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Jon NilsonMarch 07, 2023
Pope Francis kisses the encolpion of Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus during a meeting in Nicosia Dec. 3, 2021. An encolpion is an episcopal pectoral medallion with an icon. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The unprecedented worldwide consultation now underway in our church promises to be the most influential religious event of the 21st century. Beginning with Pope Francis’ announcement in March 2020, this promise has become clearer with each stage of the synod process. Never before has our church’s leadership so clearly desired to learn “the sense of the faithful.” Never before has it implemented such a detailed, methodical process to discern that sense.

Its purpose is not to produce new authoritative texts. Rather, it is to inaugurate and solidify a more consultative and collaborative way of being one church, the “synodal way.” This has been the common experience of Christians in other churches and ecclesial communities. It had been the way of our church for centuries, but not for Catholics since the French Revolution in 1789.

“Top-down” ecumenism has not reduced the distance between the Catholic church and other churches. We need grassroots ecumenical relationships now.

Now the results of thousands of consultations in all regions of our global church have been woven into a 45-page “Document for the Continental Stage.” This text is unusual for a church document, since it identifies and reopens controversial issues and painful situations that have long been avoided or supposedly settled.

The Catholic Church in the United States contributed to the D.C.S. with the “National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod.” It was crafted from 290 documents distilled from 22,000 reports from parishes, dioceses, colleges, ministries, organizations and individuals. “This pivotal document,” says Bishop Daniel Flores in his introductory letter, “is the culmination of ten months of intentional listening throughout the church in the U.S…. The National Synthesis simply tries faithfully to express what emerged from the consultations.”

Concisely stated, this is what emerged: “The synodal consultations around the enduring wounds caused by the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the pandemic, polarization, and marginalization have exposed a deep hunger for healing and the strong desire for communion, community, and a sense of belonging and being united” (No. 6).

These “wounds” demand conversion and prayer for reform, as the document acknowledges. Yet we also need expertise and imagination to cooperate effectively with the Holy Spirit in shaping our future Catholic Church. A church that refuses to change will become increasingly irrelevant even to its own members. The “National Synthesis” reveals, however, that we have drastically limited our vision of reform and the resources available to accomplish it. We have ignored the gifts and graces of our sisters and brothers in other churches.

Over 50 years ago, “Unitatis Redintegratio,” the decree on ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council, stated that we should not “forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated sisters and brothers can be a help to our own edification” (No. 4; translation amended). The council urged Catholics to collaborate with them as much as possible, since “cooperation among Christians vividly expresses the relationship which in fact already unites them, and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant. This cooperation, which has already begun in many countries, should be developed more and more” (No. 12).

We need ecumenical relationships that produce mutual knowledge and trust. Then our church might really be more synodal, with strong visible bonds to our brother and sister Christians.

Over 25 years ago, Pope St. John Paul II developed and intensified Vatican II with his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint,” in which he insisted that “ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the church's traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does” (No. 20). He emphasized that collaboration is “a true school of ecumenism, a dynamic road to unity. Unity of action leads to the full unity of faith: ‘Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.’… In the eyes of the world, cooperation among Christians becomes a form of common Christian witness and a means of evangelization which benefits all involved” (No. 40). As we work with our Christian sisters and brothers, we learn from and are inspired by them, just as they would be taught and inspired by us.

Finally, the two texts used to launch the synodal process, a preparatory document and its accompanying handbook, the “Vademecum,” say, “The dialogue between Christians of different confessions, united by one Baptism, has a special place in the synodal journey.”

The “Document for the Continental Stage” shows that these messages have been heard nearly everywhere: “A synodal process is incomplete without meeting brothers and sisters from other confessions… The reports express a desire for deeper ecumenical encounter, and the need for formation to support this work” (No. 22; see also Nos. 48-9). However, the “National Synthesis” shows that we have not heard them here in the United States. It says nothing—not a word—about our relationships to other Christians.

Surely some reports discussed ecumenism, yet they were apparently not numerous enough to be listed among “our deepest preoccupations and hopes for our church.” The synthesis from the United States gives no hint that ecumenism is a non-negotiable priority for Catholics. The ecumenical dialogue, collaboration and friendship which must profoundly shape our life as Catholics, according to Vatican II, St. John Paul II and the synodal leadership, are not mentioned in the portrait from the U.S. synthesis document.

This suggests that the mutual encouragement, aid and inspiration that can flow from ecumenical relationships are not part of most Catholics’ lives. We live our faith as if we really had no bond with our fellow Christians and have nothing to learn from them, nor they from us. The “National Synthesis” portrays a church so self-absorbed with its problems, controversies and crises that it has impoverished itself, as well as misrepresented the power of the Gospel to reconcile people to one another.

The goal of the worldwide synodal process is not to produce new documents, but to change lives by making the synodal way into the ordinary way of the church. To learn this way, we do not need more ecumenical texts and agreements produced by theologians from different churches. These are valuable, but their value is limited. We have shelves and shelves of documents, but they are not enough. “Top-down” ecumenism has not reduced the distance between the Catholic Church and other churches.

We need grassroots ecumenical relationships now. Only such relationships will give our “real but imperfect communion” with other Christians a secure foothold in the ordinary life of our parishes and congregations. We need such relationships to enter more actually—not just theoretically—into the one church of Christ.

One necessary step forward on the synodal journey is simple but perhaps not easy. Let each Catholic priest, deacon and pastoral minister call or email a nearby counterpart—perhaps a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Methodist—to say, “We both belong to Christ. We must not be strangers. Can we get together for some coffee and conversation soon?”

What good might come from encounters like these? Only the Holy Spirit knows. Meanwhile, doing nothing is not an option. The status quo is intolerable. We need ecumenical relationships that produce mutual knowledge and trust. Then, by the end of the 2024 session of the Synod on Synodality, our church might really be more synodal with strong visible bonds to our brother and sister Christians. Then, too, we might be more truly and visibly on the way to that unity which discloses Jesus as the One sent from God to us and for us.

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