Signs of the times

The Church calendar is coming to a close, and what a year it has been! In the past month alone there has been a flurry of activity in the higher echelon of the Church, with countless expressions of condemnation, prevarication, anger, sorrow, and frustration flowing almost daily through every media outlet known to humanity. The end of the Liturgical year is filled with apocalyptic warnings of end times and final judgment, how fitting. Yet even in the face of utter disaster, we remain ever hopeful. We can’t help it; it’s in our Christian DNA.

A spark of hope smolders in the aftermath of the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment that took place during the month of October in Rome. Many saw this gathering as an opportunity to evangelize those young people who have left the Catholic Church or who have no affiliation with organized religion. Judging by the final summary of the meeting that has begun to circulate, this gathering allowed for a frank and open discussion about the issues that keep the young away from the Church. It isn’t that the content of the dialogue between the young people and the bishops was so surprising, but the process that brought these groups into conversation may have a lasting impact on the future of the Church. 

Back in 2013, soon after Pope Francis was elected, he proposed an ambitious reform of the way the Church was governed. He wanted to govern in collegiality with the bishops of the local churches, always respecting their autonomy. Pope Francis also wanted a “synodotal” Church. Synods are familiar to most people in the Church, but synodality goes further. A synod is an assembly of Church officials who meet on a particular issue and advise the pope on how he should act. Synodality describes a process in which people in the local Church participate in the governance of the Universal Church. This synod, with participation by many young adults and more than 30 women, had all the makings of a synodal moment for our Church. To be clear, the lay people were collaborators and observers, but had no vote on the final proposals sent to Pope Francis. However, the final document of the synod was rife with the language of cooperation between the laity and the clergy, calling for a participatory and co-responsible Church. “Animated by the Spirit, we can proceed towards a participatory and co-responsible Church, gratefully receiving the contribution of the lay faithful, including young people and women, those in consecrated life, and those members of groups, associations and movements. Nobody must be put aside. This is the way to avoid clericalism, which excludes many people from the decision-making process.”

The laity’s role in decision-making in the Church has never been obvious, and often was wrapped in the vagaries of sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” defines this as a supernatural consent on faith and morals, but synodality seems to be much more concrete. For example, the synod is calling for more shared responsibility in parishes. “Pastoral rethinking of the parish needs to be developed with synergy in its territory, in a logic of ecclesial co-responsibility and of missionary zeal.” The synod also called for training in the skills of collaborative ministry and teamwork for lay people and seminarians.

Involving the laity in the governance of the Church is not a 21st-century innovation or a misplaced longing for democracy. When it comes to the Church, what seems new and innovative is usually a reemergence of ancient practices, as noted by the synod. “From the beginning the Church did not have a rigid and homologous form, but it was developed as a polyhedron of people with different sensibilities, backgrounds and cultures.”

This recognition of the role of the laity comes at a critical time for the Church. Faced with the necessity to reform the way the Church handles the cover-up of abusive priests, the U.S. Bishops Conference has already set as its agenda a process of accountability that must include “substantial involvement of the laity,” particularly in areas of investigation, law enforcement, psychology, and other relevant disciplines. The bishops are walking on the solid ground of canon law if they act on this instinct to call upon the laity for help. “The Christian faithful have the right and even the duty to manifest to the Sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church” [Canon 212.3]. 

Scripture readings during the final weeks of this Liturgical year remind us to read the signs of the times. The Synod on Young People wants to awaken in all of the Church the awareness that we are God’s people, “responsible for incarnating the Gospel in different contexts and within all daily situations.” The door has been opened a crack; it’s our time to step in and step up.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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