Pope Francis: The Catholic Church must change – “We have always done this” is poison for the life of the Church


THE Synod has three key words: communion, participation and mission. Communion and mission are theological terms describing the mystery of the Church, which we would do well to keep in mind.

The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that communion expresses the very nature of the Church, while recalling that the Church has received “the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God, and that she is, on earth, the seed and the beginning of this kingdom”.

With these two words, the Church contemplates and imitates the life of the Holy Trinity, mystery of communion ad intra and source of mission ad extra.

In the wake of the doctrinal, theological and pastoral reflections which accompanied the reception of Vatican II, Saint Paul VI sought to distill in these two words – communion and mission – “the main lines set out by the Council”.

Commemorating the opening of the Council, he said that its broad outlines were in fact “communion, that is, inner cohesion and wholeness, in grace, truth and collaboration…and mission , that is to say the apostolic commitment in today’s world”, which is not synonymous with proselytism.

In 1985, at the end of the Synod marking the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Council, Saint John Paul II also recalled that the nature of the Church is koinonia, which gives rise to its mission to serve as a sign of the intimate union of the human family with God.

He went on to say, “It is very useful for the Church to hold ordinary synods and, on occasion, also extraordinary synods.” These, to be fruitful, must be well prepared: “The local Churches must work on their preparation with the participation of all”.

And that brings us to our third word: participation. The words “communion” and “mission” risk remaining somewhat abstract, unless we cultivate an ecclesial praxis which expresses the concreteness of synodality at each stage of our journey and our activity, encouraging a real implication of each one and of all.

I would say that celebrating a Synod is always a good and important thing, but it is really beneficial if it becomes a living expression of “the Church”, of a way of acting marked by true participation.

It is not a question of form, but of faith. Participation is a requirement of the faith received at baptism.

In the Church, everything begins with baptism. Baptism, the source of our life, arouses the equal dignity of the children of God, although in the diversity of ministries and charisms.

Consequently, all the baptized are called to participate in the life and mission of the Church. Without real participation of the People of God, speaking of communion risks remaining a wishful thinking.

In this regard, we have taken some steps forward, but a certain difficulty remains and we must recognize the frustration and impatience felt by many pastoral workers, members of diocesan and parish advisory bodies and women, who often remain on the sidelines.

Enabling everyone to participate is an essential ecclesial duty – all the baptized, because baptism is our identity card.

The Synod, while offering a great opportunity for pastoral conversion in terms of mission and ecumenism, is not exempt from certain risks. I will mention three.

The first is formalism. The Synod could be reduced to an extraordinary event, but only outwardly; it would be like admiring the magnificent facade of a church without ever entering it.

The Synod, on the other hand, is a process of genuine spiritual discernment that we undertake, not to project a good image of ourselves, but to cooperate more effectively with God’s work in history.

If we want to speak of a synodal Church, we cannot content ourselves with mere appearances; we need content, means and structures that can facilitate dialogue and interaction among the People of God, especially between priests and laity.

Why am I insisting on this? Because sometimes there can be a certain elitism in the priestly order which detaches it from the laity; the priest ultimately becomes more of an “owner” than a pastor of an entire community as it advances.

This will require changing some overly vertical, distorted and partial visions of the Church, priestly ministry, the role of the laity, ecclesial responsibilities, governance roles, etc.

A second risk is intellectualism. Reality turns into abstraction and we, with our thoughts, end up going in the opposite direction.

This would turn the Synod into a sort of study group, offering scholarly but abstract approaches to the problems of the Church and the ills of our world.

Ordinary people say the usual things, without great depth or spiritual insight, and end up in familiar and fruitless ideological and partisan divides, far removed from the reality of the Holy People of God and the practical life of communities around the world.

Finally, the temptation of complacency, the attitude that says: “We have always done it this way” (Evangelii Gaudium, 33) and it is better not to change. This expression – “We have always done it this way” – is poison for the life of the Church.

Those who think so, perhaps without realizing it, are making the mistake of not taking seriously the times in which we live.

The danger, ultimately, is applying old solutions to new problems. It is important that the synodal process be exactly that: a process of becoming, a process that involves the local Churches, in different phases and from the bottom up, in an exciting and engaging effort that can forge a style of communion and participation oriented towards mission.

So, brothers and sisters, let us live this moment of encounter, of listening and of reflection as a time of grace which, in the joy of the Gospel, allows us to recognize at least three opportunities.

First, that of going not punctually but structurally towards a synodal Church, an open place where everyone can feel at home and participate.

The Synod then offers us the opportunity to become a listening Church, to step out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns to stop and listen – listen to the Spirit in adoration and prayer.

Today how much we miss the prayer of adoration; so many people have lost not only the habit but also the very notion of what it means to worship God. Listening to our brothers and sisters talk about their hopes and the crises of faith present in different parts of the world, the need for a renewed pastoral life and the signals we receive from those in the field.

Finally, it offers us the opportunity to become a nearby Church. Let’s always come back to God’s “style”, which is closeness, compassion and tender love. God has always operated like this.

If we do not become this Church of proximity with attitudes of compassion and tender love, we will not be the Church of the Lord. Not just with words, but with a presence that can weave greater bonds of friendship with society and the world.

A Church that does not stand aside from life, but immerses itself in the problems and needs of today, healing wounds and healing broken hearts with the balm of God. Let’s not forget the style of God that should help us: closeness, compassion and tender love.

May this Synod be a true season of the Spirit. Because we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, which frees us from all forms of egocentrism, revives what is dying, loosens chains and spreads joy.


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