Be the change you want to see
By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
There’s an evangelical church in my part of the world that likes to talk about “a new way to do church.”
I get it. It’s an ultra-modern (or is that “post-modern”) way to speak. It will come in handy when we find time to “do lunch” together, right?
Okay, I’ll spare you all that fad talk. But I do want to focus on a new way of being church that may be coming to your local diocese or parish soon.
It’s a way of being church that Pope Francis has been promoting since long before he was pope.
It’s also a way that many laity, especially young people, and clergy – including not a few cardinals, archbishops and bishops – embraced by the end of the recent Bishops’ Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, held at the Vatican Oct. 3-28.
The synod touched on a lot of topics. It’s a 60-page final report with sections on:
- treatment of women in society and in the church,
- the church's attitude toward LGBT members (though that term is not used),
- clerical sex abuse,
- human trafficking, and
Because participants discussed so many things – and two-thirds of them had to agree to every paragraph in the final report -- the synod did not offer a lot of specific proposals, much less earth-shaking ones.
But the lasting legacy of this synod many not be any of its formal observations or conclusions. Instead, it may be the spirit and process of the synod – which pretty much represents a new way of being church.
If Americans were hoping for an event that would address in detail its concerns about declining practice of the faith among Catholics of all ages – but most especially and dramatically by young Catholics – they are likely to be disappointed.
That’s because the church is a global organization – universal – and problems in the U.S. and other First World countries are not the same as problems in the Third World. Cardinal Archbishop Bienvenu Manamika Bafouakouahou from Congo addressed this reality.
He said that in his part of the world migration is a real issue. As he explained, young people are looking for a better life but they are also driven from their homes, expelled from their land. And war is not the only cause, he added. In part, the problem is caused by the degradation of the ecosystem at the hands of multinationals.
Reflecting global challenges, the final report was strengthened in its dealing with warfare, poverty, refugees, migration, human trafficking and corruption – although, ironically, it was reported that a First World presence, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, played a key role in advocating for these topics.
The report concluded: "The church's concern is directed particularly at those who are fleeing war, violence, political or religious persecution, natural disasters due to climate change, and extreme poverty."
At the same time, young attendees from around the world were struck by the similarity of their concerns: they want to be acknowledged, they want to be heard, they want to be helped and, yes, they want to be guided.
But it’s clear that the first thing they come to the church for is not guidance – much less a collection of rules they are required to abide.
Focus on listening
What the synod reflected – and what Pope Francis urged – was a focus on listening to young people and accompanying them on their life journeys.
That was the theme reflected in the synod’s scriptural focus, the account in the Gospel of St. Luke where after resurrection Jesus encounters two disciples on their way to Emmaus and anonymously listens to them (Lk 24:13-25).
That was also a theme Pope Francis expressed in his homily at the Mass opening the synod. He said bishops should seek "to enter into communion with the diverse situations that the People of God experience." Doing so, he added, "protects us from the lure of abstract ideologies that never touch the realities of our people."
Be the change you want to see
Through the nearly month-long gathering, there seemed to be a focus on something Americans don’t often get but which turns out to matter very much in the grand sweep of history.
In the pope’s purpose, it seems obvious that he saw this synod as an opportunity to “be the change you want to see.” There’s not an obvious news peg in that, which may explain why there wasn’t much coverage of the synod in U.S. media, not even Catholic media.
But look at the church – the whole church. Its behaviors are rooted in precedent. When the church faces the challenges of today, it looks at what it did the day before, the year before, the decade before, the century and even centuries before.
How change happens
Careful observers have learned that if you want to change the church, you create a precedent that can serve as the basis of new behaviors moving forward.
In my view, that was the biggest accomplishment of the synod. More than 30 young people spoke. They said incredible things. And leaders listened, really listened. Both young people and leaders acknowledged that.
Not only that – they seemed to enjoy the process. Some called it "joyful" and "hopeful," thanks to the presence of young people in the synod hall.
Synods under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were more formal, controlled events, with curial cardinals telling members of the synod what they could and could not discuss. This synod included extensive preparations, but they didn’t lead to scripts for participants to follow. Indeed, attendees spoke of the open dialogue and conversations that took place, especially in the small groups organized by language.
Young become the teachers
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines has attended seven synods, and says he doesn’t like comparing them. But he said this most recent one was “like a school, young people have been teaching us, by sharing their dreams and desires but most especially by telling their stories.”
He added that another unique aspect to this synod was that the feminine voice was heard. He explained that the testimony of the young women at the Synod provided a much-needed expansion of horizons. The cardinal said that when we talk about diversity it is not just about cultures but also the experience of women which is unique.
Controversy arose when it was learned that two non-ordained religious brothers were allowed to serve as synod members, but seven religious sisters taking part were not. According to church theology, both groups have analogous roles as non-ordained, professed members of religious orders. The disparity prompted a protest at the beginning of the synod and inspired a petition drive that garnered more than 9,000 signatures in two weeks.
But Lasallian Br. Robert Schieler, one of the two brothers serving as a synod member, told National Catholic Reporter that the two Rome-based groups representing members of male and female Catholic religious orders globally are planning to present Francis with a proposal to give women a larger role in future synods.
Confession and conversion
There were also elements of confession and conversion among the hierarchy.
For example, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo from Myanmar said that while participating in the synod he realized that young people have not been listened to as they deserve to be. He added that the church needs to realize “that young people are used-less and not useless.”
He promised that he, personally, and the church in Myanmar will give more attention to young people – and he hopes the whole church around the world will do the same.
In his closing homily, Pope Francis asked young people to forgive their church and its leaders.
"Forgive us if often we have not listened to you, if instead of opening our hearts, we have filled your ears,” the pope said. “As Christ's church, we want to listen to you with love" because young people's lives are precious in God's eyes and "in our eyes, too."
The pope thanked the 300 synod members, experts, observers and ecumenical delegates for working in communion, with frankness and with the desire to serve God's people. "May the Lord bless our steps, so that we can listen to young people, be their neighbors and bear witness before them to Jesus, the joy of our lives," he said in his homily.
A new church word
Catholics who have heard more than a few new church words in recent decades – stewardship and evangelization to name but two – should prepare themselves for yet another one: synodality.
For lack of a more formal, even official, definition, synodality refers to a process of working together in mutual respect, listening first and loving always, to discern the will of the Spirit before proposing – or imposing – solutions.
Pope Francis wants the church to become a synodal church – a place where leaders and members listen to one another, labor to understand the reality of people’s lives, and then try to discern the will of the Spirit instead of simply issuing marching orders that are largely ignored and don’t work anyway.
But we should not pretend that all church leaders – or even members – are on board with the pope’s hope. When it came time to vote on the final report’s paragraph encouraging synodality in the church, 51 bishops -- 20 percent of those at the synod – voted against it.
Of course, that left 80 percent in favor, which is a large majority by any measure.
So expect to see more synodality going forward – maybe in your parish, maybe in your diocese, maybe at the Vatican ... and maybe, even, at the next bishops’ synod.