Synodality: the medium is the message
For Pope Francis, synodality is “not some of the bishops some of the time, but all the faithful all of the time”. In seeking the truth, synods and synodality are clearly Francis’s preferred medium. But to have genuine meaning, synods must tap into the sensus fidei fidelium of all the People of God, and those present at them must listen and discern co-responsibly. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan observed that “the medium is the message”, for the form of the medium is embedded in the message it transmits, creates a symbiotic relationship with it, and influences how the message is perceived by its own characteristics.
The recent Synod on Youth was a good example of Francis’s medium of synodality at work: a church receiving wisdom from the young People of God -listening, co-responsible, and discerning.
From the outset, Pope Francis ensured that the synodal process was open to and inclusive of lay persons, women and men, not just the ordained. Bishops at the synod vowed to listen and seemed to be genuinely inspired by the candour and energy of the youth among them. Stories out of Rome told of bishops and young people hailing the rise of a listening church, an accompanying church, a learning church — a synodal church. It was exciting, inspiring, and hopeful. Who could resist vivacious and faith-filled young people filled with bold ideas about how the church could be renewed? Could young people actually accomplish what their older counterparts could not?But as the days wore on, there were hints that the promises made were not going to be honoured. Some bishops began to call into question the voices of the young. For them listening was simply a way to discover young people’s questions, certain they already had the answers to any problem that the young might present. Fifty-one bishops (20 percent of total) voted against the paragraph encouraging synodality in the church. Could those men, hopelessly lost in their clerical world, deprive the People of God of the renewed, bold, Gospel infused church needed more than ever? Only time will tell.Time of bold initiativesFrancis has stated that "synodality is the path that God expects from the Church of the third millennium" and the International Theological Commission has recently concluded that synodality is the "constitutive dimension of the Church”; the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the People's Church of God, walking together, gathering together, and all actively participating in its mission of evangelizing. A synodal church is the indispensable presupposition for a new missionary impulse that involves the entire People of God, but to fulfil its mission, the Church has to refresh its mentalities, attitudes, practices and structures, and intensify the mutual collaboration of everyone in giving witness to the Gospel, starting from the gifts and roles of each person (Evangelii Gaudium, 25-33; 102). Old non-synodal paradigms have to go, especially those that over-emphasise clerical ministry, insufficiently appreciate the charismatic gifts, and undervalue the contribution of lay men and women.
"not some of the bishops some of the time, but all of the faithful all of the time"
If, as Francis says, a synodal church is “one that listens ...faithful people, bishops, pope; each one listening to others, and all listening to the Holy Spirit ", then only a genuine communal listening and discernment will allow the Church in Australia to discover the call that God is making of it at this time. It that requires bold and daring decisions in preparation for the 2020/2021 Plenary Council, Catholics for Renewal believes the Australian Faithful are up for them, and want them.
"..faithful people, bishops, pope; each one listening to others, and all listening to the Holy Spirit"
Catholics for Renewal urges all Australian Catholics, whether practising or non-practising, questioning or unquestioning, frustrated, cynical or angry, to write down your thoughts, wishes, feelings and stories, in whatever words you want, and submit them to the Council organizers via the online facility on the Plenary Council website or via any associated process in your Parish, Deanery or Organization.
"Unless you speak, no one will listen."
In a recent meeting with the Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), Catholics for Renewal expressed two concerns:
1. Under the current rules for a plenary council, as set out in Canon 443, it is most likely that 74–78 per cent of all the members of the council with a vote will be ordained clerics (i.e. bishops with a ‘deliberative’ vote, and priests with a ‘consultative’ vote), 4-5.5 per cent will be non-ordained religious (men and women), and only 18-22 per cent will be lay men and women (both later groups with a ‘consultative’ vote). At best, there might be just 60 non-religious lay men and women members to represent all 35 particular churches of Australia (i.e. 28 territorial dioceses, 5 eparchies and dioceses of the Eastern Churches, and 2 ordinariates – Military and Anglican). That number would not even provide two lay persons to represent each particular church, a totally unacceptable situation, which could wreck the council before it started. Catholics for Renewal has recommended, therefore, that at least one third of all members of the plenary council should be non-religious lay women and men, with voting rights and gender balanced. To achieve this, the ACBC would need to seek a dispensation from Canon 443 to allow for a total council membership of around 300 persons, with at least one third of those to be non-religious lay men and women.
2. The other concern relates to voting rights. Under the same Canon 443, only bishops present at the council have a ‘deliberative’ (deciding) vote. All other council members – priests, deacons, non-ordained religious brothers and sisters, and non-religious lay men and women – have a ‘consultative’ vote. Ideally, all voting members of the plenary council would work to arrive at their decisions on legislation through a process of consensus. But as voting by council members will need to take place at some stage in the proceedings, as when the drafts of proposed legislation are being considered for finalization, Catholics for Renewal has recommended that the rules of procedure should follow those used by Pope Francis at the two most recent Synods of Bishops. There, when drafts were being considered, the bishops (with a consultative vote) were invited to vote on each paragraph of the proposed final synod document. If two-thirds voted ‘in favour’ of a draft paragraph it was retained in the final document, but If less than two-thirds, the paragraph was deleted. Catholics for Renewal has suggested to the ACBC that a similar, but slightly amended rule of voting procedure be adopted, namely:
a) that members with a consultative vote should vote first on each paragraph of all proposed final draft legislation;
b) if two-thirds vote in favour of the draft paragraph, it must go forward to the bishops for their deliberative vote;
c) if more than one half but less than two-thirds of those with a consultative vote are in favour of the draft paragraph, it may be resubmitted for a second vote after being amended;
d) if one half or less of the consultative votes are in favour of the draft paragraph, it should be set aside completely;
e) when the draft paragraphs which have received two-thirds of the consultative votes in favour go forward to the bishops for their deliberative vote, the bishops should only amend or reject the drafts if they can present very sound theological, canonical or pastoral reasons for their decision, and make those reasons publicly known to all members of the council; and
f) the Acts of the Council must record in full the reasons given by the bishops for their amendment of rejection of the draft paragraphs, and be included with the final decisions, in the report to the Holy See.
So, while Catholics for Renewal would encourage and urge all Australian Catholics to write down their thoughts, wishes, feelings and stories about their faith experience - how they see their church, what they want it to become, and how this can be achieved - and submit them to the Council organizers, it also encourages every diocesan bishop to take this opportunity to reach out to all his people, not just to the faithful ones, but also the not-so-faithful, and to the unfaithful, and seek to dialogue with them. There are reasons why so many of Christ’s faithful have become disillusioned with the Church and scattered. Now is the time to seek them out, engage with them, and listen to what they have to say. It will be a better plenary council, and a more synodal one, if this happens.