The upcoming 16th Synod of Bishops in October 2023 will run under the theme, For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission. Reflecting on the theme of participation, I believe it is an invitation to the worldwide Church to “create the space for Grace”, where we can heal, grow and encounter: to give voice to our thoughts through a period of personal reflection, discussion and expression. Here we are encouraged by the words of Jesus, “Where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Just as gardeners don’t just observe the pretty flowers in their garden, but get their hands dirty examining the soil and take time to nurture their charges, we too are called to play our part, to dig deep and examine what we love and appreciate in our Catholic faith. As the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr Pedro Arrupe, said, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.”
Any member of a Church will participate to the extent that they feel they belong to that Church and that their contribution will be appreciated. But what can really stop us from participating is not only our own negative experience of Church, but the stories we hear of how others were excluded and not valued. Therefore, let us not be afraid of the difficult topics. A human body, in order to be healed, must first acknowledge its wounds. It is the same with the Church.
I know from counselling that when affected by shame, we can fall into one or more responses, from withdrawal and denial to blaming others or self, or simply avoiding the issue. Therefore, to participate well, I would suggest some spring cleaning of our assumptions and presumptions. To create a level ground on which to participate.
We can name our feelings about the Church, ask ourselves if we are enthusiastic, disappointed or apathetic, because emotions are like a compass that tell us what direction we are headed in. Then we can name all of our assumptions, our prejudices and biases. These need to be questioned. We can begin by asking ourselves if they are true, where they come from and if they are helpful in understanding the reality. Finally, we can look at our need to transform some of our ideas and reformulate what we think needs to be changed in the Church.
It may also be helpful to acknowledge the stage we are at on our own personal journeys in life. We know from psychologists like Joan Eriskson that as we get older we can lose our positivity, creativity and desire to engage socially. Our age may hold us back from getting involved and participating as we might have done at an earlier age.
But as Joan Erikson advocates, try to nurture “basic trust” in ourselves and others. So, let’s trust in ourselves, trust in our Church and trust in the Holy Spirit. This allows us to move to a more expanded participation, the “discussion stage” with others. As we know, thoughts and ideas are the origins of many a good deed, but thoughts shared with others have even greater strength and potential.
Such participation needs to be inclusive of our multicultural society. For our Church, community has been enriched by Catholics of varied cultural expressions of faith. But we also need to reach out to those on the fringes of the Church.
As we know from Scripture, Jesus’ life on earth was bookended by his identification with the shepherds at his birth and the thieves at his crucifixion; the people on the margins of his community. He also encouraged the participation of those on the edge, “Go therefore to the ends of the roads and call everyone whom you find to the wedding feast” (Matthew 22:9) [Aramaic bible].
Having reflected personally and discussed with others, we move now to the “expression stage” when we put voice to our thoughts by sharing them with our respective parishes and dioceses. We need to bring the ideas we have discussed in the park, the pub or the post office to the priest, to ask our parish priest or secretary, “to whom do I write or email? When can we meet? How can I play my part?”
Just as the mighty oceans are made up of tiny drops of water, so each one of us has a significant part to play by participating in the Church Synod and its implementation afterwards.
In Australia, the Church is preparing for the second stage of the Plenary Council that began last year and the worldwide Synod of Bishops will continue its discernment on synodality in Rome during October next year.
The challenge, especially for the leaders of our Church, is how best to encourage participation in preparation. Will it be the “come and see” approach characteristic of the gentle start of the Gospel where all was familiar, or will it be with vitality, excitement and danger characteristic of Christ’s last words to the disciples to go and show, “to the ends of the earth”(Acts 1:8)?
I find it helpful to see such participation as a personal invitation from Pope Francis, “Will you journey with me?” Any journey takes effort and trust but as the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
Columban Fr Paul McMahon lives and works in Ireland.
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