Reimagining the Church in Response to Pope Francis’ Way of Synodality

One of the good things about this continuing “covid-moment” has been time to read and think with others via zoom groups. For me this has involved several groups of older Catholic guys, though some might prefer a “former Catholic” designation, and one of the groups is involved with a larger synodal process involving women, the young, and others who are typically marginalized. While each of these groups has its own rhythm and focus, they share a common concern to reappropriate basic Christian beliefs and to re-imagine Catholic structures and practices.

Said differently, while only recently responding explicitly to Pope Francis’ call for a Church-wide synodal process, these zoom groups have actually been engaged in that process for some time. One group has read and discussed Francis’ recent book Let Us Dream which gives, I believe, the best short explanation of what synodality is and demands of us.

What I’m attempting to write below are my take-aways from these zoom experiences. I hope that it might contribute to the further development of “the way of synodality” for both church and world. Since this essay will be longish, readers should feel free to scan and skip.

For anyone interested, this writing continues the reflections of two previous postings on this blog. The most recent is an introduction to Pope Francis’ Let Us Dream which gives my understanding of what Francis means by “the way of synodality.” A few months earlier I had posted an essay on my understanding of “Being (Roman) Catholic.”

First, a brief autobiographical note. I’ve also been using this covid moment to clean out files from courses I’ve taught over the years as well as lectures I’ve given to a variety of audiences. I’m amazed at how much concern for reform of the Catholic Church has been central to my teaching and lectures over many years. No surprise, I suppose, since I did both my theological studies and my doctoral work in philosophy of religion in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. Perhaps “reverberations” is a better word than “aftermath”. For the entire world of religious thought and practice was deeply affected by Vatican II’s call for reform of Roman Catholicism – a call which led to major changes in relations between Christian churches (i.e., ecumenism) and between the world’s religions (i.e., interfaith dialogue and collaboration). My present commitment to Francis’ “way of synodality” is simply the latest chapter in that half-century of concern for the transformation not only of Roman Catholicism, but also of relations between all religions and the relationship of these religions to the culture and politics of their regions.

I shall be using numbered sections to identify major elements of my own “reimagined Catholicism.” Yet with awareness that these sections inevitably overlap and repeat ideas found in other sections. There is, in other words, no specific sequencing of these numbered sections.

1. We must work for A MORE INCLUSIVE CHURCH. That has been a theme in every discussion I’ve participated in. And in all my courses and lectures. It’s summarized in an old tag line about “Catholic means here comes everyone” — a reference to the immigrant church in the US with Italians and Germans, Irish and Poles, as well as the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, and so on. Yet that tag line took on far greater meaning at Vatican II when the Old Lady shook herself from a centuries-long slumber and determined to become far more catholic, far more a church of everyone.

For some reason a funny story from the 60s comes to mind. It’s about a beggar and the then notoriously conservative Cardinal MacIntyre of Los Angeles. His eminence was presiding at the Cathedral when people began to hear bells moving up the central aisle. Turns out it was a well-known street guy who wore bells on his ragged garments. He headed directly to the Cardinal seated up front. Holding a fig newton in his rough hand, he offered it to the Cardinal saying “peace brother”. That’s all I remember of this perhaps mythic story. Not sure how it turned out. Yet it comes now to my mind as a wonderfully ironic metaphor for catholic inclusiveness. I have little doubt that in an analogous situation, Pope Francis would have accepted the cookie, invited the beggar to sit, and offered him communion with no questions asked. Of course that’s my myth.

The reality is that we need to imagine a church that includes the poor as well as the wealthy, the gay as well as the straight, the black and brown, yellow and white. And, of course, women as well as men.

As I imagine it, this inclusiveness is not just letting folks in the door, but urging all to active participation – in worship and communion, speaking and listening, leading and following. Perhaps like that Gospel parable about the master sending his servants into the streets to invite everyone to the feast when the special guests have failed to come.

One participant in my zoom groups imagined a church experienced as circular rather than a hierarchical pyramid. I agree with the image of an inclusive circle, but also (see below) think there is need for some sort of hierarchy. It’s both-and rather than either-or.

2. We must work for A FURTHER RENEWAL OF WORSHIP in our church. I say “further” renewal since we experienced a major, but initial renewal in the years after Vatican II (in the 60s and 70s). And that initial renewal was both welcome and disturbing. We turned the altar around, built semi-circular churches, largely did away with communion rails separating presider and people, and encouraged communion under both species with lay folk as communion ministers. All good starts in my view. Yet, again in my view, we lost some of the sense of sacrality, the special smells and bells associated with the old churches and Latin masses. In emphasizing the centrality of the Eucharist, we effectively lost much of the devotional life which had characterized pre-Vatican II prayer and worship – things like novenas, adoration, and the rosary (even if Joe still carries one in his pocket and I often mumble the words while falling off to sleep). We’ve also lost people in our church communities, both folks who were at a loss without the older forms of sacrality and those who felt that things hadn’t gone far enough in terms of lay involvement, especially the leadership of women and more regular lay preaching.

I am not sure how we best imagine further renewal. I am convinced that worship is a fundamental human need and aspiration. Yet I also know we have a long way to go in developing forms of worship that will meet that need for the many, not just for the few. Better forms of music and song. Better leadership in presiding and preaching.

Clearly we need women clergy (eventually bishops and popes), but Francis is right in arguing that the deeper problem is clericalism itself, a problem which will not be solved by ordaining women and married folks. Evidence for this failure can be found in the still-pervasive clericalism in all those churches which already ordain women and the married.

My one suggestion would be that we imagine the sacraments as different forms of ministry and ordination. So that we would have an order for those (women or men) who are confessors – those who are good at confession and spiritual direction. And an order for liturgical presiders. Another for preachers. Another for those who care for the sick and bury the dead. Said differently, we do need trained clerical leadership in many dimensions of the church’s sacramental life. But we need to work against clericalism, against the reification of a clerical caste. This is, of course, only one suggestion, and perhaps not a good one. We will need a long period of trial and error, with great tolerance and love for those who do not find new developments adequate or who resist them tooth and nail.

Yet, as another participant said, the Eucharist must remain the center of Catholic life whatever forms and structures develop.


There is so much we can learn from the others in terms of their experience with worship and leadership.

The spread of Buddhist forms of meditation and mantra among many Christians is but one example of such learning. So too, I suspect, the development of a great variety of musical forms among other Christians, perhaps especially among evangelicals.

I remember during my years of teaching how many students (Catholic and other Christians) sought out the “rock liturgies” of some of the area’s mega-churches. They seemed to find there a kind of fellowship lacking in more traditional churches. I never agreed since I much preferred (and still do) the more monastic solemnity of chant and the magnificent polyphony of Orthodox churches. Yet many of my students did find solace and hope in these more hyped evangelical liturgies.

In the end, though, I wonder why we need to sanctify only one form of worship? I suspect it’s because of the clerical need for control. Yet the Catholic history of different forms of spirituality and worship associated with different religious orders (Benedictine and Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit) and with different rites (Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) gives evidence of legitimately different forms within the one “catholic” whole. Why not more of the same today?

We Catholics can also learn from Hindus and Jews, from Muslims and Indigenous Peoples. And not just with regard to worship. We can learn to collaborate for justice in our global community. Pope Francis has clearly made outreach to and collaboration with Muslims utterly central to his mission. Probably because that is the central issue facing Europe today. Perhaps for those of us in the US such outreach and collaboration is especially needed not just with Jews and Muslims, but with our Native Peoples.

I have colleagues who regularly led Holy Week trips to New Mexico to witness the interweaving of Native and Catholic ceremonies among the Navajo and Pueblo peoples there. I regularly had students read Black Elk Speaks in my “intro to religion” course. Always supplementing the book’s account with the fact that Black Elk himself (after the battle of Wounded Knee where the book effectively ends) became a Catholic catechist among his people for the many years of his later life. A friend, a Lakota Franciscan Sister, wrote a short “Retreat With Black Elk” for use not only by her fellow indigenous Catholics, but by all of us. And it is for me a great consolation to know that Black Elk’s cause for canonization is presently being encouraged by Francis himself.

4. And then there is the difficult matter of DOCTRINAL AUTHORITY AND DEVELOPMENT.

There are many among so-called liberals who want to de-emphasize doctrine as too left-brained (or is it right?), while the self-described orthodox fight mightily to preserve traditional teachings and the authoritative voice of the hierarchy in matters of both faith and morals.

Such “conservatism” may be noble, but it is a lost cause, though always recurring. There is simply too much compelling evidence that Christian and Catholic doctrine has always undergone significant change and development, even reversals and contradictions. Certainly the inevitable ordination of women will contradict JP II’s causa finita. To say nothing of the pervasive Catholic rejection of teachings about artificial birth control, pre-marital sex, and divorce-and-remarriage.

Yet while the opposing “liberalism” is also often noble, it is also terribly simplistic. Something akin to Robert Frost’s description of poets writing free verse without ever learning traditional techniques: it’s like trying to learn tennis with the net down and no lines. They are angelic romantics, hoping for all in terms of feeling and intuition while cutting off their heads.

It is clear that doctrines develop and change, and even reverse themselves. Capital punishment and justified warfare were accepted Catholic teaching for millennia. But no more. No more. Though it not clear what has replaced them. And that fact, of course, indicates the need for forms of authority to ride herd on an always burgeoning conflict of opinions.

Put more bluntly, we need bishops as guardians of tradition and regulators of debate. We may disagree with them in conscience or on good theological grounds (for we also need the theologians, saints, and mystics to guide us). But without such care for both tradition and development, the center cannot hold. Indeed, there is no center to hold. Not only no Catholicism, but no Christianity at all. Just an endless proliferation of sects and idiosyncrasies. And the same is true for the other great religious traditions with their different forms of authority and ways of judging fidelity.

For us, of course, the cornerstone and criterion for such judgments is Jesus. But Jesus is known only through the Gospels which themselves are documents written and made canonical by the authority of the early church. And they have been interpreted and handed on by the creeds of various councils and by the witness of saints and the writings of mystics, and of course not only by the great theologians (female as well as male) but also by movements of popular piety through the centuries, such as the great upswelling of Marian devotions throughout the 19th Century.

I believe that Pope Francis has provided us with the best contemporary way towards integrating tradition and change – the way of synodality. He’s very clear that synodality is NOT the same as parliamentary democracy. It’s not a matter of popular vote or some such. Rather it is a way for Catholics and other Christians to encounter each other, listening above all, in an effort to understand the meaning of fidelity to Jesus in our times and our different situations.

In this “way of synodality,” we will need the refereeing or governing authority of the Bishops and the Pope. But that governing role will only work when they too have really engaged in the “here comes everyone” process of synodality, have really listened and discerned with the rest of us.

5. Next, there is the crucial matter of INTEGRATING WORDS WITH ACTION in efforts to EMBODY THE KINGDOM which God is always-already nurturing among us.

One of the zoom participants was deeply concerned that this whole synodal business would be just more blah, blah, blah. All talk and no significant action. I very much agree, perhaps especially because I am a talker and he is an admirable man of concrete action for the immigrant and the poor.

That’s why we need to follow Francis “to the margins” of our societies (and to the poor and suffering parts of our own selves). As he says, we must touch and be touched by human suffering. We must listen and learn at the margins – not only from human suffering, but especially from the popular movements of protest and transformation which are emerging there.

Contra Augustine, at least to some extent, the reign of God’s Spirit is to be experienced less in the church than in the world, or at least as much in the world as in the church. Thus, again with Francis, the churches must move into the streets, into the mud and mess of our world. Our synodality must not only open church doors to include those on the margins, but must open doors into that world. Even as worship/eucharist remains central. It’s once again a both-and.

6. Another zoom participant urged a REVISIONING OF PARISHES so that they are composed of many SMALL COMMUNITIES WITHIN THE UNITY OF A LARGER PARISH.

His intention is NOT to encourage enclaves of withdrawal within the larger parish; rather it is to engender a revitalization of faith within the larger parish by means of revitalization in the smaller groups. Even more, it should enable the members of both the smaller communities and the larger parish to move with faith and courage into the world via the work and other public engagements of individuals and families in the parish.

Two of my zoom groups are composed entirely of present and former Marianists (members of the Society of Mary). The vision of the Founder of that religious order (Blessed William Joseph Chaminade) was to re-Christianize French society after the secularism enforced by the Revolution by means of “sodalities” or small communities of lay folks (women and men) who lived and worked in various sectors of modern/secular society. Bringing the Reign of God’s Spirit, in other words, into post-revolutionary France less through a recovery of traditional parish structures than through the presence of such disciples (or evangelizers or witnesses) within the many different institutional sectors of society. It is that vision that has led Marianists today to leadership roles in the “small Christian community movement” for the revitalization of parishes and the evangelization of the world.

7. There are many more aspects of a re-imagined Catholicism that should be noted. Yet the final question I wish to raise here concerns whether all such re-imagining of the Church is mere fantasy, something totally unrealistic in view of the deep “liberal-conservative” polarization within the Catholic and other Christian churches in this country, and within all of the great religious traditions. Mere fantasy, especially in light of what seems subtle but strong resistance to serious participation in the synodal way in many dioceses in the US?

The answer, as I see it, is twofold. First, whatever the polarizations and resistances (which are very real), the effort to reimagine church is worth it. Our ideas can be sent directly to the Vatican where they will be received and perhaps heard. Yet even were that not so, it remains an act of fidelity for us, as individuals and groups, to try to discern the movements of the Spirit among us and to embody them in our own practice.

Yet there is a second, deeply ironic reason for hope that such imaginative action is not a waste of time and energy. I refer to the major crises we humans are now facing and will continue to have to face – whether we want to or not – for the foreseeable future. From Covid to climate change, with the great migration of peoples and the consequent violence and warfare they will entail. We, in the churches and in the world, will be forced by tragedy and suffering, to reimagine the nature of our institutions and beliefs.

Yes, the most immediate response to such crises is a resort to tyranny – from Trump and Putin to Hindu (and even Buddhist) nationalists, and so on. And that continually recurring response will cause much death, many “holocausts” large and small. Yet I am certain that the spirit of the Gospel – and, I believe, the meaning of Torah and Quran, of Hindu and Buddhist texts, of Confucianism and the Tao, as well as the great streams of humanism which run, in different ways, throughout world history – I believe that these great currents of meaning cannot long endure the iron cages of tyranny and ideology.

That, at any rate, is my hope.

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