Synodality means walking together

La Croix, Sept 2019

Pope Francis will next month preside over one of his most important assemblies yet, the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region.

A working document released in June 2018 identified what the synod’s three key themes would be: the role of women in the Church, the rights and traditions of indigenous people, and the need to provide greater access to the Eucharist.

The last of these may become the occasion of two major innovations: the ordination of married men and a modification of Eucharistic requirements.

Why have these two needs surfaced? The Amazon region faces a shortage of priests capable of serving remote rural populations.

As Brazil’s Cardinal Claudio Hummes put it a few months ago, “the Amazon needs a Church with an indigenous face,” rather than “a transplanted European Church.” He then asked: “How can we think of an indigenous Church if there are no indigenous clergy?”

And again, since the wheat-based bread normally used for the Eucharist is ill-suited to the Amazon’s humidity, the synod may consider allowing the use of the region’s yucca-based bread instead.

Today we have a pope who is willing to make changes when there is a pastoral need. This was seen five years ago, at the very first Synod on the Family (October 2014) which the pope held in Rome.

The 2014 synod was like no other — for two important reasons. Firstly, the bishops took as their topic the Catholic family and its pressures in today’s society, basing itself on surveys which had been circulated worldwide at least six months before. Earlier synods had been largely on doctrinal issues.

These surveys brought up issues never spoken of in public in the Church: communion for divorced Catholics; artificial contraception and its use among Catholics; and homosexuality promoted as an alternate lifestyle.

And in the context of South Asia, the growing place of interfaith marriages and solidarity with persecuted Catholic families, especially where these are Dalits and tribal people.

The interim report prepared at this synod was circulated to all the dioceses in the Catholic Church and the pope asked that these results should be studied and discussed by everyone. Which brings me to the next point: the way in which the discussions took place.

‘Speak up!’

During earlier synods bishops and cardinals kept mum. It was the pope who spoke and handed over a prepared report. No one was allowed to discuss anything in public. This is how things used to be.

No longer! Pope Francis insists that everyone — bishops, priests, laity — “speak up!” He wants a Church where everyone participates. This is so astonishingly new that it takes a long time getting used to.

For as long as we can remember, no one was allowed to question anything which came from church authority, which might mean the pope or your local parish priest. The worst time in recent years was during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, who censured bishops and theologians for raising questions on church policy and doctrine.

In other words, Catholic religious formation, which was known to rest upon free critical enquiry, receded to the level of indoctrination, as any formation does which represses freedom.

Long ago, one of the ways in which Vatican II described the Church was “a pilgrim people,” which captures the image of a large mass of pilgrims moving toward a common goal. The word “synod” implies this meaning: people walking together. Yet another term is “accompaniment,” as when different people share each other’s joys and trials, and assist each other thereto. In the Indian tradition, the word is “samanvaya.”

Synodality/samanvaya means being accustomed to different paces, to different partners, to different narratives. There are no heretics anymore where the narrative is one of dialogue. In this as well as in so many other ways, Pope Francis has shaped a new style of conversation in the Church.

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai.

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