(A sequel to my Open Letter to the Bishops of India on Synodality)
In my previous piece I wrote about some of the salient features of Synodality, for which Pope Francis began the process in Rome this 10th October. It will culminate, again in Rome, in October 2023. This Roman Synodal process will take two years because it is the biggest ever ecclesial exercise undertaken by the Catholic Church. It begins from the parish and then moves up to the diocesan, national, continental and finally the universal (catholic) level.
Why am I attempting to compare this Roman Synod with a Greek Tragedy? Both need elucidation. Let us begin with the Synod, basing ourselves very specifically on the Vademecum (handbook) that has been prepared for the various steps of the Synod. It is not possible to elaborate on that 60 page document in a short article. Hence I will just identify some of its important features.
The motto of the Synod is “Communion, Participation, Mission”. The three words are described as being inter-related. The Vademecum repeatedly stresses the importance of listening, especially to the voiceless or marginalized, the fringe elements. (By definition that includes the vast concourse of the laity). To avoid the dangers of seminars that late Bp Patrick Nair of Meerut described as “All gas, no go”, the Vademecum cautions that a Synod is not about debate or discussion. Nor is it meant to produce a morally correct “document”. Rather it is an exercise in Discernment, a typically Jesuit term that Pope Francis stamped on the Synod. This is a process of listening to each other, contemplating the Word of God and reading the signs of the times (contextualizing). This can result in the “surprises of the Holy Spirit”, a phrase that Pope Francis seems to have borrowed from Pope John XXIII, when he was convening Vatican II. To me it would seem that Pope Francis is laying the ground for Vatican III, the next universal and ecumenical Council of the Church.
Another crucial word repeatedly used in the Vademecum is “synthesis”. In research work it is referred to as the combination of thesis and anti-thesis; for and against a proposition. Note that the Synod is not looking at consensus, where all agree on a common minimum programme, but synthesis that would include possibly divergent points of view.
As per the Vademecum timeline, based on the feedback from the parishes, the diocesan team must prepare a ten-page synthesis to be submitted at the national level by April 2022. In due course it will reach the universal level at Rome. By any standards this is a Herculean task.
The vital question now is “Who will bell the cat?” Is the Catholic Church in India ready for this? This process of synodality seeks to break the shackles of clericalism and hierarchical control. Put bluntly, this is a power sharing or empowering exercise. History, sociology and psychology all teach us that those in power will never voluntarily surrender or share it. So where do we go from here? Is this Roman Synod doomed to failure just as the earlier Family Synod (2014) and Amazonian Synod (2019) came to naught? This is why, though I am intrepid optimist, I have a strong foreboding of the synodal process being sabotaged by the powers that be, as is already happening in the USA.
It would then end up as a Greek Tragedy. Before drawing any conclusions I revert to the three key words of this Synod – Communion, Participation and Mission. Though inter-related I feel that they are incorrectly prioritized. Having served the church in various capacities for 52 years I feel that what is sorely lacking is a participatory system, even though it has been provided for in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church and Canon Law. The record of the Catholic Church in India, when it comes to participation, transparency and accountability is downright abysmal. Pastoral Councils or Finance Committees, be they at parish or diocesan level, insofar as they do exist, are packed with cronies or those ignorant of church teaching and documents.
Without Participation we can never dream of Communion and are doomed to fail in our Mission. This is why I assert that the first and initial step in the synodal process should be honest, humble and transparent Participation. Equally important is the recording process. Any attempts at stifling dissent and seeking consensus would have to be stoutly resisted. There is a joke among the Communists. They say, we don’t mind what happens in the meetings as long as we get to record the Minutes! That is why they have all powerful General Secretaries. Hence the need for eternal vigilance.
Now to link the Roman Synod to a Greek tragedy we need to go back 1000 years to the Great Schism of the East; when the Greek speaking Byzantine churches broke away to form the Orthodox Churches, as against the Rome based Latin Churches. Those wounds have not yet healed. Dispassionate church historians tell us that this schism (separation) had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with power sharing. It was felt that while the East had the brains, the West had the brawn (institutionalized muscle power).
So what exactly is a Greek Tragedy? It was a form of theatre that was prevalent in 500 BC in Greece and Anatolia. Among the better known ones are Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. The common thread in these tragedies was that the main protagonist, though not a villainous character, suffered from a fatal flaw called hamartia. This was a consequence of personal failure, social or psychological circumstances. I sense that the church in India suffers from hamartia. Why?
To understand this I will have resort to four Greek words – Kerygma, Metanoia, Diaconia and Koinonia. Kerygma is the proclamation of the Gospel message. Metanoia is the natural consequence, repentance and penitential conversion that follow exposure to the Kerygma. This leads to the third stage of Diaconia, of serving this group of converts. The word originally meant an establishment near a church building that was used for charitable works. The fourth stage was Koinonia, communion or community building, the avowed goal of the present Synod.
This is where we hit a wall, a concrete one! After the initial proclamation and conversion phases we focussed almost exclusively on services, especially in education and health. Over a period of time these institutions became an end in themselves, even losing sight of their original lofty goals of service, particularly to those most in need. These institutionalised services proliferated with the easy access to foreign funds. The institutional church therefore was not in any way dependent on the laity, the people. A healthy atmosphere of inter-dependence just did not happen. This led to ever higher boundary walls and iron gates, making the hierarchy and clergy an independent “gated” community, leaving the people agitated.
They were of course placated with a plethora of pious practices. The highlight of parish life would be the celebration of the parish feast with a sumptuous lunch thrown in, or a triumphalistic Corpus Christi procession. We have completely failed in community building, Communion or Koinonia.
The 4M progression will help us to understand this phenomenon better. It is - Man, Movement, Machine, Monument. Christianity began with a Man, Jesus. It evolved into a Movement, a Way. For the first three centuries Christians were referred to as the “People of the Way”. With Emperor Constantine in the fourth century came the establishment, the institutional church. In due course it became a Machine, a mechanical juggernaut, both in its liturgy and in its services. We were now going through the motions. As a result, across the western hemisphere erstwhile Christendom has now become a Monument, a lifeless structure, as exemplified by magnificent but empty cathedrals and church buildings.
It was this danger that Pope John XXIII correctly sensed when he convened Vatican II. On paper, like the Indian Constitution, it was a sea change in how the Church saw itself and sought to relate with the outside world. Unfortunately we saw only cosmetic changes, as in the liturgy or clerical dress. The deeper attitudinal changes were not implemented by a deeply entrenched and obdurate hierarchy/ clergy. The hopes of a participatory, communitarian church were dashed to the ground. All we got is what Swami Sachidananda calls a church in picnic mode, ever ready for a celebration.
Pope Francis has recognised this regression across the globe resulting in empty churches, seminaries and novitiates. Had the reforms of Vatican II been implemented in letter and spirit there would have been no need for this Synod on Synodality. That is why Pope Francis is insisting on Communion and Mission. He wants us to revert back to the Man Jesus. That will be possible only, and only, if there is a genuinely Participatory Church, as against the existing pyramidical one. Those of us who love Jesus and his Church therefore now want to see a truly Roman Synod, not another Greek Tragedy flawed by hamartia.
• The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum. These thoughts are elaborated upon in his book The Jerusalem Code.