The pace of news out of Rome is punishing – it is impossible to keep up with all the stories. Just in the first week of the Synod on Synodality for a synodal Church, there was a consistory of Cardinals, a preached retreat to the Synod members, the opening Synodal Mass, a papal policy document on climate change, and combustible responses to not one, but two, sets of Cardinalatial dubia.
How to keep up? Many writers have opted for the diary style, shorter entries covering several topics. In the English media, First Things has “Letters from the Synod,” Crux has “Synod Files,” America magazine has “Synod Diary,” and Catholic News Agency has “This Week at the Synod.”
Following suit, I offer my own chronicle, which I choose to call “Symptoms of the Synod, 2023.”
Why “symptoms”? Symptoms can be observed. Symptoms can be reported. A clever and experienced observer can then make a diagnosis. It’s not easy to do that. So it is with this Synod on Synodality for a synodal Church. No one really knows what it is. All we can do is to observe the symptoms. In due course, a diagnosis of what it is may come.
Vatican News reported that during an early session “participants also asked to explore the term synodality from a lexical point of view in the various languages.”
That’s an indirect way of saying that participants were wondering if synodality meant anything less nebulous in other languages. That news story was headlined, “Synodality: not a concept, but an experience of listening and inclusion.” That’s exactly what a diagnostician does. He listens to symptoms and then tries to get a conceptual grip on what, if anything, is really happening.
Herewith, then, is the first Symptoms of the Synod 2023.
It is unfair to say that no one knows what this synodal process on Synodality for a Synodal Church is? Consider Bishop Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay, Australia, who offered Mass at the retreat for Synod members on the feast of the Guardian Angels. He began his homily thus:
“Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day, be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen. This simple text is one of the earliest prayers that my mother taught me as she accompanied me on the journey of faith. Together with my father, her efforts to model the faith by walking with me were the beginning of the synodal way in my life.”
If a mother teaching her son his basic prayers is “synodal” then synodality can mean anything and everything and has no actual meaning. I remember my mother teaching me the Memorare; neither she, me, nor the Blessed Mother were engaging in synodality.
An Aspiring Patriarch
Pope Francis chose Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. as the retreat master for the compulsory three-day retreat to begin the Synod. The former Master (Superior General) of the Dominicans, 1992-2001, opened with an apology for being the preacher:
I’m deeply aware of my personal limitations. I’m old, white, western, and a man. And I don’t know which is worse. . . .All these aspects of my identity limit my understanding, so I ask your forgiveness for the inadequacy of my words. . . .We remember those who do not yet feel at home in the Church: women who feel that they are unrecognized in a patriarchy of old white men like me!
One wonders why he didn’t decline the invitation, so many and manifold were his inadequacies. I suspect Fr. Radcliffe was having us on. I studied at Cambridge when Fr. Radcliffe was the Master, former provincial of the English province. Our chaplains were Dominicans, and they knew him well. I can assure you that no one then, or since, has ever confused him with a patriarch.
Coming Down to Earth
Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter thought the preacher could have been a bit more patriarchal, as it were, at least in a religious sense. “I would have preferred something a little more vertical, and less horizontal, with greater recognition of the mysteries that surround us Christians on our pilgrim path,” Winters wrote about Radcliffe’s meditations.
But the aged Radcliffe is more up-to-date than Winters. For the day after the retreat ended, Pope Francis published Laudate Deum, his climate change manifesto, perhaps the most horizontal text – most of it could have been written by the United Nations – in the history of the modern papacy.
Strange Orthodoxy Returns
The Holy Father regularly inveighs against “backwardism,” by which he castigates those whom he considers nostalgic for the 1950s. Pope Francis prefers a “backwardism” of the 1970s. The strange orthodoxy of those days has now returned. In Laudate Deum, the Holy Father teaches with, well, a patriarchal authority that would make Elijah blush, about temperature records, U.N. climate conferences, and Chinese emissions. But on another matters – marriage and the sacraments – the patriarch is rather more reticent.
That’s how it was in the 1970s – all sorts of fundamental matters were disputed, but on matters of social and economic policy, there were doctrinaire statements aplenty.
Is synodality about liturgy, perhaps? During discussions of “Module A” of the synod agenda, participants were asked to consider the following:
“How can we grow in a synodal style of liturgical celebration, which highlights the distinctive contribution of all participants, starting from the variety of vocations, charisms, and ministries they bear?”
That is a most interesting question, given that the Catholic Church includes more than twenty Eastern Churches who have their own liturgical traditions. The largest of them have synodal governance. There are eastern members of the synod assembly. Might they have spoken about a “synodal style of liturgy”? The Eastern Churches offer the Eucharist ad orientem; indeed, Ukrainian priests are behind the iconostasis during the consecration.
Perhaps, in addition to childhood prayers, synodality means ad orientem celebration?
Sex Abuse Synodality
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had some thoughts about worship. In a “call to action” it called upon the Synod on Synodality to become a synod on a sexual abuse:
“We ask, that sexual abuse in the Church permeate your discussions as they address teaching, ministry, formation, and governance. As a community of the reconciled, the Church’s sacred worship should also find adequate inclusion and expression of this most intimate of Church failures.”
How to include the sexual abuse crisis into sacred worship? Perhaps an amendment to the Confiteor? Is that what synodal worship is?
It may be that no one knows what synodality means because there are literally no words for it. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, appointed by the Holy Father as the Relator General of this synod assembly, suggested that it is time to “discover a grammar of synodality for our time.” “Just like the grammar of our languages changes as they develop, so does the grammar of synodality: It changes with time,” the Luxembourger Jesuit said.
It’s not clear what this new language might sound like, but one hopes it will not be the lexical equivalent of the artwork chosen for the Synodal logo, which appears to be done by young children. The new grammar of synodality might then be gibberish, words without meaning.
What is synodality? Pay attention to the symptoms.
Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is a Canadian priest, Catholic commentator, and Senior Fellow at Cardus.