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Joshua J. WhitfieldMarch 09, 2022
Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of bishops' conferences from around the world at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2021. The meeting came as the Vatican launched the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of bishops' conferences from around the world at the Vatican on Oct. 9, 2021. The meeting came as the Vatican launched the process that will lead up to the assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The apathy in the U.S. church is real. The synodal journey, and the diocesan synods, are not off to a good start.

Find someone in your parish who even knows anything about it—take your time. Catch a priest off guard, and he might have a word or two to say. Good luck, though, finding any earnest enthusiasm. Thumb through Twitter a minute. Caustic medium though it is, you will really get an idea what I mean. It has had a sluggish start, this synod.

Find someone in your parish who even knows anything about it. Good luck finding any earnest enthusiasm.

In a recent piece for Commonweal, Massimo Faggioli lamented, “There just seems to be a feeling of indifference about the whole thing.” Mr. Faggioli speaks from within the university, and he is worried his students simply care about other things; he is worried, too, that theologians have not been welcomed fully into the process. He is probably right.

But being a parish priest, I think parochially, and what Mr. Faggioli says of Catholic universities can also be said of U.S. parishes. Most parish churches are still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of my parishioners vanished during the second week of Lent two years ago, and I do not know if I will ever see them again. Things are on the mend, but the work of rebuilding a post-pandemic parish is physically and emotionally exhausting. Reigniting ministries that simply ceased to exist, healing broken relationships and looking for lost parishioners is now many a parish priest’s daily work. And so, adding to all this the extra work of a synod—well, let’s just say that although drawing water from these rocks will not be impossible, it will likely take a miracle. And probably also whacking a few things with sticks like Moses did.

[Related: The editors: Catholic leaders need to start listening to those who have left religion behind]

But does the pandemic fully explain the apathy? To blame the snark of social media, the exhausted clergy, the poverty or poor delivery of information, the distracted students or the lack of formal invitation to participate is not sufficient. Something else is going on. I am afraid we must confront problems deeper than the pandemic or even Twitter. We must confront ourselves.

It is evident we live in a loud, anti-dialogical age. Each of us is an aggressive expressivist, and across the board we have lost the capacity to listen, to speak well, to argue.

[Related: We contacted every diocese in the U.S. about their synod plans. Here’s what we found.]

In the church, such dysfunctions are often compounded by structure and history. For instance, the way that power is canonically ordered, and even more the way it is exercised, means there is often little incentive to speak freely. This is true in both reform- and traditional-minded corners of the church. As I understand it, canonically speaking, power is to be exercised in the church with charity and holiness. But what happens when sin and arrogance take over? That is when power can go awry in the hands of high prelates or lowly parish priests or even church secretaries. At a certain point, it becomes intimidation, a misuse of power so common we would be foolish to deny it.

The most intractable problem facing the synodal process: these entrenched cultures of silence and fear and these deep scars.

That is also when silence takes over, leaving only the voices of yes-men and yes-women —because everyone else asks, “Why bother?” And one must not forget the legacy of the church’s many scandals, the sense that in important corners of the church, victims have yet to be heard. The sense that nothing has changed. Then add the unpopular decisions (good and bad) made during the pandemic, pastoral failures, foolish behavior on social media—and on and on and on.

All of this makes for the most intractable problem facing the synodal process: these entrenched cultures of silence and fear and these deep scars. This more fully explains the apathy greeting the synodal process. The overly long Vademecum, the Vatican handbook for participation, describes the synodal process as a “listening process” that “supports openness in sharing as well as hearing.” But how does that happen in cultures of fear and silence or among people trapped in anger? How does that happen in unhealthy dioceses and parishes and religious communities?

Simply calling a synod will not work, for the synodal process cannot by itself create synodality.

Simply calling a synod will not work, for the synodal process cannot by itself create synodality. Nor can the synod be brought to life by marketing campaigns, many of which (with all due respect) have dropped as awkwardly as most marketing campaigns do. By doing nothing first to address deeper wounds—by not doing long, painful spiritual work—there is little a synodal process can achieve, no matter how cleverly presented. It would be like argument-prone spouses who too quickly change the subject; this is rarely a sign of healthy behavior.

Mr. Faggioli wonders if now may be a “bad time” for the global church to walk the synodal path. I’m not ready to give up yet. Instead of waiting out bad circumstances, hoping our dysfunctions vanish, this is where we should begin: by being brutally honest about what is broken and wounded in the church, about what needs to be healed and even destroyed. This seems to be what is missing from much of the synodal process so far, and that is why the people of God see right through it. Their apathy is righteous.

I am also not ready to give up because I believe in the Holy Spirit. Reading again through Yves Congar’s journal from the Second Vatican Council, I am comforted by the chaos he described. How the Council succeeded is beyond me; it was a miracle. And Congar was as skeptical and mad at the church as anyone. But he believed in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit “makes use of people,” he wrote.

That is why I think now is as good a time as any, why actually I am excited for this strange synodal journey, in spite of all I’ve said. Because I believe in the truth and in the Holy Spirit.

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