With all the chatter about the Synod on Synodality and as our bishops meet in Baltimore this week, my intense disdain for meetings has hit me with renewed, brutal force. As a high school administrator, I inherited a weekly faculty meeting, Fridays at 3 p.m. (Who in his right mind selected that time-slot?) These torture sessions often went on until 5 p.m. – because some teachers just loved them. Actually, they loved hearing themselves drone on.
We may hope that our bishops will do more than just talk this week – there is the serious business of Biden/Pelosi/et al. to address, which we may hope will be treated in the way it deserves. But our expectations must be tempered by the reality of large meetings.
People in business understand “the curse of meetings.” One asserted:
I spend far too much time in meetings rather than focusing on my priorities. The meetings I attend range from chaotic to tedious and I never leave feeling more inspired, excited or clearer than when I walked in. Everything seems to take too long, and I often find myself not knowing the purpose of the meeting or what contribution is expected. Actions that are agreed and signed up to are never followed through. I have noticed people getting more and more cynical and disengaged.
The present pope, who repeatedly decries the proliferation of “airport bishops,” has dragged more bishops to airports than all of his predecessors put together. John Paul II liked meetings, but this pope can’t get enough of them. One wag declared that, when the Church lacks external persecution, God substitutes for it by letting us have meetings ad infinitum. My personal observation over the years: we are plagued with meetings because leaders need to convince themselves that something is happening.
Parish priests are inundated with meetings: staff, pastoral council, finance council, school board, liturgy committee (if a priest needs advice from laypeople about how to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, he ought to hand in his collar). Some priests relish these encounters, others dread them. It’s no exaggeration, however, to say that these meetings are the very source for the average pastor’s exhaustion and ennui. Yet most allow them to continue, useless as they generally are. Those who foster and appreciate these meetings are, in my experience, precisely the clergy who need convincing that something is happening in their corner of the Lord’s vineyard.
We find the same mentality in the ever-present and vacuous “mission statements.” As both a pastor and school administrator, when asked for a mission statement, I replied: “That everyone in this community become a saint and go to Heaven.” Which was almost always greeted with a glazed look.
A Catholic can be excused for regarding meetings with a cynical or jaundiced attitude. We know, from long and painful experience, that participation in those gatherings is usually futile. Discussions on church renovation projects or parish reconfigurations rarely – if ever – spring from a genuine desire for input. Rather, they are most often attempts to rubber-stamp predetermined results, with the consultations giving some semblance of openness and legitimacy to foregone conclusions.
I have often invited suggestions for meeting agendas. A parishioner once complained that her suggestion didn’t find its way onto the agenda. “That’s because it’s not an item on which I am open to discussion or change.” She bristled, saying that she thought at least discussing the issue would be helpful. I replied: “I do not believe in raising false hopes.” To my mind, matters open to discussion ought to be truly negotiable matters.
Addressing the processes involved in the Synod on Synodality, Archbishop Wolfgang Haas of Liechtenstein seems to possess a similar mentality; explaining his decision not to have his Archdiocese participate in the worldwide process, he said he believes that the synod runs “the risk of becoming ideological.”
A telling excerpt from Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the topic has made the rounds in the media the past several weeks. He admitted that he wasn’t quite sure about what synods and synodality were all about – and then went on to express his suspicion that Francis doesn’t, either!
Many church historians have pointed out the risky business of synods and councils. The future Paul VI is alleged to have responded to John XXIII’s call for the council with these prescient words: “This holy old boy doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”
Cardinal Newman observed in his Apologia pro Vita Sua: “Living movements do not come of committees,” an insight he may have gained from St. Gregory Nazianzen’s attitude: “If I must speak the truth, I feel disposed to shun every conference of bishops; because I never saw a synod brought to a happy issue, nor remedying, but rather increasing, existing evils.” (Ep. 55) And hasn’t every synod of the current pontificate been precisely a living out of Francis’ challenge to the youth in Rio de Janeiro: “Hagan lío!” (“Make a mess!”)?
An elderly Sister, whom I hired to save her from an unnecessary and unwanted retirement put it well – and bluntly. Sister Rose Louise gingerly approached me to say that she would not be able to come to work on Friday. I asked the reason.
“You’ll just get angry, Father.”
“I could never be angry with you, Sister. Do you have a doctor’s appointment?”
“No, we have a mandatory Community meeting.”
“Those damned Community meetings.”
“See, I knew you would be angry.But let me just say this.I have been a Religious for over sixty years.For the first fifty years, we never had any meetings, but everyone knew who she was, where she should be, and what she should be doing. For the past ten years, we’ve never stopped having meetings – and nobody knows who she is, where she should be, or what she should be doing.”
Exactly. The just judgment of a wise old nun.
*Image: The Sleeping Cardinal by Fernando Botero, 1967 [Kunsthal, Rotterdam]
You may also enjoy:
Stephen P. White’s Synodality Is What You Make of It
Eduardo J. Echeverria’s Vatican II and the Synod on Youth