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I’m glad I’m not in charge of the synod.
As I wrote in my book about Pope Francis, he has a synodal track record. In Argentina, he ran the Aparecida synod that “rejected the stage-managed style that prevailed in Church meetings and aimed for a process of input and feedback coming from many directions. And it worked — largely because the future Pope Francis stood in the center, directing traffic.”
Pope Francis was also willing to brave the criticism that arose in the two synods the book covers. So I do not want to be in charge of the newest synod. But if I were …
I would embrace the synod’s goal to make our Church more like Cornelius’ Church.
The synod preparatory document cites Acts Chapter 10 as a model for the Church. It’s a gutsy thing to quote, being the story of how a pagan, Cornelius, got a lot right, and how St. Peter, the pope who baptized Cornelius’ whole family, got a lot wrong. Indeed, sometimes even a pope needs correction — in this case about Jewish customs and Christianity.
But this is precisely the way we have to look at the world, not as a bunch of enemies that need to be overcome by we know-it-alls, but as a bunch of future friends who need to meet Jesus with us.
Acts 10 explains how this happens, because it shows the Great Commission in lived experience: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
My synod (and, I hope, the real synod) would do those things.
First, it would “make disciples” by trusting young people a lot more, like Corneliuses.
The synod rightly emphasizes that the Church needs to be younger. In America, this would mean significant but simple changes. On the parish level, it would mean Mass times that are fitted to the schedules of working people — no more 8:00 am or later weekday Masses that only retirees can attend, or “half an hour on Saturday” confessions that families can’t get to easily. My own parish changed to Wednesday evening confessions, and now there is always a line. There rarely was before.
Next, dioceses and parishes must trust young people to lead varied apostolates. Right now, parish service outreach programs are usually built for older people. Young people need real freedom and authority. Their ideas will meet the needs that only they know about. For instance, one Boston parish (before Covid) offered a Sunday Mass with a potluck dinner afterwards. That doesn’t work for families, at all — but single people loved it.
One caveat: Trusting young people will be a little uncomfortable because young people right now are very traditional in their worship preferences, in a way that often makes older people (including me) hesitant.
But the future will only be built by those who are willing to be uncomfortable.
Second: Make disciples ”of the nations” that emigrate into the Church’s neighborhoods.
The synod explicitly wants to recognize those who haven’t had a place at the table. In America, our parishes could be transformed by offering what Latino immigrants, like my own grandparents and mother, are looking for: Our Lady of Guadalupe devotions, after-Mass gatherings, and processions.
Or to cite an encylopedia list of Latin American popular piety: Devotions to el niño Jesús (the child Jesus), the Sacred Heart, and the Blessed Sacrament. In Lent: Passion plays, siete palabras (the seven last words of Christ), the servicio del santo entierro (entombment service) for Jesus, and the pésame (condolence) offered to the Virgin on Good Friday evening.
Sacramentally, Hispanics would appreciate a stronger emphasis on baptism, including on padrinos (godfathers) and madrinas (godmothers). Speaking of which …
Third, emphasize baptizing, in addition to accompanying.
There is no greater sign of ill-health in a Christian community than the lack of baptisms — the Lord’s original, urgent command to his apostles — and right now, baptisms are at a historic low.
As J.P. De Gance’s Communio group has demonstrated, the baptism dearth is of a piece with crises in marriage and other faith fundamentals. Can you explain why someone should baptize a child? Can you explain why it is urgent to do so? I can’t without thinking it through for a while first. If it is hard for us to understand, why would we expect families with less catechesis to understand?
I found a few parishes that are having some success with baptism. If I were in charge of the synod, I would find more and say, “Here, do that!”
Fourth, my synod would emphasize teaching Jesus’ commandments, not our own.
The Church has no lack of great ways to teach the commandments, as De Gance points out. “The question is how do you get it in the hands of the folks who most need it?”
He says the key is addressing marriages first, and he has great ways of doing so. Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, is doing the same thing, through its Center for Family Life.
But there is no lack of great teaching tools available for the commandments of Jesus. The Great Viral Awakening offers dozens of ways to find resources to learn in the most dynamic, exciting ways in history.
We just need to spread them. After all, Jesus told us to. I hope the synod will, too. If it does, it will truly transform the Church into exactly what the world, so full of angst and anxiety, longs for.
Image: Malacañang Photo Bureau, wikimedia commons.