Thursday 28 July 2022

Synodality: Initial reflections of the Bishops' Conference

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales have published a reflection on the national synthesis document of the Synodal process. Both the national synthesis document and the Bishops' reflection can be found at the Bishops' Conference website: Seeking Our Hearts' Desire.

In a section entitled "The bishop's discernment of heart", the reflection recognises the office of discernment that is proper to the bishop in the life of his own diocese. There is also an encapsulation of the essential charism of communion, to which the more everyday, human dimensions of communion direct us:

In every diocese, the unity of the Church is guaranteed through the bond of communion with the bishop, joined in apostolic faith with the successor of Peter.

But in the section entitled "Hearing the broken hearted", we read the following:

The voices of those who feel marginalised or unwelcome because of their marital situation, sexual orientation or gender identity have been raised and heard sincerely. Equally, others who feel excluded from the life of the Church, or identify as being on the peripheries, have not been forgotten in our synodal process of encounter.

I suggested in my previous post Synodality - without discernment? a discernment that could be offered with regard to those who feel marginalised because of their marital situation or LGBT identity. Whilst an "initial reflection" might not be the appropriate place for a full development of this discernment, surely it is the place for an indication of its direction. It would be to put some flesh on the notion of accompaniment that is the subject of the following section of the reflection entitled "The journeying of hearts together".

As a bit of an aside, I must admit to a certain bemusement by this observation in the reflection:

There are communal aspects of our individual diocesan syntheses which are likely to be prominent in our continued synodal conversations. Essential will be trying to engage the ninety percent who attend Sunday Mass but have not yet participated in any process.

It seems to identify participation in the synodal life of the Church in terms of taking part in meetings and the like. But, for the lay person, it is their daily life in their families, work places and participation in the Liturgy that defines their specific charism. Should we have ever had any expectation that more than a minority would choose to take part in parish meetings, and in the subsequent meetings at diocesan level?

Thursday 14 July 2022

Synodality - without discernment?

 In Autumn 2021 I gave some considerable thought to the practical meaning of the term "synodality". I was trying to understand the term, not as a theological or ecclesial concept, but as something that would determine how I might live my life as a lay Catholic (or how a priest/Bishop/religious might live their Catholic lives). The three key words of the synodal process - communion, participation and mission - did not lead me to anything particularly novel.

I ended up thinking that what a synodal ecclesial life demands is that each individual, in their particular office and circumstances in the Church, should live their vocation more fully according to its own principles. The lay person needs to live more fully as a lay person, the parish priest more fully as a parish priest, the bishop more fully as a bishop. And each has its own responsibility that is not derived from the responsibility of other vocations in the Church. It should not be a surprise, I suspect, that an exercise in renewal of Catholic life should attempt to make new what is in a sense "old" and already there to be lived.

Given this sense of the autonomy of the lay life, the thought that, in order to live a synodal life, I should take part in discussions at parish level that would then be fed into deanery or diocesan syntheses appeared contradictory. A choice to volunteer in visiting patients in my local hospital, for example, did not depend on that process at all. I should just get on with it.

So, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps wrongly, I decided that I would not invest any emotional, intellectual or temporal capital in the synodal process.

Now that parish, diocesan and national synthesis documents are available to be read, the common sense of my decision seems to have been borne out. As far as my own diocese is concerned, I cannot fault the way in which the Bishop presented the process and encouraged parishes to undertake their gatherings. I think he perfectly captured Pope Francis' intention in this regard. But reading the synthesis documents I have gained a sense of a "listening" that is being "reported upwards" in a kind of organisational way, without the exercise of discernment that parish priest and bishop, by virtue of their offices in the Church, might have exercised.

It strikes me, for example, that there already exists a discernment that can be offered in response to concerns about the welcome of divorced and LGBT people in the Church. During the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis promoted a very high valuing of participation in the Church's mission of charity and, in the case of those in difficult marriage circumstances, encouraged this as a way of fully engaging in the life of the Church when it may not be possible to be more fully involved in sacramental life (cf Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8).

And it is not synodal to simply pass upwards a discernment that your own office in the Church enables you to make.

Friday 1 July 2022

Desiderio Desideravi: Pope Francis at his best!

I have enjoyed reading Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi, finding it a wonderfully enriching account of what we are called to experience in the celebration of the Liturgy, particularly the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I find very striking the idea that what draws us to join the celebration of Mass is, before a response on our part, the desire that God has for us:

Before our response to his invitation — well before! — there is his desire for us. We may not even be aware of it, but every time we go to Mass, the first reason is that we are drawn there by his desire for us. For our part, the possible response — which is also the most demanding asceticism — is, as always, that surrender to this love, that letting ourselves be drawn by him. Indeed, every reception of communion of the Body and Blood of Christ was already desired by him in the Last Supper.

Pope Francis develops this idea very beautifully in the first paragraphs of the Apostolic Letter.

A hope of Pope Benedict, expressed if I recall correctly in his letter to Bishops that accompanied the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum , was that there would be a mutual enrichment between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. One perspective from which to read Desiderio Desideravi is that of an indication of how much that could be said of the "antecedent form" of the liturgy can be employed to enrich our celebration of the "unique expression" of the Roman Rite. At the time when Summorum Pontificum was first published, I remember feeling that, whereas I was quite happy to live the ordinary life of the Church's liturgy celebrated according to the missal of Paul VI and John Paul II, I was now being put in a position where I was being asked to adopt a position vis-a-vis the earlier missal when that was something I had no calling to do. Again, I am not reading Desiderio Desideravi in the context of a dialogue with the "antecedent form", and it simply has not occurred to me that I should do so. Part of my pleasure in reading the Apostolic Letter is precisely that it does not ask me to do that, and I believe that those who would read it in that way will not be able to access its richness.

As I never tire of suggesting, I think it is important to read the whole - hence my including the link at the beginning of this post - and I think that is particularly true of Desiderio Desideravi. There is much more than the section in which Pope Francis discusses the art of the priest in his act of presiding at the Eucharistic Celebration which I quote below. Even if  I do not post further on Desiderio Desideravi I will nevertheless be returning to read more carefully the other sections. Why I have chosen to quote this section is that the idea of "presiding" appears to me to have entered into the liturgical vocabulary at the time of Vatican II, and Pope Francis' account is the first I have read that offers a properly theological/liturgical insight into the meaning of "presiding". 

56. The priest lives his characteristic participation in the celebration in virtue of the gift received in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and this is expressed precisely in presiding. Like all the roles he is called to carry out, this is not primarily a duty assigned to him by the community but is rather a consequence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit received in ordination which equips him for such a task. The priest also is formed by his presiding in the celebrating assembly.

57. For this service to be well done — indeed, with art! — it is of fundamental importance that the priest have a keen awareness of being, through God’s mercy, a particular presence of the risen Lord. The ordained minister is himself one of the types of presence of the Lord which render the Christian assembly unique, different from any other assembly. (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7) This fact gives “sacramental” weight (in the broad sense) to all the gestures and words of the one presiding. The assembly has the right to be able to feel in those gestures and words the desire that the Lord has, today as at the Last Supper, to eat the Passover with us. So, the risen Lord is in the leading role, and not our own immaturities, assuming roles and behaviours which are simply not appropriate. The priest himself should be overpowered by this desire for communion that the Lord has toward each person. It is as if he were placed in the middle between Jesus’ burning heart of love and the heart of each of the faithful, which is the object of the Lord’s love. To preside at Eucharist is to be plunged into the furnace of God’s love. When we are given to understand this reality, or even just to intuit something of it, we certainly would no longer need a Directory that would impose the proper behaviour. If we have need of that, then it is because of the hardness of our hearts. The highest norm, and therefore the most demanding, is the reality itself of the Eucharistic celebration, which selects words, gestures, feelings that will make us understand whether or not our use of these are at the level of the reality they serve. It is obvious that this cannot be improvised. It is an art. It requires application on the part of the priest, an assiduous tending to the fire of the love of the Lord that he came to ignite on the earth. (Lk 12:49)

58. When the first community broke bread in obedience to the Lord’s command, it did so under the gaze of Mary who accompanied the first steps of the Church: “these all continued with one accord in prayer with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus.” (Ac 1:14) The Virgin Mother “watches over” the gestures of her Son confided to the Apostles. As she protected the Word made flesh in her womb after receiving the words of the angel Gabriel, she protects once again in the womb of the Church those gestures that form the body of her Son. The priest, who repeats those gestures in virtue of the gift received in the sacrament of Holy Orders, is himself protected in the womb of the Virgin. Do we really need a rule here to tell us how we ought to act?

59. Having become instruments for igniting the fire of the Lord’s love on the earth, protected in the womb of Mary, Virgin made Church (as St Francis sang of her) priests should allow the Holy Spirit to work on them, to bring to completion the work he began in them at their ordination. The action of the Spirit offers to them the possibility of exercising their ministry of presiding in the Eucharistic assembly with the fear of Peter, aware of being a sinner (Lk 5:1-11), with the powerful humility of the suffering servant (cf. Is 42ff), with the desire “to be eaten” by the people entrusted to them in the daily exercise of the ministry. 

60. It is the celebration itself that educates the priest to this level and quality of presiding. It is not, I repeat, a mental adhesion, even if our whole mind as well as all our sensitivity must be engaged in it. So, the priest is formed by presiding over the words and by the gestures that the Liturgy places on his lips and in his hands. He is not seated on a throne because the Lord reigns with the humility of one who serves. He does not rob attention from the centrality of the altar, a sign of Christ, from whose pierced side flowed blood and water, by which were established the Sacraments of the Church and the centre of our praise and thanksgiving.

Desiderio Desideravi is, I think, Pope Francis at his very best! There is a lot here for me still to read and reflect on.