From the days of Pope Pius IX, in the mid-nineteenth century, through the brief papacy of Pope St. John XXIII, mid-twentieth century, Roman Catholicism was, indeed, a centralized establishment. Pius IX’s coveted decree on papal infallibility affirmed what the Church’s machinery already indicated: “Rome has spoken; the matter is concluded.” Centrality was the spirit of the age, both abroad and at home. Bishop Hickey and Bishop McVinney wielded centralized authority from Fenner Street rivaling the power of the Providence Journal on Fountain Street and General Assembly on Francis Street. Everyone knew who was boss. Locally, the same held true. Monsignor Blessing in Providence, Monsignor Holland in Pawtucket, Monsignor Higney in Newport, Monsignor Vincent in West Warwick and Monsignor Dauray in Woonsocket, as well as humbler administrators were very much in charge of their constituencies. The parish, like the diocese and like the Holy See, was certainly no democracy nor even a republic. Church domains, on all levels, even monasteries and convents, were strictly “from the top down” entities. “Anything you say, Father…” echoed from the country chapel to the urban basilica.
Vatican Council II, sadly or gladly, depending on one’s point of view, ended or attempted to end the monarchical framework of nineteenth and twentieth century Catholicism. The age of the laity, or better, the age of all the baptized, had arrived. Recent talk of Synodality within the Church, greatly prompted by Pope Francis, indicates that the Church must happily and not grudgingly heed the many voices through which the Spirit of God speaks in the present age. As the Beloved Disciple reports in the second reading at Mass this Sunday, “I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” The clergy, religious and laity from around the world have distinct contributions to make within the people of God. Synodality, accordingly, would make certain these God-given and diverse insights and responsibilities are respected and, most importantly, utilized. Synodality is an instrument that will happily respect “…every nation, race, people, and tongue,” allowing believers on all levels to voice and share their Christian vision and unique vocations with the broader People of God. Consensus – a Vatican II word indeed – could gain favor over control as the dominant attitude within the Church should synodality be taken seriously and wisely implemented.
Introducing the notion of synodality to the Church, Pope Francis proposed that now is the “time to look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say, to build rapport, to be sensitive to the questions of our sisters and brothers, and to let ourselves be enriched by the variety of charisms, vocations, and ministries.” Synodality is actually a broader application of the respected principle of subsidiarity that Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI proposed in their social encyclicals greatly strengthening the position of the working men and women of their era. “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry” (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, 79).
Simply put, nothing should be done on a higher level that can be done on a lower level. Now is the time to recognize the charisms and gifts and insights of all peoples. Pope Francis wisely applies this principle to cultures, lifestyles, skills, talents and arts. His holiness pleads that evangelization not only brings the Good News to all the people of the planet, but the Gospel also appreciates the good qualities that are already found in people everywhere. The pope has prayed, “May we be pilgrims in love with the Gospel and open to the surprises of the Spirit. Let us not miss out on the grace-filled opportunities born of encounter, listening, and discernment.” His Holiness’ willingness to assess alien cultures and exotic lifestyles has certainly raised eyebrows (including my own). The introduction of “Pachamama,” an Andean fertility goddess, to a Vatican rite as well as friendly encounters with divorced and remarried persons and those with errant sexual views have indeed given pause to many believers.
Yet, the Pontiff’s effort toward a broader appreciation of Christianity simply extends the initial struggle of the Apostles to reach out to a wider audience. “Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but…we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth (Acts13:46).’” The mandate to preach to all cultures still applies.
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