Essential Reforms Needed in our Church Today
We congratulate Pope Francis on his bravery in moving the Church forward through this synodal process. We as part of Catholic Church Reform Int’l (CCRI) stand with him in our commitment to do all in our power to build a synodal community each in our region of the world. Recognizing that there are powerful people who are resisting Pope Francis, they will soon learn that there is a stalwart worldwide community standing with him. It is our objective to find unity amid the diversity and to discover how we can come together to find more effective ways to live the Gospel today.
Participants in our Synod
Over the course of several months, we have had prayerful, reflective synodal gatherings with representatives participating at some capacity from more than twenty different regions: Amazon, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, Spain, UK, and USA.
Background and Clarifications
The fullness of Christianity is experienced when we recognize our daily lives as the center of our spiritual life—whether at work or recreation, with our families, and in our social interaction. We bring to the Eucharistic table an exchange of experiences of our sacred encounters of finding God in those whose lives we touch. To clarify our understanding of Church, it is an inclusive community of people who are followers of Jesus Christ all working together to decide what is best for the community and supporting one another in love. We believe in unity amid our diversity in the spirit of Galatians 3:38, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The overriding aim of this proposal is to elevate our understanding of what it is to be a Christian today and implement needed changes in our Church to help us create a better world.
Throughout our prayerful reflections as we have gathered monthly from May through July/August, we are raising essential reforms that, as representatives from around the globe, we have identified as urgently needed if we are to return to being the vibrant community that Christ envisioned.
Legitimacy of Experiencing Diversity in our Church:
Experiencing diversity is not new to the Christian community as shown when Paul writes to the Corinthian community: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10). Once again today, we recognize that there are many viewpoints and beliefs regarding the current state of our Church. There was a time when the Church preserved the Latin Mass in every country as a way of demonstrating outwardly our “perfect unity.” Since Vatican II and more recently, we have begun to openly embody theological diversity and be more accepting of cultural differences in how we think, pray, and live. Recognizing these differences as legitimate views and ways of life, we see that regardless of whether we seek to preserve tradition, want reform, or quietly remain in middle-of-the-road, what unites us all is a desire to commit our lives to Gospel values. There can be diversity among us while still preserving unity in our core beliefs, which Jesus simplified for us as loving God and loving one another. In a synodal gathering, rather than beginning by raising controversial issues that would likely result in confrontation, we suggest bringing people together to explore ways to improve a commonly shared problem. In this light, the community engages in a discernment process to explore ways to make our world better through our Church community.
Why Reform in the Church is Needed
Religions across the board are losing membership. Fr. Thomas Keating has suggested the cry of “spirituality not religion” is valid and incumbent upon us to delve into what this spirituality entails. John of the Cross opines “At the end of our days, we will be judged by our love for one another” echoing Mt 25:37-39, “When (and where) did we see you?”
Reform is urgent and essential to help us elevate our understanding of how best to live as Christians in today’s world. Far more than being concerned with keeping rules and meeting obligations, we express our Christianity primarily by striving anew each day to exemplify Jesus in His time on this earth. Rather than just having knowledge of our faith (Baltimore catechism), we need to understand our primary role as Christians is to respond to human suffering, to oppression, and to protecting our earth as we reflect on that experience. We must transform our understanding of Christianity being primarily about time spent in church. Rather, this small moment out of our lives is there for us to bring our joys, our struggles, and all that is happening in our world to the Eucharistic table as we come together for prayer.
A hierarchical institution based on autocratic leadership is in conflict with the idea of a synodal church as was common in the early church. Now that Synodality has been re-introduced to the Christian world, it cannot go backwards. It cannot be a one-off approach that then returns to a tiered structure based on rank. In a synodal Church, all are equal – priests and people, men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor – all with the same right to express their Spirit-guided views and to have each of their reflections counted.
Most basic and essential of all reforms is that half of humanity cannot be excluded from serving in ministry in our Church community. Society at large has come to recognize women as deserving of the same treatment as men, but the Church has a long way to go. Women participated as fully as men in the early Church. Over centuries, man-made norms were created that prevented priests from being married and women from presiding at liturgies. Vocations to the priesthood and deaconate could well be filled by married men and women who are being called to serve, but presently denied despite the costs to the Church of this lack of both the feminine and married clergy in our leadership. We need to rethink the concept of priesthood wherein ordained ministers are called by the members to become servant leaders in their community.
We agree with Pope Francis that clericalism must be eradicated. This will only happen when the people stop allowing it and begin instead to assume far greater responsibility. Now is the time to transform our Church back into a community where all are welcomed – women and men, youth as well as elderly, the divorced/remarried, the marginalized – and are treated with equal respect at all levels of participation and ministry. In a synodal Church, the dignity of the LGBTQ+ community is respected and the divorced and remarried couples who have found a loving mate are accepted. The community can welcome all to be in full communion with one another in the Body of Christ.
Church doctrines on human sexuality are simply out of date and cannot remain embedded in the teachings of our Church. These teaching must be revisited to incorporate research from both behavioral and social sciences.
As exemplified in the documents from Vatican II, “The Church in the Modern World,” we must ensure that all these reforms – no matter how wonderful – will positively impact our home life, our social, professional, and political spheres. Young people are being driven away. For the survival of the future of our Church, we need to reach out to them, create a safe place for them to openly share their feelings, enter their world listening to them, and discern ways to meet their needs.
Process for How to Achieve Reform in the Church
Jesus never tried to convince people of anything. He simply offered options of which people were free to accept or not (e.g. Jn 6:67: “Will you also go away?” or Mt. 19: 16-22 the rich young man who went away). Similarly, it is our not our role to convert anyone to a point of view but rather to explore options and offer alternate approaches.
The Gospel clearly indicates that when Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church….” (Matthew 16:18), He never intended this to be a church of laws but rather a community of love. People come to church to celebrate, to praise, and to be nourished. When we approach the Eucharistic table, we experience the Eucharist as a means of both nourishing and uniting us. In this light, we envision receiving the Body and Blood of Christ not as a reward for the perfect but as nourishment to strengthen us in our daily lives.
The early Church was not without divisiveness among them (1Corinthians11:18). This was sorted by an assembly of leaders and people in the community where there was dialogue, transparency, and openness. For us to address diverse points of view as did the early Christians, we envision this much along the lines of conflict resolution.
For these synodal gatherings to achieve a fruitful outcome, people on all sides of the spectrum should be welcomed into these sessions. Migration is currently such a poignant issue throughout the world. So let us use this is an example and imagine a room filled with migrant supporters, migrants themselves, and citizens of the country who feel invaded by the migrants who are seeking asylum. Beginning with prayer and calling on the Holy Spirit to guide us and assist us in truly listening, representatives of each group are called on to speak. Participants listen to the migrants telling their stories of running from tyranny or threats to their very lives. Supporters speak on their behalf indicating that there are sponsor families who have generously offered to take migrant families in while they get established with work, gradually finding independent living arrangements and schooling for their children. Migrants and their supporters in turn listen to the impact the migrants have on the lives of citizens: taking jobs from them, crowding their classrooms, overburdening their welfare system, etc. Facilitators skilled in conflict resolution then invite both sides to offer solutions. Some migrants might be willing to take the jobs most residents don’t want: farm or ranch work, berry picking, yardwork, roofing, etc. Other migrants might be trained educators or professional doctors who could fill the expansion needs. Even as some solutions are gradually found, often the citizens still want to preserve their rights and not welcome more foreigners into their country. University academia, corporate executives, and religious groups may begin speaking out through the media and change begins to occur when enough people apply pressure on the citizens to reconsider. Participants might enact “para-liturgical issues” to demonstrate workable solutions allowing some of the migrants to be accepted into their country. Often citizens give in – not so much from a changed heart as from caving into the pressure and not wanting to appear merciless in the eyes of the public. At this point, a joint celebration can be shared as responsibilities are mutually worked out by both groups. Experience has shown that people from another culture introduce a certain richness that adds to the existing culture. While the world is much more complex than this with racism, money, and power prevailing, a similar approach could be used in dealing with diverse viewpoints in the Church.
Commitment of Steps We are Prepared to Take Ourselves
There is a strong sense among the reform community that we must do more than just submit a report to the synod office. Many reform groups clearly understand that we need to have structural change in the Church. And others that we need to further develop the teachings of the Church. After all, our Church is a living organism, not a static entity.
Having realized that many young people are drifting away from the Church, CCRI feels the importance of reaching out to young people. We are committed to hosting online Small Communities of Young Adult Seekers to offer them a safe place to share their concerns and find support for the life issues they face. As an international and diverse group meeting regularly on Zoom, these groups are committed to growing together seeking to find their rightful place within the Catholic community.
Using the “see, discern, and act” method, CCRI members are committed to embracing community life each in our local regions of the world. When we see social injustice issues both within and outside of the institutional church, we will stand in solidarity with those being violated thereby living the Gospel values of Jesus Christ.
Recognizing in our synodal gathering that we have different viewpoints within our communities, we are committed to bridging the gap among these traditionalists, middle of the road Catholics, and progressives. In Eastern Africa, Small Christian Communities provide equal airtime for everyone during the regular meetings. The key to this working is having the proper training for Small Christian Community members where they learn how to disagree with respect and not demean other people’s views (disagreeing with love). Facilitators also learn their needed skills through the continuous training that is conducted by the Eastern Africa Small Christian Communities Training Team.
For a very long time in Kenya, women have been excluded from making decisions and this has kept them subservient in their roles both in the Church and in society. Emmah’s Garden is a non-profit organization that has begun initiating projects to empower women. In Latin America, the ecclesial base communities are committed to empowering the people, especially women, to find their own voice.
In the Philippines, on the southernmost big island of Mindanao, they found themselves with huge parishes (a center Church with as many as 40-50 outstations). Thus, in each of these outstations, the community chose a “lay deacon” (unfortunately all men) who could do almost everything except consecrate the host and hear confessions. They married and baptized and anointed the sick and confirmed. For all practical purposes, they conducted the celebrations in the barrio chapels and served at the wishes of the community. In theory this serves as an example of what is possible in the Church we envision in today’s world.
In a diocese in Brazil situated in the heart of the semi-desert, a Diocesan Assembly was held each year to which the priests, and representatives of the religious and laity of each parish were invited. These included members of the various pastoral groups in the diocese, such as the pastoral for children, for workers, for health, for liturgy, for youth, for families, for planned giving, for land issues, etc. It began with an input on the current socio-political reality of Brazil as the context for the evangelization of the Church. Through a process of prayer and discernment in small group discussions, positive experiences were shared as were problems arising in developing these pastoral groups in the parishes. The Assembly provided a unique opportunity for the bishop, priests, and people to get to know each other. All sat together at meals where we were able to exchange views informally, and not only during the sessions. What was most striking is that the entire Assembly was run by the lay members of the various pastoral groups with the bishop sitting in the back. The bishop usually spoke at the end of the Assembly, having listened attentively for the four days. He was present all the time, and very accessible for people to speak to him, especially the youth. It was a powerful experience of a Spirit-led people-centered Church. Sadly, when the bishop died after 32 years as bishop, he was replaced by a young newly ordained bishop who had never lived in the semi-desert, and had never experienced this kind of Church. Within one year, he managed to completely dismantle almost all the pastoral activities at the diocesan level. Naturally the most engaged lay leaders felt completely demoralized and lacked motivation. While many continued their voluntary work within the pastoral groups, the reality of the People of God gathered at the diocesan level died away. This is a beautiful model of what can be again in dioceses throughout the world.
Reflections from each country:
Amazon: We are making a beautiful journey with our bishops. From June to September in Santarém, the western part of the state of Pará in Brazil, we will have the fourth meeting with all the bishops, religious and lay people to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Document of Santarém, a meeting marked by Synodality. There we are walking together in the construction of A Living Church that defends the poorest and all those committed to the care of our common home. Go here to access the link to read the document: http://cnbbnorte1.blogspot.com/2022/06/documento-de-santarem-2022-faz-nossos.html.
Australia: A conservative bias among our bishops remains strong – few show any real commitment to the spirit or practice of synodality – but they are increasingly aware that many people of the Church are demanding accountability and necessary change. The Australian Plenary Council (PC) has just completed its 2nd Assembly with little commitment to practical renewal; the most significant development was a stand taken by many members to cease participation in light of a failure to gain sufficient deliberative votes of the bishops on recognition of relatively anodyne matters reinforcing the equality of women in the Church. Fortunately, common sense and the Holy Spirit prevailed to the extent that a sensible motion was accepted after much angst. Many are of the view that the Plenary Council outcomes can be described as little more than “business as usual.” The Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform had sent proposed amendments to the 2nd Assembly ‘Framework for Motions’ to all PC members (including bishops), periti, and many others. Those amendments attempted to overcome the inadequate reflection of the sense of faith of the faithful as expressed in 17,000 submissions. The Coalition has also presented multiple webinars over the period of the Plenary Council to provide the Australian faithful with informed thinking on the need for change in our Church including their support of the visit of Sr Joan Chittister who has given inspiring talks to large crowds in many Australian capitals.
At the same time, dioceses have been asked to prepare inputs to the 2023 Synod of Bishops in Rome – the Synod on Synodality; the consultation by dioceses in this process has been minimal. We live in hope.
Austria: Synodal relationship in the diocese of Innsbruck, Austria, is taking place between church employees and the bishop. The bishops do not talk to us, the church reformers. More than 2000 parishioners responded to the invitation to write about the issues that concerned them. There is a synthesis of the answers on the homepage of our diocese and it shows how far the population has taken over our concerns (However, we learned of the bishop’s attempts to “bowdlerlize”, i.e. to smooth them out.)
Reformers have lost interest in improving relationships with the bishops here. We have too often been lied to and had promises made that were not kept. Talking with them about our concerns and issues is unavailing. We have concluded that they need us more than we need them. What can a priest or bishop do if the flock deserts him? We hear some bishops venting the same reformative ideas as we did at the beginning of the Austrian reform movement as early as 1995. But we doubt they will have the courage to carry them out, such as ordaining women in their dioceses. They could well do so since they have supreme leadership in their diocese and have executive, legislative and jurisdiction in their hands – according to canon law.
Brazil: Being the largest Catholic country in the world, we are divided into 278 ecclesiastic areas. Therefore, there is a great diversity of ecclesial realities and the corresponding relationship of each bishop with the clergy and the faithful with some extreme cases of authoritarianism as well as there are places where the people play a decisive role in the life of the local church. We also have the National Conference of the Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) which was created to foster communion and collegiality among the bishops and the dioceses highlighting the concrete pastoral actions aimed at assisting the poor and monitoring public policies.
As reformers, our plan is to motivate the participation and organization of lay women and men in all levels, starting with the parishes and small Christian communities, going through the decision-making bodies in each diocese, and culminating with the presence and actions of the laity on the national level towards CNBB. It is essential that more women become real protagonists and leaders, and they must also take on capacities and responsibilities currently and sometimes exclusively occupied by men. It is important to listen to the voices of the youth in a dialogue with contemporary cultures. The same can be said about LGBTQIA+ Catholics who feel they are not welcome in the pews.
We commit ourselves to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, overlapping its values and practices onto the very Catholic doctrine. While we take a critical view of teachings not belonging or even contrary to the essence of the Christian message, we also are committed to seeking new ways, always under the influx of the Holy Spirit who impels us to unite as sisters and brothers and as children of the Father. Finally, looking forward to the good fruits that will be brought by the Synod on Synodality, we shall continue making the effort to dialogue for the purpose of building a world where justice, peace, and love may prevail.
Canada: At the annual meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) there is no role for the laity, although the bishops may invite individual laypersons (e.g. ‘friendly’ politicians) to speak. Some dioceses may have informal working relationships. There are hardly any mentions of how many dioceses, let alone individual parishes, have participated in the synodal process in Canada on the CCCB website. The Archdiocese of Ottawa submitted a powerful summary of parish synodal reports to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. There is a strong swell of support for reforms in the church from the Archdiocese. Pope Francis will visit Canada at the end of this month to minister to indigenous people and to issue a public apology for abuses brought on them. It is hoped that he will identify clericalism and patriarchy as causes of the abuse. As of mid-July 2022, the diocesan reports on their synodal processes and findings are being consolidated into a national report that will be amalgamated with the U.S. national report for submission to the Vatican. Until the diocesan and national reports are made public (some diocesan ones have been already), we won’t know whether the Canadian church is ready for reform.
France: Two organizations, Reseaux du Parvis and Conference Catholique des Baptises Francophones (CCBF) have collected and synthesized the contributions produced by their groups. Those contributions were sent to the French Bishops Conference. However, neither CCBF nor Parvis received acknowledgment nor were invited by the bishops to join their gathering. This confirms total absence of listening from Church hierarchy. Although they remain very prudent, a small number of bishops have shown their willingness to cooperate.
Our priority concern is direct inspiration from the Gospel message. Jesus went much farther than religion of his time. Our commitment: (1) We are determined to be permanently listening to all around us, whatever their situations; (2) We claim free speaking both in and outside the Church. We speak to everyone, making no difference between the regular Mass-goers and those who have decided to stay away from Church Institution; (3) We consider the Eucharist as moment of sharing in memory of Jesus’ last supper. It’s open to all, clerics and lay people may preside. We claim the right to organize Eucharists in any place and in any way appropriate to the participants; (4) We feel a co-responsibility for all with no one excluded; (5) We are developing dialog within Church, in ecumenical gatherings and actions, with other confessions, religions and spiritualties and society; (6) We accept various ways of understanding the Gospels and other texts transmitted by the tradition; (7) We are increasing participation of lay people, women, LGBT to all ministries and functions in the Church; (8) We believe there should be wide consultations for appointments of bishops conducted, and (9) we are fighting clericalism; priests and all clerics should no longer be authoritarian leaders. Their role should be accompanying, listening to, advising, making easier dialog between all.
The “earthquake effect” of the Sauvy report with revelations of such a large number of clergy sexual abuses in the last 50 years has lessened communications between hierarchy and grassroots Catholics even more. Except for hardline conservatives, the number of regular Mass attendees is going down and down, especially among young generations. Without the cooperation of the bishops, there is an increasing number of Small Christian Communities (SCCs) on the rise. The publication of the results of the 2018 “Mannheim, Heidelberg, Gießen“ MHG study on sexual abuse, the outrage on the part of the faithful has been enormous as never before. The number of people leaving the Church has continued to rise with each new scandal. At the same time, the people who still care about the Church are seeking dialogue and some are getting very involved. All in all, the laity try to remain self-confident in their dealings with the bishops.
Germany: What is special about the Synodal Path in Germany is that the Bishops’ Conference and the Central Committee of Catholics (ZDK) are responsible for the process as equal partners at eye level. The four synodal forums are led by a dual leadership of a bishop and a lay person, as is the presidium. All have equal voting rights. The debates at the local synodal assemblies can be controversial but always fair. Bishops and lay people sit next to each other in alphabetical order. An intensive development process can be observed among many bishops. While there are still conservative bishops, there are quite a few who were very conservative a few years ago and are now very progressive. The more the extent of the abuse became clear and the more the pressure of society increased, the more they realized that it simply cannot go on like this and that the shape of our Church must change.
The good relationship between the synodals must also be transferred to the dioceses. After the conclusion of the last Synodal Assembly in March 2023, it will be important that the decisions which can already be implemented now – such as those involving the laity in the election of bishops or on labor law – are actually carried out. It remains exciting!
If the bishop of a diocese refuses to implement the decisions after the conclusion of the Synodal Path, the faithful are prepared to approach the bishops and remind them that the Synodal Path was, from the outset, bindingly decided by all bishops and the ZDK. It would also be important to inform the people in the parishes about the results of the Synodal Path. And finally, it will also be important that the laity are prepared to take on more responsibility.
India: The process of the Synod on Synodality has brought about significant healing among those who engaged in the consultations. The consultations have brought to light many issues that directly touch the lives of the laity, the religious and the clergy. In terms of hierarchical behavior, clericalism and discrimination appears to be the common experience among the people. We are working with parishes and institutions and in some cases with willing bishops (bishops who can motivate some of their parish priests to take up our initiatives) to organically grow and change attitudes.
Synodal Relationship between bishops and people (clergy and faithful) is at a low ebb state: Parishes and faithful are operating independently: Bishops are not invited to parishes except for parish feasts and confirmation. Most bishops do not visit parishes once in 5 years as per canon law requirements. Majority of dioceses and parishes do not have pastoral plans.
We and other reformers in India are committed to take up a few initiatives such as (a) Outreach to the poor and vulnerable (b) Focus on increasing the engagement of women in leadership roles at local levels (c) Focus on the youth ministry in specific areas. However, these will not be on a pan India basis with common plans. We see that specific and diverse plans are required to achieve results on a case-to-case basis. This means (a) identifying the needs of a local target audience (b) forming a church group that is motivated towards the initiative (c) Teaming up with other organizations and groups across religions and cultures to create a movement towards the chosen initiative. Several steps continue to be taken to maintain and grow relationships with the hierarchy. The most recent was by preparing and submitting ‘synod 2023’ strategy and plans to the India national Convenor as also Cardinal Mario Grech, the Nuncio and Cardinal Oswald G. In addition, a meeting with the local bishop and the diocese synod convener was held to chalk out and execute strategies and plans for the diocese Synod.
Ireland: Over the past 30 years trust in our bishops has dropped significantly. Our bishops have traditionally sat the fence, waiting for Rome to introduce reforms. There are genuine efforts being made by many Bishops to reach out. The Archdiocese of Dublin set up a working group to examine the challenges of the Church in Dublin and to make some recommendations. In addition, our newly appointed Archbishop has been actively visiting parishes throughout the diocese and has been speaking openly and frankly about many of the challenges. It is also worth noting that several dioceses in Ireland have now published their reports on the synodal process.
Overall conclusions of the Dublin Diocesan Synod Report calls for: greater recognition of the equality of all the baptized; acknowledgment of the role of women in all leadership roles, including as deacons and priests; reaching out to young people and involving them; action on the environment; concern for social, economic and climate justice; reform of the liturgy while retaining and reflecting elements that are cherished; building on sense of community; genuine atonement for the abuse of children and women; removal of clericalism. Despite less than 1% of our population taking part in the Global Synod Listening process, almost all our 26 dioceses have reported a strong call for full equality for women, including priestly ordination.
In the Dioceses of Cork and Ross, there has been very little communication since the Synodal process began last October. Our new bishop is “talking the talk” but it is too early yet to say whether he is “walking the walk.” The diocese of Killala launched a diocesan Synod in 2018. In a series of secret ballots, they voted for reforms including: That a listening ethos be given an on-going and structured status in the diocese allowing for a respectful platform to the voice of the people. For 89% Against 11%.
Church reform groups should also be formally recognized. We are committed to attending relevant seminars/webinars, make addresses when invited, and write articles where opportunities arise. We Are Church Ireland is practicing to “Be the church we want to see” by being accountable and transparent in how we organize ourselves; encouraging women to read the gospel and to preach; organizing Zoom and House Eucharists with non-ordained women and men presiding.
Japan: In general, the working relationship between bishops and people is quite limited. Much depends on the personality of the local ordinary. For example, the bishop of Hiroshima is very close to people and tries to visit every parish of his diocese regularly. The bishop of Fukushima diocese is the former superior general of the Claretian missionaries. He tries his best to communicate the message to the people. The bishop of Niigata is a Society of the Divine Word (SVD) who used to be the Justice, Peace, Integrity of Creation (JPIC) promoter of the Congregation. He tries to incarnate the discipleship of equals in his diocese.
The Episcopal Conference of Japan is preparing the summary of the reports from the 16 dioceses to be sent to the synodal secretariat. Every diocese organized a space in the synodal journey. It is unclear how much the process has been participatory and dialogical.
As one reformer, I am part of the episcopal committee to prepare an Action Platform on the second encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si. I also collaborate with the archdiocese of Tokyo to restructure the diocesan Caritas.
Kenya: The Kenyan Catholic Church is generally clerical, self-reverential, patriarchal, and hierarchical where women are not given major roles like making decisions on key issues that affect all Catholics. Its hierarchical structures are predominantly occupied by men. It has excluded women from ordained ministry and from many of the roles that are generally done by an ordained minister. This is also reflected in the social-economic issues where men are the ones who make decisions on issues that affect society. Our Church is filled with images of women who are trying to be relevant with a Christian community that does not seem to value their input both inside and outside the Church.
There are cultural beliefs that have been attached to the roles of women in African society. Traditionally they are supposed to take the inferior roles/positions in the family: give birth and take care of the children, prepare food, fetch water, and collect firewood. This is changing with more education, job distribution, buying power, inheritance rights, and better representation in the Kenyan government.
The Synodal Process is working with huge participation at the Small Christian Community and parish levels. Presently there are 45,000 Small Christian Communities (SCCs) in Kenya and we follow the Catholic Bishops’ pastoral priority of a SCCs Model of Church. Some SCCs are directly represented on their Parish Pastoral Councils (PPCs). During the Synodal Process we are trying to make these councils more inclusive (for example, adding a Young Woman and a Young Man to represent the Young People) and more deliberative with more powers for direct decision making. The PPCs work closely with the Liturgical Committees in the parishes. There is a concern that the diocesan syntheses may water down some of the creative recommendations for change.
Korea: Most bishops of Asian churches including Korean’s are so conservative that they have very little interest in the synodal special online sessions on synodality or living as a synodal church. The local bishops’ conference recently completed their general assembly where they made the decision not to translate the Latin word “synodalitas” into Korean on the basis that, according to them, it has a very complicated and complex meaning. Among about 25 active bishops in Korea, only one or two has interest in synodality. They have only two dioceses in which the People of God, mostly lay people, have explored a synodal process including listening groups among themselves in the country.
The Woori Theology Research Institute (WTI) in Seoul has been holding various online gatherings in which it has invited listening groups. It is helping a diocese hold listening process from small groups including the physically disabled, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. The Asian Lay Leaders (ALL) Forum based in Manila is working with a priest in Pakistan where these synodal gatherings are helping to keep the faith alive for Pakistani Catholics.
Mexico: The Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) recently held it a first-ever national ecclesial meeting between bishops, priests and lay people. The aim of the weeklong meeting was to bring together “lay people, men, women, members of the consecrated life, bishops, priests, deacons and seminarians” to build a “better Church and a better country.” Bishop Ramón Castro of Cuernavaca, who serves as CEM secretary general, said he and his confreres had a great responsibility to “continue to build together a more synodal Church.” The Mexican Church’s national meeting was part of a synodal process that began five months ago in all Latin America. CELAM (the Latin American Episcopal Council) held the first-ever Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean last November which brought together a thousand participants. Some 40% of them were lay people. The Mexican Bishops closed this assembly by expressing their wish to walk with families and their life stories, to learn to be an open, synodal, Samaritan and outgoing Church.”
There is not any kind of synodal relationship between the people and the bishops here. The changes the Dutch people want in our Church are: equal rights for women, equal rights for LGBT people, equal rights for remarried people, marriage optional for ordained ministers, accountability and transparency, referring crimes to civil authorities, entrusting family matters to married couples, support for an independent judicial process regarding sexual abuse by clergy, synods with representatives from all ranks, considered care in union with different denominations, and election of leaders for service and pastoral care.
We have already begun referring sexual abuse crimes to civil authorities. One of the reports on synodal sessions of dioceses refers to wanting equal rights for women and another one refers to accountability and transparency. The rest of the reports concentrate on needed improvements in the mission, participation and communion of the faithful. Reform-minded people here support the Austrian proposal to recognize the consecration of all the people of God at baptism and the commissioning of chosen women and men into special service and pastoral care.
New Zealand: NZCBC has good leadership in Cardinal John Dew. Auckland, by far the biggest of our 6 dioceses, has just appointed Bishop Steve Lowe who was installed as bishop in the small diocese of Hamilton only 5 years ago. He is relatively young, open to change and very strongly pastorally, totally in line with Pope Francis as he guides the bishops to have the smell of the sheep.
The effectiveness of consultation with the laity, paving the way for the synodal way which Francis has called for, varies greatly from one diocese to the next. Auckland has done a reasonable job in hosting parish level synodal listening meetings; Wellington (led by Cardinal John Dew) has produced 1500 submissions; in Hamilton the synodal response has been abysmal. The results in Palmerston North, Christchurch or Dunedin remains unclear.
We at Be the Change, with approximately 100 members, have produced a deeply considered submission but we also hope to hear from the wider (mostly disenfranchised or disconnected) Catholic membership. We have initiated a “People’s Synod” which is still in the planning phase. We intend to host a series of webinars in October 2022 which will focus on the key issues we face as people of Aotearoa New Zealand. These are decolonization (undoing almost 200 years of colonization, hearing the voice of our first nations people, the Maori, who are sovereign of this land and never gave it up); Care of the Earth (including climate change and living sustainably) and how we function as the People of God in Aotearoa NZ (including inclusion of marginalized groups – women, LGBTQI+, minorities etc.), democratization of the church etc. Affirming the Spirit at large, this “People’s Synod,” called Te Whaariki (a woven mat), will hopefully draw together our connectedness in making this a better world, regardless of our connection to the institutional church,
Pakistan: Without a voice or recommendations from the laity, bishops are making their own recommendations and just filling the activities of the synods with their schoolteachers who are not able to speak freely. Bishops here live like kings where they are so far removed from the people that they have almost no understanding of laity issues.
Our People’s opinion – sensus fidelium – should be respected and count in any parish. Ideally, bishops should encourage pastors to have lay-led parish councils. Women must be considered in parish activities and priests should appreciate the girls who work in parishes for Church development. Catholic Youth commission must focus on young leadership and bishops must ensure funds for the activities through this commission. Funds should be accountable, and people should have the right to ask questions about finances. Salaries of Church workers must be increased as they are given very low wages compared to other private institutes. Scholarships for students and poverty elevation program must become a priority for our Church.
As reformers, we are already doing much of the work the church should be leading, such as our sustainable development goals program and our special focus on climate change and education. Pakistani Christians are living in extreme poverty while clergy are living in wealth. We’d like to see the Church engaged in international funding agencies with Christian NGOs in Pakistan. While not receiving funding from our bishops, our work for interfaith harmony and youth development will be evolving with the help of CCRI’s online Young People Seekers Small Christian Communities.
Philippines: Strictly speaking we do not have a synodal relationship but all the ingredients are there to have one. As the “only Christian nation in Asia, it counts 80+% Catholic, 5+% Protestant, 5+% Muslim. There are currently 86 dioceses and over 100 bishops. Active bishop/lay participation depends on the diocese and in some cases is outstanding but there is no overall national strategy such as envisioned by the proposed synodal relationship for our Church in our country.
There are church inspired groups for farmers, youth, elderly poor, urban poor etc. and there are some bishops who inspire and call for such groups. We ourselves are involved in over 900 urban poor groups that could easily become synodal if …..
The liturgy must begin in the shacks of the urban poor, in the huts of the tenant farmers, on the streets of the children…to become synodal…with or without the bishops involvement. The challenge for serious scholars is oftentimes to trace pre-Christian practices (still relatively common) to ascertain their relevance for life today (e.g. the sacredness of nature).
Spain: Spanish bishops are in general quite conservative, so their opinions have the effect of putting them far from many people, especially young people. Of course, some of them are quite close to the people as human beings, others not at all. They try to follow Francis’s proposals but don’t always succeed.
To walk together it is essential to consider the Church as the People of God, and this implies a Church of equals. This is the only way to move the Church forward in the twenty-first century. As reformers we must be persistent despite our lack of immediate success.
South Africa: For us our experience of bishops is positive as they are responsive to challenges faced by people in our communities. Through pastoral letters, our bishops provided clear pastoral support during the Covid-pandemic; they spoke up against corruption in society; they condemned violence against women, and so much more. This synod was an example of their support for amplifying marginal voices of women, youth and LGBTIQ persons. Women for example were encouraged to speak up against patriarchy in the Catholic Church. We are fortunate in South Africa to have bishops who support progressive roles of laity including promotion of women and inclusion of laity in running parishes and taking responsibility.
UK: The Hierarchy in England and Wales are “not of a mind” as stated by our bishop to have Diocesan Pastoral Councils as a norm. Clericalism and control from the hierarchy is still the order of the day. Falling back on canon law, our bishops resist pastoral initiative or allowing the Holy Spirit to have any say in strategy. This is a sure and safe way for conservative bishops to uphold the status quo, thereby stifling any exploration of needed change. This deprives people and clergy having any kind of serious dialogue or planning on pastoral matters.
The fear is that there may be controversy, disagreements and attempts to challenge Bishops into action on matters that we are told are a closed door, ex. Married clergy, Women priests, LGBTQ issues, etc. and the sharing of power and responsibility amongst the People of God. For the most part, only lip service is given to the role of laity. The role of women’s leadership is ignored. Much like the rest of the world, only token appreciation is given to the contribution of women in the Church. In the meantime, we stay with the above-named issues that are important to so many thinking people within our Church. We keep hoping that this Synodal process in which we are all currently engaged will lead to a real sharing of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ where every individual is seen as important.
USA: With few exceptions, the relationship between our bishops and the People in the United States is abysmal. Since the Second Vatican Council, one in three members has left the Church. This is due largely to church hierarchy upholding and enforcing the old rules of the church instead of showing compassion for people and their life problems. The reproductive morality of Humanae Vitae is rejected by an overwhelming majority (92% of Catholic women in the USA) and young people long for a sexual morality that emphasizes the loving and spiritual aspects of sexuality.
Some who have left their local jurisdictions have opted to move their membership to Reformed Movement founded in 1875 and the Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ founded in Detroit by Primate Archbishop Karl Rodig whose work has been blessed by Pope Francis.
Instead of planning synods in their dioceses, the U.S. Conference of Bishops focused on creating a document on the Eucharist that would prevent Catholic public figures like our president from receiving Communion due to their pro-choice position. We have little hope of achieving a synodal relationship in most dioceses. However, there is a strong commitment in the reform community to promote qualified lay people – irrespective of their gender or marital status – to participate in the leadership of parish life during liturgies and serving on parish councils. It is encouraged to have regularly scheduled gatherings of congregants who are welcomed to discern anything that concerns the parish. A short report could then be given to the administration and the pastor striving to work out any problems/issues that need attention to make the parish vital among the People of God.
With or without the support of our bishops, we are committed to (1) building and creating Small Christian Communities both within and outside of parish life; and (2) as a step toward overturning clericalism, demanding accountability and transparency from our pastors and bishops.
The Church We Envision and Are Committed to Make happen:
We have arrived at a sensitive time in history that clearly indicates we must strive for a different way of being Church than what we now have. We recognize there are numerous signs that cry out that reform is urgently needed.
Our vision of our Church in today’s world is that of a Christian community that recognizes that our primary calling is to love God and love one another as exemplified by Jesus during his life on this earth. Let us rebuild our Church to be like Jesus, welcoming and accepting everyone without judgment. Let us transform our understanding of Christianity from being primarily about time spent in church to realizing that our Christian calling is best expressed in how we show our love for God through our love for all those who are in our lives – our family, friends, enemies, and those not so easy to love. We are truly Christians when we stand ecumenically in solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the immigrants, and the less fortunate who most need us in our society. We are Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and just people of good will coming together to stand with the with the oppressed, to give voice for those who cannot always speak for themselves.
This Church we envision is relevant not because of its power but because it is prophetic in following Jesus and the Gospel. The Church is called upon to emulate Jesus in challenging the ills of contemporary society, which today include ongoing colonialism, extreme capitalism, consumerism, militarism, racism, and the like. All too often in some parts of the world, the institutional church collaborates with and even profits from these evils. The Church we want to build is truly a sacrament that speaks of the sacred while also being down-to-earth, compassionate and forgiving, attentive to the cries of humankind and the cries of planet earth.
We see this Church as welcoming of all because we are all children of God who loves us all. We are His people with different cultures, languages, and rhythms. Vatican II made great strides which we must continue. This Church encompasses all with a special preference for those who suffer, who have been impoverished by a system that prioritizes wealth at all costs when this has become a detriment to all, even to the planet.
We need to implement the teachings of Laudato Si in caring for the earth, protecting the environment, in ensuring we exercise our responsibility in providing a sustainable environment for future generations. We must ensure that the poor, who contribute the least to climate change, must be protected from climate action. (The cry of the earth; the cry of the poor). This can be achieved by reflecting on the insights provided by Liberation Theology. Let us begin to inaugurate the Kingdom of God: the upside-down Kingdom where the last will be first.
We need a Church built on community where the common good is a priority and is lived by its members. As in the early Church, the people select their leaders with the role of ministries filled by men and women alike, and each one is recognized in its uniqueness and richness. Clearly, the role today of the people is of utmost importance. We must all be participative, carrying out ecclesial and social ministries in a synodal way.
We strive for a Church centered on mission – Go and make disciples (Mt. 19, 20-21) – with the assurance that the Spirit precedes us. In line with Pope Francis, our Church is close to the people, like a field hospital, ready to help and heal. This Church is centered on the good news announced by Jesus and committed to today’s social issues, placing at its center the dignity of each person.
In our Church, those chosen for ordained ministry – men or women, married or celibate – are not isolated in seminaries and set apart from the world. Rather they are integrated into theological studies at universities with the laity and are sent out on mission to be given actual exposure to real life. In this Church, the laity are trained to become leaders and assume greater responsibility for the good of the community. This would lead to active parish and diocesan pastoral councils made up of lay leaders with decision-making authority. We promote Small Christian Communities and believe they should be integrated into the official Church structure.
In the Church we want, women are treated with full equality. The institutional church has acknowledged that there is no Scriptural basis for the exclusion of women from priestly ordination. [Paul VI Pontifical Commission on “The Function of Women in Society and the Church,” 1973; report leaked in 1975.] Scripture is filled with references to women in leadership and ministerial roles. It was to Mary, the mother of Mark, who was presiding at prayer where Peter went after he was released from prison (Acts 12:12-17). Lydia was a businesswoman from Thyatira and a major figure in the early church who led the house Church at Philippi which met in her home (Acts 16:11-15). From Paul’s letters, it is clear that Prisca and Aquila were hosts to house Churches in Ephesus and in Rome (1 Cor 16:19 and Rom 16:3-5). Phoebe was a leader in the church at Cenchrae. Paul described her as a diakonos (minister) of the ekklesia (church) in Cenchrae. In Romans 16:7 Paul says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia…they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” It is vital that our bishops move past sexism to welcome women in all service and ministerial roles in our Church. If both women and men and married persons are welcomed into the ordained ministry, their leadership would offer a more enriched community.
It is essential to continue striving for a synodal way of being Church. To listen deeply is challenging. To reach consensus requires self-detachment and learning the ways of discernment, guided by the light of the Spirit. It is not an easy endeavor as rigid norms prevail, but there are beautiful examples of what can be achieved as we have seen lately with the Canadian indigenous people. Our Church has a light to share.
As part of humanity, our Church will have its lights and shadows, but we cannot lose the way nor the light that has been given to us. We recognize the efforts of many people around the world striving to live the Gospel including bishops and priests, laity, children, and youth. But rigid hierarchical structures and canonical law cannot continue to curtail the light. Mistakes will continue to be made but a Church guided by the Spirit can and must make amends and keep going forward.
Think of the woman who has a son who is a special child. At one time in his life, he could talk but other children made fun of him, so he never talked again. If only this mother who has cared and loved him all these years could help us understand…and a man whose first marriage failed and is trying again with hope…and an urban poor leader whose area is scheduled for demolition and has organized a march to city hall to explain the plight of the urban poor…and a farmer who takes the seedling which have sprouted and goes into the flooded field to plant rice…and the gay person who has found someone with whom to share her life…and the alcoholic still trying…. Having encountered the sacred each in their unique way, in this Church all these can come to the table to share the Eucharist that unites us. Through the Eucharist, we all come together to be nourished and share the Bread of Life.
Our vision of the Church we want in today’s world is simply a Christian community where all are welcomed. As different as we all are, we recognize Jesus’ unique presence within each one of us. This Church offers us a better way of dealing with the numerous issues we are facing in today’s world.
Conclusion: We have come together as representatives from 20 different countries, clerics and lay, and in our discernment saw the exciting prospect of a Church that more closely resembles the early Christian community. Built on a foundation of feet washers who continue together on the road, supporting one another as we move into the future, we are committed to being the community that Jesus envisioned. Despite our cultural and regional differences, we are in full consensus that these reforms are essential for the good of our Church. Due in large part to the current crisis in the Church, these issues cannot wait for the usual time the institutional church has taken in the past to deal with pressing issues.
While we are aware that there are some who want to return our Church to pre-Vatican II days, we are of the firm belief that the Church cannot remain a hierarchical institution. Now that the synodal spirit has once again been welcomed, we must proceed forward as a community with all the baptized, people and clergy, walking together. It is our hope that Francis’s synodal process will open ways for each of us to live our Christian calling according to our own convictions while preserving unity in our core belief that we are called to show our love for God through our love for one another. On our part, we choose now to devote our energy to changing ourselves and educating the baptized that we all are the Church, and we have the responsibility to enrich the future leadership of our Church and to lay the groundwork for more compassionate teachings and a new governance model that engages the giftedness of the People of God.
We appreciate that this worldwide event has given the people an opportunity to listen to one another and to share our Spirit-guided reflections about our Church. But this is not enough if the remainder of the process is a gathering of only bishops. If we have been invited to walk with the bishops, then we must be welcomed to walk with them through the entirety of the synodal process, all the way through and including the 2023 Synod in Rome. If this is to be truly synodal, it cannot be a gathering of the hierarchy without also including an appropriate representation of the people.
On behalf of Catholic Church Reform Int’l, we are committed Catholics consisting of clergy, religious, and laity who submit these reforms to be essential for the sustainability and future of our Church.
Jean-Pierre Schmidt (France) Ed Schreurs (Netherlands) Charlie Gibson (USA)
Paul Hwang (Korea) Alloys Nyakundi (Kenya) Joe Ryan (UK)
Ashiknaz Khokhar (Pakistan) Christina Reymer (New Zealand) Alan Daulton (India)
Clyde Christofferson (USA) Joseph Healey (Kenya) Anthony Spencer (UK)
Bride Counihan (Ireland) Filo Hirota (Japan) Carol Harris (USA)
Peter Johnstone (Australia) John Williams (Canada) Lula Ramires (Brazil)
Edward Gerlock (Philippines) Nessan Vaughn (Ireland) Valerie Stroud (UK)
Raquel Mallavibarrena (Spain) Monica Lopes (Brazil) Edson Silva (Brazil)
Sorcorro Martinez Maqueo (Mexico) Rene Reid (USA)