Symptoms of the Synod 2023 III – 25 October 2023

Symptoms of the Synod has been searching for the signification of synodality. What does it mean? It apparently means everything, as it includes a child’s bedtime prayers and the establishment of a new archdiocese. At what point does it, embracing everything, lose all meaning?

The synod may have reached that point this week. In the search for the meaning of synodality, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, offered his take at the synod Mass on Monday. “Our synodal journey is about healing and reconciling our world in justice and peace,” Cardinal Bo preached. He described synodality as “a long march of hope for all humanity” with an eschatological twist.

“We pray that the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, will bring the entire human family into the long march of healing our world and our planet, ultimately leading us to a new heaven and a new earth,” Cardinal Bo said in St. Peter’s Basilica on the 23rd of October.

From the synod hall to December’s climate change conference in Dubai to the new Jerusalem, it’s synodality all the way.

The “Long March” reference was odd and discordant, given the term’s principal association with Mao emerging as the leader of China’s communists. So it was surprising to hear an Asian Cardinal use it positively to describe synodality, especially an estimable Cardinal who has been courageous in criticizing religious persecution in China. That’s an apparent effect of synodality, that words lose their meanings, to the point that a “long march” could be led by Chairman Mao or Pope Francis.

Back to the Future with the Future Benedict XVI

The synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church does not lack for advisors, facilitators, moderators – and some fear, manipulators. Periodically, a theologian is brought in to guide the members, and one such was Father Ormond Rush of Australia.

No one having being able to figure out a definition of synodality, Fr Rush turned his attention to a proper understanding of tradition, addressing  himself to those who “are struggling with the notion of tradition, in the light of your love of truth.”

Fr. Rush identified the “trap” of “being anchored exclusively in the past, or exclusively in the present, or not being open to the future fullness of divine truth to which the Spirit of truth is leading the Church.”

That’s obviously true, but who is “exclusively” anchored in the past? Devotees of the Latin Mass prefer that part of the past, but most don’t keep the midnight fast for Holy Communion. And there is the unmentioned “trap” of presuming to know now what the Holy Spirit will do in the future. Everyone likes to think that what he prefers in the present will prevail in the future. That too can be a trap – for progressives as well as conservatives – closing off the possibility that God may have corrections in store.

Fr. Rush drew upon what a young Father Joseph Ratzinger wrote on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, criticizing the original drafts drawn up by the Roman Curia. It was a helpful reminder that Pope Benedict XVI was not a traditionalist reactionary, but a creative thinker within the tradition. Rush referred to Ratzinger’s distinction between “static” and “dynamic” tradition, arguing that “the former is legalistic, propositional, and ahistorical (i.e., relevant for all times and places); the latter is personalist, sacramental, and rooted in history.”

Indeed, Ratzinger’s analysis of Vatican II bears revisiting:

The real question behind the discussion could be put this way: Was the intellectual position of “anti-Modernism” – the old policy of exclusiveness, condemnation and defense leading to an almost neurotic denial of all that was new – to be continued? Or would the Church, after it had taken all the necessary precautions to protect the faith, turn over a new leaf and move on into a new and positive encounter with its own origins, with its [fellow human beings] and with the world of today?

Since a clear majority of the fathers opted for the second alternative, we may even speak of the Council as a new beginning. We may also say that with this decision there was a major advance over Vatican Council I. Both Trent and Vatican Council I set up bulwarks for the faith to assure it and to protect it; Vatican Council II turned itself to a new task, building on the work of the two previous Councils.

That really is the heart of the promise and peril of the synod on synodality. Is it breaching the bulwarks of the faith, or is it building upon them? Revisiting Ratzinger’s long career is a reminder that what he considered a building project soon became a breach – to which he devoted much of his life to repairing.

Conspiracies Holy and Unholy

Father Thomas Reese, SJ, who has appeared in this Symptoms series before, put a direct question to Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas. Is the synod “being manipulated by a liberal cabal of staff and theologians”?

Bishop Flores acknowledged that we live “in a very suspicious age” but that there was no conspiracy afoot.

A synod should be a kind of conspiracy though, the bishops “con-spiring” – breathing together with the Holy Spirit. The dominant image of the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church has been “walking together”, which has venerable precedents in Sacred Scripture. But even older in the biblical telling of things is “breathing together.” Man walks together with other men and beasts. Breathing together with God in something rather more elevated.

Fr. Rush captured something of that when, referencing the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, he recommended that the synodal assembly begins its synthesis report with the words, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . .”

Of course, there can be others conspiring, breathing together with the spirit of the age, or simply inhaling the toxic fumes of the post-Christian culture. That too is at the heart of the synodal process. What kind of conspiring is going on, holy or unholy?

Acts 15 has another lesson. Just after the verse above, we read that Paul no longer wished to walk together with Mark: And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.” (Acts 15:39) Breathing with God sometimes means not walking together after all.

Natural Synodal Planning

Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, who preached the initial three-day retreat to the synod participants, has occasionally popped back in to share some spiritual reflections (video, 9:25 – 17:45). He offered the image of pregnancy to describe the eleven-month intersession between this year’s assembly and next year’s. Given that the synodal process began more than two years ago, the gestation has already exceeded elephantine proportions.

“We are pregnant!” exulted Fr. Radcliffe, no doubt delighted that the practice of natural synodal planning has succeeded in conceiving still more synodality.

He then adopted other natural metaphor, claiming that the “the synodal process is organic and ecological rather than competitive. It is more like planting a tree than winning a battle.”

Like Scripture, nature provides more than univocal images. There are, in fact, battles aplenty. Many organic and ecological processes are fiercely competitive, as when the predators tear apart and chew up the isolated, the young, the elderly and the sick for their prey. Again, the central question returns. Is the synodal process one that is planting the faith anew, or preying upon it?

Wearing Synodality 

After three weeks, the long days can be a bit wearing. But what is actually worn in the synod hall is also worthy of note.  Fr. Rush delivered his talk in a jacket and tie.

Previous synods required all clerics to wear the cassock, an application of the custom that clerics always wore cassocks in the presence of the pope. In 2016, I was at an audience Pope Francis granted to several hundred priests. I wore my cassock; beside me was priest in black jeans. I found it so disrespectful to Pope Francis and off-putting that I have not been back to a papal audience since. It’s my private protest against slipping sacerdotal sartorial standards.

The most famous synodal speech ever – actually, perhaps the only one ever remembered – was given by Cardinal Bernard Law in 1985, at the synod to mark the twentieth anniversary of the end of Vatican II. He gave his “blue jeans” intervention arguing that is should be “possible to express the faith in a common language.” That led to the decision to issue the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Speaking in Latin, Law said, “Iuvenes Bostoniensis, Leningradiensis et Sacti Jacobi in Chile induti sunt ‘blue jeans’ et audiunt et saltant eandem musicam.” (Young people in Boston, Leningrad and Santiago, Chile, wear the same blue jeans and listen and dance to the same music.)

There was no Latin word for “blue jeans”, it not being a thing in either classical or ecclesial settings. Less than forty years later, they are wearing blue jeans at this synod. Ball caps have also been seen. One archbishop thinks the informality is the “best thing” about it all – no more cassocks.

To be sure, the synod is not marked by slovenly sweatpants. But clothes matter, especially in a Church which has a splendid array of them. It’s a small thing. But if it’s also the best thing, then perhaps it’s not a small thing after all.

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is a Canadian priest, Catholic commentator, and Senior Fellow at Cardus.