Western People 18.7.23.
My fifty years of priesthood (1973-2023) falls naturally into two parts. The first 40 years (1973-2013) were a struggle through a long and difficult wintertime when (as I discovered) the main focus in the Catholic Church was on restoring the past rather than, as expected, on shaping a different future.
Then after 40 years traversing the middle ground between frustration and anger, suddenly and astonishingly, ten years ago Pope Francis was God’s unexpected gift to his Church. And even though Francis has only served as pope for just one decade of my five decades of priesthood, his reforming spirit has become a heartening symbol of promise and possibility after my long downtime of ‘40 years wandering in the desert’.
In a mere decade, Francis has become a beacon of hope and joy in my life with his refreshing re-adoption of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. So with a pope in a hurry to get things done, what can we expect from the synod in Rome in 2023-4?
I suggest ten signs of change.
- REFORM There’s an ever-growing consensus that significant and wide-ranging reforms are not just advisable but essential to arrest what often seems like the terminal decline of the Catholic Church. In the developed world, vocations are down to a trickle and may effectively disappear; religious practice has decreased and continues to decrease; and the authority of the Church has been undermined disastrously by the sexual abuse scandals.
- SYNODALITY The adoption of a synodal approach to church governance is now in hand, fuelled by the robust support of Pope Francis who regards it as ‘the (only) way of being Church for the Third Millennium’. Whereas in the past, decisions were handed down from above by pope, bishop, parish priest and reverend mother, now a synodal approach is proposed for the baptised to walk together – by together listening attentively to all voices, by together discussing issues, by together deciphering the direction God’s Spirit is guiding and by together making decisions.
- SYNOD The worldwide synodal pathway of the last few years concluded with reports from each diocese summarised into national reports. These in turn were summarised into continental reports which led to the preparatory document for the Synod of 2023-4. The whole process of consultation has surfaced an extraordinarily similar worldwide programme for change: inclusiveness, accountability, transparency, the role of women in the church, LGBTQ+ issues, the ordination of married men, etc.
- SYNOD-plus The working document for the October 2023 Synod is exceptional in that unlike previous synods it sets out the characteristics of a synodal church – welcoming, listening, locally focussed, humble, discerning and comfortable with tensions. It then presents a series of priorities that have already emerged not as teachings or assertions but simply as questions to help the Church to discern the way forward. The October 2024 Synod declared intention is to make decisions on ‘new paths to follow’.
- CARDINALS Another sign of change is the timely announcement by Pope Francis of a consistory in which he will appoint 21 new cardinals this September bringing the number to 137, 70-plus% of whom Francis himself has appointed and who accept the need for change.
- OPPOSITION An indication of the tide turning is the opposition to change coming from predictable quarters: churchmen of a certain perspective – conservative, ultra-conservative, traditional and ultra-traditional – are becoming progressively more shrill in their ritual condemnations of Pope Francis and his reforms. Just as Pope John XXIII was called a heretic for convening the Second Vatican Council, Francis is being subjected to the same abuse for seeking to implement it.
- THEOLOGIANS The John Paul-Benedict years saw the diminishment of theologians into cheer-leaders for whatever enthusiasm was the signature tune of the then current pontificate. The oppressive control of those years was represented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) now in the process of being reformed as part of the new Francis dawn. Theologians are now free to say what they think and no longer have to hold up a wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.
- ASSOCIATION OF CATHOLIC PRIESTS (ACP) The ACP was founded in 2010 – at a time when a long winter of discontent with the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI showed little sign of abating. The ACP proposed a platform of reform policies based on the vision of Vatican Two, yet the Irish bishops refused to engage with them, even though their membership represented 30% plus of the priests of Ireland. But now, just over a decade later, there’s a general consensus that the views represented by the ACP platform have been validated, allowing them to claim with some validity that Pope Francis has been stealing their best lines!
- DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE In the past a myth was carefully constructed to the effect that the teaching of the Catholic Church never changed and couldn’t change. That approach no longer has substance thanks to theologians who were prepared to indicate that over the centuries the precise opposite was the case. It is clear that engaging with the changing world we live in, as Vatican Two suggested, means accepting inevitable changes in church teaching.
- THE PEOPLE OF GOD It is clear now, both anecdotally and from a plethora of surveys, that Catholics generally are open to change and are becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of change. Leadership in the movement towards a synodal Church will come from ‘lay’ Catholics – if they are given the chance. If not, it won’t happen.
Though Francis is 86, even after 3-hour surgery in June, he shows no sign of letting up. After a long winter, spring is coming. The oldest serving pope in 120 years is in a hurry to get things done before God calls him home.