There is an inherent problem in talking about the role of lay people. The term "lay" is negative word, meaning not clerical and it has the connotation of "amateur". But that is only so when thought of in the context of the institution. It is not the same when we think of the church as the Body of Christ, the People of God, a Pilgrim People, sign and sacrament of the Kingdom, or to use two of Pope Francis' favourite images: community of missionary disciples or synodal church, journey together and all listening to one another.
Recently I read an excellent article by Orm Rush on Inverting the Pyramid: The Sensus Fidelium in a Synodal Church. He traces back Francis' emphasis on listening to the sense of the faithful to Lumen Gentium, Vatican ll's Constitution on the Church. He highlights the significance of the Council Fathers rejecting the old order, hierarchy and then laity by insisting that there be a chapter On the People of God and its mission before chapter's differentiating roles. The ecclesiology of Vatican II is primarily baptismal. All the baptised share in the prophetic, priestly and kingly offices of Christ. [LG 10-13] Everything stems from baptism.
For the last century and a half, the emphasis has been on the Pope and the hierarchy and this has led us to an institutional and clerical emphasis that has blinded us to the value of the sensus fidelium, the faith of the whole people of God. That is why Pope Francis insists that we must invert the pyramid. Leadership must be one of service; that we must "journey together" in a synodal way. "It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the 'Spirit of truth' (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he 'says to the Churches' (Rev 2:7)".
Given our history and deeply ingrained culture, becoming synodal will not be easy. Many lay people will take some convincing that they should speak up. Some are cynical and wonder if the bishops will listen. Others are angry and have plenty to say. We clerics are not always used to encouraging our people to speak up and are not good at listening, especially to criticism. It is going to require conversion on the part of all. Pope Francis is confident that even the papacy must be converted. [EG 32] But how?
For the Pope, the surest way to conversion is encounter. In Evangelii Gaudium he speaks about the need for "face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us" [EG 88]; putting "aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others" [EG146]; and "practice the art of listening... spiritual encounter can occur" [EG 171].
This is where I see the promise of the 2020 Plenary Council. Hopefully in the process of preparing for the Plenary Council we will have plenty of encounters during parish and diocesan consultations, in group meetings, through surveys and social media, through Bishop's listening sessions and so forth. If we are generous, joyful and open we may survive the hurts and misunderstandings and get to know, respect and enjoy one another.
It is likely that our first attempts will be a clumsy. It will probably take time for the real questions and true wisdom to emerge. But Pope Francis encourages us to speak boldly,listen humbly and with an open prayerful heart. He is convinced that "open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow".
We need one another. No longer can one group be set apart and take all the responsibility. That is clearly the lesson of the Royal Commission. In future, we are going to need more lay and female involvement in the governance of the church in Australia on a national, diocesan and parish level. Women and lay people have insights, sensitivities, imagination and skills that are powerful, complementary and cannot be done without. It is the future. It is not only theologically desirable but we may find unexpected joy and life in a synodal church.
Fr Noel Connolly SSC is a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney.