Synod on Synodality TAKE 2

This is the official logo for the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Originally scheduled for 2022, the synod will take place in October 2023 to allow for broader consultation at the diocesan, national and regional levels. (CNS photo/courtesy Synod of Bishops)

By Dan Stollenwerk 

I have to say that after reading the Synthesis of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference National Synod – that which will be sent to Rome for the international synod on synodality – I remained disappointed. 

The topics it summarised were more or less what you’d expect: Greater participation of lay people – especially women – in decision-making roles; lay involvement – especially women – in homilies, baptisms, even the anointing of the sick; married priests, women priests, women deacons; prophetic, ecumenical, inter-faith, cultural and ecological leadership; non-judgmental inclusion of all people. 

The seminaries of course needed some fixing. Future priests should be better trained in community engagement, cultural sensitivity and formation in co-responsible leadership.   

In other words, as the document itself surmises, “There was a consistent call for less clerical dominance, and more lay leadership.” 

But the document also pointed out that lay people not only at times enable clericalism, they sometimes even “exhibit clericalism themselves”.  

And in fact, that was my overwhelming impression. After reading the document I sensed an undercurrent on the part of the laity to pull the mantle of clericalism off the clerics and put it on themselves. The teaching about specks and logs in eyes came to mind.   

Fortunately, there was at least mention of confusion about what mission involved and some brave souls speaking of the need for better prison ministry.  

But the question of ministry, it seemed to me, did not go far enough and examples like the very admirable prison ministry were all too sparse.  

The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, it seems to me, had a far more insightful understanding of the laity. When he spoke of the greatest failure of the post Vatican II Catholic Church, he mentioned neither clericalism nor co-responsibility in the conferring of sacramental grace, but rather “the calling forth and forming of laity engaged in the world politically, economically, culturally and socially on faith’s terms, not the world’s terms” 

Fellow American Bishop Robert Barron elicits the same idea by way of questions: How is it that Catholics – politicians, businesspeople, educators, etc. – track the general population when it comes to war, abortion and euthanasia?  Why are we not transforming the world to look more like the Kingdom of God? 

For the last two decades, the Catholic hierarchy has gone through some terrible fires of purgation – and deservedly so – but may I suggest that the lay are also guilty of not living up to our post-Vatican II call? 

Again, as Cardinal George stated – and as this synod synthesis shows – the lay people seem to have spent “far more effort on inner reflection than outer engagement, more focus on community than conversion, more energy on changing the Church, and not enough on changing ourselves, with the help of the Church, so that we can change the world”.  

Or as the somewhat pithier refrain goes: Vatican II sent the lay people out to change the world, but somewhere along the line they took a wrong turn and ended up in the sacristy.  

The Acts of the Apostles succinctly stated the Church’s goal: We are to witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. After the terrible devastation of two world wars and the menace of nuclear suicide, Vatican II rightly saw that goal as needing to be fulfilled in the very structures of society. 

In these same pages I’ve harped well enough on the horrendous sins of the hierarchy, but this time my disappointment was with the laity. I expected more. We are not victims. We are superabundantly blessed. Ours is not to complain; ours is to answer the command of Christ at the end of each Mass to love and serve, and today to love and to serve means to change the structures of society, to revitalise a distressed world, and when we are finished to say, “We are but worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!” 

To engage the world on faith’s terms, not the world’s terms: that is the vocation of the laity. List the other themes as well – the people have spoken – but the failure of the laity to live out our vocation is the most important message we should be sending to Rome. 

Dan Stollenwerk is head of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at St Peter’s College, Auckland.




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  1. Gregory says

    I agree with Dan.
    As a 40 something with young children I am not interested in taking on quasi-clerical roles in the sanctuary. I am interested in evangelization and mission. But what do I evangelize? What is mission when parish closures and falling membership is spun as ‘movement of the spirit’.
    The same Sunday celebration of the Eucharist that is supposed to form me and my young family is a variety-show with talking-points, collects, and prayers-of-the-faithful indistinguishable from National Radio, the NZ Herald, and TVNZ. That’s partly why we track the population on abortion, LGBTIQA+, sexual ethics, pornography use, less on euthanasia, gambling, gluttony, and probably similar on any other less socially fraught sins such as petty theft, avarice, business malpractice and dishonesty etc. Don’t rock the boat. What type of people are attracted to that?
    It’s no different from the ‘world’, there’s no ‘sign of contradiction’, so it’s not going to be transformative.
    Maybe that’s why laity are currently so keen on being clerical – we fundamentally don’t see any risk, suffering, transcendence, and boldness in many clerics. We rightly conclude that it’s all just another political power-position to be shared up.

    I hear and read supposed profundities built on the hermeneutic of God is Love, which is true but it is used to explain away and justify everything. I am hardly ever presented the Kerygma and conversion.
    I am told lofty things such as “Eucharist is the source and summit” and “Imitate the Saints” but am shown something quite different.
    I am unconvinced by the response to sexual abuse and legalistic hair-splitting over ‘vulnerable’ and ‘under age’ and I am unconvinced that our lay chancery and clerical leadership are going to create or even interested in a parish-school environment for my children to be encouraged as Catholic over the next 10 years.

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