This article originally appeared in The Courier, the newspaper of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester.
I would like to begin with an apology, for I am going to be absent from our diocese for the next roughly five weeks. Last November, along with four other of my brother bishops, I was elected as a delegate to the international Synod on Synodality, which will take up the entire month of October. The Pope has asked all of the delegates to be present for an ecumenical prayer service in Rome in late September and then for a three-day retreat to be conducted just prior to the opening of the synod—so five weeks in total. I will confess to having some mixed feelings about all this. I love Rome, and October is a beautiful month to be in the Eternal City, and I’m certainly excited about participating in a high-level discussion regarding some important matters in the life of the Church. But I don’t like the prospect of being away from the diocese for such a long stretch of time. That said, I’m leaving our local church in good hands. Fr. Will Thompson, my vicar general, will keep a steady hand on the tiller, as will Fr. Mark McNea, my vicar for clergy, and through my faithful assistant Leandra Hubka, I will stay in close contact in case of any emergencies.
I was a delegate to the Synod on Young People five years ago, so I have a feel for what to expect at this month-long meeting. We will work six days a week—Monday through Saturday—deliberating in plenary sessions and in small language groups. The workday will last from 8:30 in the morning until 7:30 in the evening, with a couple-hour break in the afternoon for a siesta in the Roman manner. There will be delegates from all over the world, this time including a large contingent of lay people. Our discussions will be based on what they call an Instrumentum laboris or “working document,” which for this synod represents the culmination of two years of listening sessions with Catholics from across the globe. At the last synod I attended, we produced and voted on a final document expressive of our convictions. This won’t happen at the October synod, since there will be a follow-up session this time next year. Only when that has played out will, presumably, a final statement be prepared. If this synod is like the last one I attended, the Pope will be personally present at practically every session, but he won’t say very much, since he will want all the delegates to feel free to express their opinions. The proceedings will close with a festive Mass in St. Peter’s Square with Pope Francis.
So that’s the form and structure of the synod, but what about the substance? As the Pope and his representatives have stressed, over and again, the Synod on Synodality will be about involving the entire Church, the whole people of God, in the fulfillment of Christ’s commission to announce the Gospel to all nations. It will be about all of us—clergy and laity—walking together (syn-hodos, “on the way with” in Greek) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this measure, the synod will be very much in continuity with Vatican II’s universal call to holiness and the consistent postconciliar emphasis on a “new” evangelization. It will embody Pope Francis’s oft-stated desire for a Church that goes out from itself all the way to the margins in order to bring Christ to everyone. There is plenty of material in the Instrumentum laboris along these lines, and I am eager to participate in conversations that will give rise to ever more effective strategies to accomplish the Church’s evangelical purpose. As I have often said, the Church should be deeply interested in sending great Catholic lawyers, physicians, business leaders, investors, educators, writers, and entertainers into the world as leaven.
If I might, I would also like to share a concern about the synod. Based upon the hundreds of interventions I read when I was monitoring the pre-synodal process in my pastoral region in California, upon the findings of the Continental stage, and upon the Instrumentum laboris itself, I would say that the dominant concern of those who participated is to provide a greater sense of welcome to those who feel alienated from the life of the Church. The people they have in mind include especially women and those in the LGBT community. Now, addressing feelings of alienation and trying to make the Church as welcoming as possible is always a legitimate pastoral concern. Always.
But some have been suggesting that the synod ought to consider a change in the Church’s moral teaching and sacramental discipline in order to make alienated Catholics feel more included. And here I hesitate, precisely because feelings, however intense, do not in themselves constitute a theological argument. There is a variety of reasons—some good, some bad—why a person might feel unwelcome in the Church. If that alienation is the product of hatred or stupid prejudice, then the situation must be addressed immediately and directly. But if the estrangement is caused by a deep disconnect between what the Church legitimately demands and the manner in which someone is living, then the needful thing is for that person to change his attitude. The point is that we cannot adjudicate the matter by remaining at the level of feelings. We have to move to the level of real argument based on the Bible, the theological tradition, and the natural moral law. My very real hope is that the engagement of both the pastoral and properly theological dimensions of this issue of inclusivity will be a key work of the synod.
Could I ask you please to pray for me and for all of the delegates to the synod as we commence our work? And might I ask that your prayer take the form of a simple invocation of the Holy Spirit?
Veni Sancte Spiritus!