Think global, act local

“So we can agree on this: conservatives are right about one thing, the Church of the future will be fewer but truer. Those who turn up for meetings in a Synodal Church will be asked to train for a Synodal Church, to be lectors, catechists, and deacons,” writes Garry O’Sullivan.

‘Conservative’ Catholics love to moan about synodality. “We weren’t consulted” they complained, but they didn’t show up to the consultations opting to boycott and therefore hopefully scuttle the process. When that didn’t work they ran around like Chicken Licken screaming that the doctrinal firmament was about to fall in; ‘we’ll all soon be Anglicans singing Evensong’ they warned ‘and have to endure being preached to -God forbid – by an ordained woman’.

Synodal consultations

Now that the synodal consultations are over and turnout for those focus groups was less than 10% in most dioceses, we can hear the snickers and calls from the same people to scrap the synodal process because it’s not, they say, representational of the broader Catholic community.

This is a straw man argument because as they constantly have reminded us, the Church is not a democracy. Synodality doesn’t need a democratic mandate of 51%. Also who are the broader Catholic community? The percentage of the populace that identifies as Catholic culturally, and is non participating or actually hostile, is far from anything that could be defined as a cohesive community.

So measuring the views of “real” Catholics is basically measuring the views of those who bother to show up. ‘Fewer but truer’, a conservative catchphrase from the papacy of Pope Benedict works nicely for these synodal times. So we can agree on this: conservatives are right about one thing, the Church of the future will be fewer but truer.

Those who turn up for meetings in a Synodal Church will be asked to train for a Synodal Church, to be lectors, catechists, and deacons. They will be formally appointed ministers with Canon Law’s backing and will be tasked with specific ministries on behalf of the Christian community in their parishes.

Parish council

Others will sit on the parish council, or they will be on the finance committee, or the pastoral committee and the liturgical committee and so on. In the parishes where there is life, participation and a sense of belonging, those parishes will be filled with ministers appointed to ministries on behalf of the parish community and it won’t all fall on the shoulders of the one minister, the priest, as it currently does, if there is one.

It won’t because it can’t, time and demographics stand as proof (see Prof. Gladys Ganiel’s research in Queen’s University Belfast). Those parishes that don’t get on board – or perhaps a better analogy is those that stay on board the sinking ship and ignore the lifeboats as Prof Michael A. Conway of Maynooth has written in the Furrow, or think an act of God will save their ship, those parishes will further fade and die or be amalgamated – it’s already happening in Ireland and elsewhere.

Jesse Grose, writing in the New York Times, tells us that in the USA between 6,000 and 10,000 churches close down every year. A 2023 survey carried out by the Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago found that only 39 percent of adults said religion is very important to them, down from 62 percent in 1988.

However belief is still high in God – atheists are only 7% of the population. So it seems that the reality is complicated; people might identify as Catholic but not practice yet their kids might go to Catholic schools, receive the sacraments. The parents might still believe in God and pray.

Religious observance is a rough barometer. Whatever way sociologists and religious writers examine the entrails of polls and questionnaires, the Church of the near future is going to be small and committed. The communities founded by St Paul, the first local churches are thought to have been no larger than 70 or 80 people.

Human community

Theologian Thomas O’Loughlin has written that 150 is about the maximum community size we can engage with properly, where everyone knows everyone. He refers to the small village synagogues archaeologists uncover in the Holy Land; human community, he says, is not scalable hence the 150 limit. These communities would move us away from “sacramental individualism” and “individualised sense of sin”.

Furthermore he says that if we are to have a life of discipleship we must be within an actual community of faith and be supported through common endeavour in that community. In other words, everyone has a role. It’s not ‘sit back and let father do it’ anymore. Even in the early Church (in Corinth) the gathering of all disciples as equals was under pressure because of social status.

Later the ministry of the priest was made distinctive and the assembly was segregated to divide clergy and laity. O’Loughlin says the solution is to create a space free of pews in our huge churches for the smaller assembly of people (about 75) for the experience of a more involved liturgy.

One starting point already available in Canon Law is for every diocese to sponsor the training of acolytes and lectors, equipping men and women to be formally appointed as ministers to act in the liturgy. This is a small step but a necessary one on the road to a Synodal Church, he writes.

What he envisages is a small group of people, a traditionally small parish, where all know each other and come together to stand with the priest to share the eucharist of real bread and wine. A discernment process would be used to find out who are the best people to take on different tasks and ministries – this immediately stops the problem of the same person doing everything and the complaints even found in the Synodal reports of the ‘busy bodies’ found in the Church who put others off. Those with ability and talent are chosen and trained.

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