Canadians are seeking a welcoming Church, according to the CCCB’s “National Synthesis,” one that looks at issues like reconciliation with Indigenous, clerical sexual abuse and welcoming LGBTQ people. Photo by Michael Swan

Solutions sought for ‘Church on the move’

  • September 18, 2022

Canadians want a synodal Church, a listening Church, an active Church, a welcoming Church, a hopeful Church, according to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “National Synthesis.”

The 10-page synod synthesis paper — assembled from conversations and surveys conducted at the parish and diocesan level over the second half of 2021 and into 2022 and now deposited with the Dicastery of the Synod of Bishops in Rome — was compiled and written by a committee based in Ottawa which included two bishops, a priest, a religious sister and two lay people. There are just two phases left in the three-year synod process — a continental phase that will see Canada’s bishops meet with their American counterparts to discuss and produce a further synthesis, then the final meeting of bishops and experts from around the world in Rome October of 2023.

Through parish and diocesan forums and surveys, lay Catholics told their bishops they liked the synod and they want more of it.

“Synod participants expressed a deep desire to continue the experience of the synodal process in the Church,” reads the National Synthesis. “Having lived this experience, they want it to continue into the future.”

This enthusiasm is balanced against a degree of cynicism and distrust.

“Some expressed doubts about the outcome of the synodal process due to their perception of the Church as a rigid institution unwilling to change and modernize itself, or due to a suspicion that the synodal outcome had been predetermined,” the bishops’ committee reported.

Elsewhere in the report, the hierarchy came in for more scolding.

“Although many noted their appreciation for the freedom to speak out during the synodal sessions, some indicated a more general difficulty in speaking out freely and authentically in the Church, whether because of fear of being ‘shut down’ or fear that their contributions would have no effect,” the report found.

Participants didn’t want to keep meeting simply for the sake of having somebody to talk to on Zoom, however. There are challenges before the Church which these ordinary Catholics believe can only be met head-on by the whole Church in synod.

Reconciliation with Indigenous people, the continuing crisis of clerical sex abuse, the greying and thinning of the pews, the welcome afforded to LGBTQ people and leadership roles allowed to women, including their exclusion from ordained ministry, all require synodal solutions, said the report.

“In general, the synodal reports affirmed the importance of ecclesial governance formulated in terms of co-responsibility: between clergy and laypeople; and also between men and women,” the report said. “Complaints were often heard that clericalism is still very present, marginalizing the laity, and women in particular, in carrying out the co-responsibility of the Church.”

On reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians, the theological instincts of ordinary Catholics are correct, said Regis College president and professor of systematic theology Fr. Gordon Rixon.

“Surely that (synodality) will be the best context to address the really challenging issues of reconciling with Indigenous communities in Canada… The concept of synodality would be just dead on in terms of what we’ve been talking about here — walking with others, listening with respect, drawing deeply on our tradition to illumine the way,” Rixon told The Catholic Register. “That’s synodality in its performance.”

To doubt the priority of reconciliation would be to doubt the centrality of the Eucharist as the ordinary Sacrament of Reconciliation, said Rixon.

“The key to this is to track back to the performance of the faith — how we’re living the Eucharist as the source and the summit — and try to walk with that in a life-giving way,” he said.

Ecumenism was highlighted in several instances in the National Synthesis.

“It was noted that the Catholic Church could learn from the experience of other churches and ecclesial communities with respect to their living out of synodality,” the report reads.

Again, the instinct of ordinary Catholics in the synod gets an A+ from seasoned, accredited ecumenists and theologians.

“By its very nature, the Church is synodal and by its very nature our ecumenical work is synodal,” said Fr. Luis Melo, St. Augustine’s Seminary professor of systematic theology and head of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office for Promoting Christian Unity and Religious Relations With Judaism.

Melo believes a continued embrace of synodality can only advance the cause of ecumenism.

“If we have a synod on synodality, it’s a wake-up call to live this synodality at this particular time in history. It’s not a question of whether we have it or don’t,” he said.

Anglican ecumenist Bishop Linda Nichols, Primate of Canada, said the synod simply makes sense from an ecumenical point of view.

“Every bishop knows that the fullness of ministry must include the voices of the laity and clergy and synodal processes create space for that to happen,” she wrote in an email.

Nichols highlighted the Canadian Anglican Roman Catholic official dialogue’s workbook New Stories to Tell as an example of how synodality finds practical application in ecumenism.

“Canadians already are engaged ecumenically,” she said. “This is not doing ecumenism differently, just deepening and strengthening the ties we already have.”

The National Synthesis reveals that many Catholics still think of the Church as simply the hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons and struggle to think of it in terms of the entire “People of God,” said independent Catholic theologian Christopher Duncanson-Hales from Sudbury, Ont. Hales has been collecting diocesan and parish synod reports to build up a detailed snapshot of the Church in Canada now.

“Being a synodal Church means that we are the Church,” said Duncanson-Hales, referencing Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which called the Church the “People of God.”

Instead of fully embracing that vision, synod responses are often narrowly focused on Sunday Mass and how the local parish is functioning, Duncanson-Hales said.

“It’s all about the people who aren’t coming into our space, because we’re not being welcoming or we’re not doing this,” he said. “But it’s not about us going out and meeting people where they are.”

Duncanson-Hales finds the most relevant image of a synodal Church in the Gospel of Luke.

“The road to Emmaus is the animating image for synodality,” he said.

“It’s a Church on the move.”

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