A theology of surprise needed
(Published in The Swag Autumn 2022)
Pope Francis famously announced that the current time as not an era of change but a change of era. He is suggesting that a new way of thinking and acting is necessary for responding adequately to the current reality. Thus, whether talking with clergy, laity, women, refugees or LGBTI people, he is constant in his call for dialogue, inclusion, compassionate pastoral care, a halt to clericalism and a simpler humbler prayer and life practice.
Some in the reform movements wonder why Francis is not quite as consistent in a call for change in governance or doctrine. There must be improvements in transparency, accountability, inclusion and integrity in governance and further development of doctrine as theologians dialogue with scientists, professionals, experts and anthropologists.
Francis, however, believes the key to church reform in this change of era is returning to the basics of listening and acting in justice and love to the cry of the poor, silenced, marginalised or erased. Francis seems to be advocating for a more authentic pastoral practice and greater liturgical relevance.
For Francis this seems to be the first step in restoring the credibility of the church amongst its own and then in civil society. If we return to the gospel and the Jesus method of evangelisation, we can then more effectively engage with deeper governance and doctrinal change.
Both tasks are essential for the future of the church and whether one must precede the other or they can both happen together is a matter of opinion. The Pope has placed his hope in synodality.
Synodality seems to hinge on two things. It is a process and a practice. Synodality, we are told, is a process of listening and dialogue. However, it is also a practice of discernment, compassionate pastoral care and good ritual. Listening and dialogue can be little more than a talk fest and, at worst, becomes an unsafe space for the marginalised and minority groups. The claim to listening that is not accompanied by a genuine search for a new way ahead that creatively responds to the challenges of our time seems to be a failure of synodality.
The synodal process must be more than recording of diverse views especially if the process for decisions and proposals is in the hands of those in power. This usually results in business as usual, not a new way ahead.
The discernment process must begin and stay with the experience of the person in their life situations. The practices that accompany the listening and dialogue process begin with discernment but it must be done in a Jesus way.
The Cardijn method of see judge and act is essential to a deep listening, a competent dialogue and a compassionate and just course of action. This means all involved need to carefully listen to the experience of those normally excluded or silenced, study the biblical, social and theological perspectives and discern action in favour of the experience of the erased and silenced. Just as the Syrophoenician woman became Jesus’ teacher, the outsider and excluded stories inform the process of dialogue, reflection and action.
Synodality must relate to practice. Pope Francis speaks powerfully that pastoral care begins with listening to the story of person seeking love and justice. Reform of pastoral care is not a result of synodality, it is a constitutive element of synodality. Without effective listening and accompaniment of the poor and marginalised, there can be no effective synodality. This requires another principle of Francis that asks for a preference of patient listening and understanding over the teaching doctrine. This approach could restore some confidence in the capacity to offer competent pastoral care and create a safe space for deep dialogue.
The synodal process must include a practice that promotes healing. Discussion and taking decisions on proposals will, if anything, promote further hurt and division. An essential healing methodology in the Christian tradition has been ritual. We believe that ritual and the liturgy are the source and summit of christian life.
This will require a reform of the way we celebrate. It is not the missal itself that leaves many Catholics uninspired at Mass, it is the way it is used. Can we find ways in the official liturgy as well as other rituals to nourish and inspire? Ritual can heal in ways discussion never will. We need liturgies that respond to the change of era and involve all the baptised. While this is a challenge, unless we find ways to respect the theology of baptism where we believe all the baptised share equally in the gift of the Holy Spirit and find ways to express this in the liturgy and ritual, we crush the chance for synodality to take shape and become the method for moving forward and promoting healing.
Synodality will depend on our ability to be flexible, spontaneous, willing to try new things and open to surprise. A theological challenge facing theologians of synodality might be to develop a theology of surprise.
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