I am writing this reflection just after Halloween and the feast of All Saints, and the feast of All Souls – the faithful departed. And soon to follow comes the feast of All the Saints of Ireland.
Against the backdrop of a pending Synod, I have a sense that a gathering of the extended family has been convened urgently and soon the aunts and uncles and grandparents are going to want an explanation for what has been going on and why the family is in such straits. It feels like we are on the verge of a great row and we are getting nervous.
This apprehension is not helped following reaction across the country to a recent homily which gave a vigorous airing to an understanding of Church teaching many people do not accept.
One has to be concerned that no matter what is published or uttered on a matter of faith, Church, religion or morals, there will be bitter and divisive things said in response. Everything takes on a particular frisson in the context of pending legislation dealing with incitement to hatred.
The reaction to Fr Seán Sheehy’s homily in Listowel, has served to clarify something I have been trying to articulate for some time. The synodal pathway, which has excited interest in some quarters since it was launched last year is going to be a tougher experience than we may have imagined it will be.
Why? Why won’t the exercise of synodality be the irenic experience much of the coverage of the process so far suggests? The obvious answers have been well rehearsed: there is so much at stake; there is so much hurt and there is the perception that there is so much that has still to be resolved between the teaching of the Church and the actual experience of Catholics everywhere.
We may be anxious too, in spite of how determined we feel, that attempts to resolve what is frustrating and outraging us will be destructive. We remain determined, though, because it is also true that we have faith, we have hope and we are impelled by love, which in the current environment expresses itself in our concern that everyone is made feel they are welcome in the Church, that because we are children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, no one in this ‘family’ is to be ostracised. We can only meaningfully address the issues that challenge us, after all, if we are prepared to be in each other’s company.
Our experience of family has changed but it remains central. Families, and society generally have grown in appreciation that each of us is a person in whom lies the basis of all we are to each other relationally. The human person is the basis of family, society and Church and in the Christian perspective the human person has eternal value.
Family is more flexible today than we may have accepted in the past and this corresponds to a perception of wider society also. The global character of contemporary life challenges traditional perceptions of nationality and ethnicity for example. The phenomenon of migration compels humanity as a whole to reimagine its certainties.
Furthermore, migration stirs a ‘memory’ in people with any awareness of our faith story. We remember we are a migratory people, a pilgrim people ourselves and always have been.
One of the profoundest changes in perception and attitude in the Church in the last century was to have surrendered the Tridentine emphasis of the church as the city on the hill, a perfect society, above and remote from temporal life, with little to say except to call the world to repentance. Calling the world to repentance remains an important part of the mission of the Church but in returning to the scriptural insight of being a pilgrim people, the Church also acknowledges how ‘forgiving’ the experience of meeting Christ must be. In adversity we need encouragement.
Jesus himself takes his lead from those who preceded him. From its earliest understanding of itself, Israel defined itself as a people, travelling from brokenness and slavery in Egypt into integrity and liberty in a promised land.
This journey, from waste land to a promised land, is a symbolic representation of the whole of creation in which God takes all that was dark and chaotic and breathes life into it. Christians see themselves as pilgrims too, part of the family of Israel, moving steadily towards the fulfilment of the promise that we might all live in the peace or Shalom of God.
Like Christ the Church must enflesh the insights of Christian faith. If Christ is the incarnate word of God, walking the road with people in all their experiences in life, then the disciples of Christ must be the incarnate word in their own time. This is an approach fraught with risk and that risk is precisely the same as Christ himself took.
We risk mutual incomprehension, tension and even rejection. In his willingness to be with people many considered difficult or even untouchable, however, Jesus shows how the Church must be.
As the term synodal pathway suggests, the imagery of pilgrimage is key to grasping the significance of what the Church is trying to accomplish.
But, if we genuinely appreciate what pilgrimage or the implications of being part of a caravan on this scale entails, we must surely realise this is going to be a long and exhausting journey and even when we think we have come to the end, we will only have passed another stage on the route. Our personal or sectional sense of place and achievement will be compressed into the perspective of a wider horizon awaiting us further on.
In the spiritual life, we approach the Lord in all sorts of ways. Our individuality, our being unique – each of us – is part of the foundation on which the Lord will build a communion. Like figures in the scriptures, we can be sincere, humble, faith-filled, contrite, hopeful and striving to live in the love we see and experience in God.
But, we can also be calculating, over-confident and complacent, comforting ourselves with the idea that the boundless mercy of God can surely accommodate us who, even if our virtue is less than heroic, neither are our vices that dreadful.
We tell ourselves our virtue may be modest but our sins are venial. ‘Easy does it,’ as it were. We are the people who keep the caravan between the hedges. This complacency is also key, I think, to what we will make of the synodal pathway because often in discussion perceptions and interpretations confer a weight on opinions which appear to say matters are closed.
In our sense that we are sincere and have immersed ourselves in the processes of discernment that seek to renew the life of the Church, we may not be prepared for or willing to listen to the equally sincere voice saying something contrary to our own views.
Our complacency risks confusing the good of the Church with how we imagine the Church might do better. Precisely because the experience of being on pilgrimage, of being unsure of even our most basic needs, of having, as Jesus said, nowhere to lay our heads, is so unsettling, there is no room for complacency.
In actual terms, the experience of the synodal pathway will challenge what we hope for. Our own images of God and the Church will be tested for traces of the idolatrous tendencies we all have to fix both in ways that conform to what we want.
This will be tested when the issues that were to the fore in the National Synthesis Document which was published in August will be examined in wider discussion involving the Church in other parts of the world. How ready are we to see what we have had to say contend with the parsing and editing others will bring to the process?
Discipleship at any time needs to be examined in all its elements. These include receptivity to the word of God and to the teaching of the Church as well as liturgy and ministry, hierarchy and leadership and more fundamentally, the care of those in poverty and illness, and concern and action on behalf of people in bondage.
In good conscience we may be led to accept that our stewardship of the environment is an article of faith every bit as serious as others. If our being ‘in a state of grace’ is measurable against a reappraisal of the virtues of generosity and temperance in opposition to avarice and unbridled consumption of material goods, imagine the implications for personal use of various resources, not simply because of the needs of the environment itself but so that people who have been left with nothing, when others have taken practically everything, will have something.
A sense that things are in flux is not necessarily a crisis. We are familiar with the adage from Hebrews, ‘We have not here a lasting city’ (Heb 13:14). It is, though, a reminder to be attentive and to be open to what is happening and to take on one’s own share of that responsibility.
For those who sense that synodality is a breakthrough and for those who sense it is part of the continuing unravelling of everything, there will be, if I may borrow a phrase, ‘joy and hope… grief and anguish’ for everyone.
The Church and we who are the Church, that is, the institution and the 1.3 billion people who make up this pilgrimage, have recognised for generations now that, by definition, we are never static. Whatever the underlying unity of our faith across the generations, in the 1960s, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, Catholics and Catholicism were not in the same ‘place’ as in the 1800s.
Nor was nineteenth century Catholicism in the same place it had been a century earlier. Since the 1960s the world in which we live and in which we seek to evangelise has changed again. The landscapes on this pilgrimage change all the time. We move through them in awe and apprehension, looking back along the road we have come and looking forward.
The Lord is leading us away and ahead. Having been here for a while, the mission is to go on and that can be hard to live with but we cannot stay and be bound by the present.
Paschal Scallon is Provincial Superior of the Irish Province of the Vincentians.