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Anna Rowlands, a professor of Catholic social thought and practice at Durham University in England, gives a theological reflection as the assembly of the Synod of Bishops begins work on its section section, communion, in this screen grab from Oct. 9, 2023, in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall. (CNS photo/Vatican Media, via YouTube)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Catholic Church is called to be an instrument of communion with God and unity among all people, but it requires grace and “learning to ‘bear with’ reality, gently, generously, lovingly and courageously for the peace and salvation of the whole world,” a theologian told the assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

“Can we find the courage to encounter reality, as it really is?,” asked Anna Rowlands, a professor of Catholic social thought and practice at Durham University in England.

“Communion is the beauty of diversity in unity,” she said. “In a modern world that tends toward both homogenizing and fracturing, communion is a language of beauty, a harmony of unity and plurality.”

As synod participants began work on the second section or module of the assembly’s working document Oct. 9, their discussions about promoting communion with God and with others were preceded by reflections offered by Rowlands and by Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, a theologian and former master of the Dominican order.

While still seated at round tables according to language, many of the 364 synod members were at different tables than the week before. The new groupings were organized by the themes members indicated they wanted to work on; the topics including promoting unity through works of charity and justice; ecumenism; being more welcoming to people who feel excluded from the church, like members of the LGBTQ community; and valuing the cultural, linguistic and racial diversity of the church.

Pope Francis had been expected to attend the morning session, but “unforeseen commitments” arose, said Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office. While not saying what those commitments were, Bruni said Pope Francis was not one of the four synod members who were absent that day because they were diagnosed with COVID.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the synod, introduced the module by telling participants that a key question from the synod’s preparatory process -- which included listening sessions on the parish, diocesan, national and continental levels -- was, “How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?”

God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is “the basis of all communions,” he said, and “this God, who is love, loves the whole of creation, every single creature and every human being in a special way.”

“All are invited to be part of the church,” the cardinal said. “In deep communion with his father through the Holy Spirit, Jesus extended this communion to all the sinners. Are we ready to do the same? Are we ready to do this with groups which might irritate us because their way of being might seem to threaten our identity?”

Father Radcliffe reminded participants that the issue of “formation,” which is broader than training or education, came up repeatedly in the synod’s first week discussions of how to promote a synodal church, one where people walk together, listen to each other and all take responsibility for mission.

“A synodal church will be one in which we are formed for unpossessive love: a love that neither flees the other person nor takes possession of them; a love that is neither abusive nor cold,” he said.

But too often, Father Radcliffe said, “what isolates us all is being trapped in small desires, little satisfactions, such as beating our opponents or having status, grand titles.”

“So many people feel excluded or marginalized in our church because we have slapped abstract labels on them: divorced and remarried, gay people, polygamous people, refugees, Africans, Jesuits,” the Dominican said to laughter. “A friend said to me the other day: ‘I hate labels. I hate people being put in boxes. I cannot abide these conservatives.’”

Rowlands told the synod members and participants that it is in the Eucharist that the different dimensions of communion meet because “this is the place where the communion of the faithful is made manifest (and) where we receive the gifts of God for God’s people. The sacramental order teaches us, by feeding us, communion.”

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