the 181 present for the voting, the paragraph dealing with the discussion on women deacons received 137 votes for and 30 against. That’s 76% for and 17% against. (7% didn’t vote).
Interestingly the figures are more or less the same as the results of multiple surveys undertaken among Catholics in recent years.
There’s an old joke about people waiting for hours for a bus and suddenly two arrive at the same time. The Amazon Synod has the same feel to it. When Francis became pope in 2013 and when it became clear that his intention was to resurrect the vision of the Second Vatican Council (including the sleeping giant of the laity), expectations ran out of control. We expected everything would change tomorrow.
Francis may have been the pilot of the barque of St Peter but that gigantic liner couldn’t be turned around on a sixpence which meant that, like a juggernaut, it had to continue for many miles before it could be turned and there was the problem too of not losing some of the sailors on board, unaccustomed as many are in the Church to sudden shifts of mood.
Francis chose to go the ‘synodal’ route – listening, discussing, reflecting – rather than announcing edicts from on high. After six years the decisions are now beginning to emerge. As theologian Fr Gerry O’Hanlon said recently, ‘Change, when it comes can come quickly’. And we see that in Irish society, for example, in the extraordinary pace of social change that delivered verdicts in the Marriage Equality and Abortion referendums of recent years that were unimaginable a few decades earlier.
That said, the Catholic Church tends to move slowly. So while the Amazon Synod indicates that change can and will come it’s not a hold-on-to-your-hats moment. Rather, it’s a clear signal from Francis that where a consensus is reached through a synodal procedure he will go with the tide of change.
His efforts to reform the Church through the vision of the Second Vatican Council have been consistently opposed, undermined, castigated, condemned and denounced as heresy by a small cadre of cardinals, bishops, priests and people. But Francis is not for turning. His robust reaction to his opposition, in the wake of the recent synod votes, is an indication that he is prepared to take the fight to them. And after the Amazon Synod, he’s on firm ground. He knows that most of the Church is with him.
After 40 years writing this column, change in our Church is happening. It’s the best news I’ve heard in 40 years. What a joy it is to share it.