Keynote Speaker - Fr Paul Philibert - What will the Synod mean to you?

What will the Synod mean to you?

A reflection and synopsis

by Shane Ambrose (Member of Preparatory Commission)

On November 15th Fr Paul Philibert a Dominican friar from the U.S delivered the keynote address for the opening assembly of delegates to the Diocesan Synod of Limerick. His talk was challenging, intense, and the following is a short synopsis of some of the main points with thoughts for reflection for the Synod delegates and all interested members of the diocese.

Setting out the challenge that we have set ourselves in the diocese of Limerick Fr Philibert expressed the impact of convening a diocesan synod and what it means for us as a People of God. He noted it “is a way of spiritually re-founding a diocese”. But before we can begin “changing things, a synod aims to rediscover our ecclesial [church] identity as God’s people. God's dream is for us to be conformed [made anew/changed] to his Son and to become icons [images/reflections] of Jesus Christ. We are called to become Christians in the world for the world’s sake as agents, not clients of the church’s mission”.

But this work is not something which can be done on our own. “Using our bodies, our community, our actions, and our attitudes, the Holy Spirit, the great Iconographer [artist], creates an image with God's people that portrays the kingdom of God. The Spirit does this not by forcing our gestures or our words, our actions or our plans, but by touching us at the source of our thoughts and desires. A synod is very much the fruit of the Spirit’s gifts to us”. However, for this to happen, for the Spirit to be able to work through us it requires that we must imitate the Divine Master and that “there must be in us what there was in Christ Jesus – an emptying out..... We will have to let go of old habits and learn new ways of living our Christian life and responsibilities”. As a result of bravely stepping forth in the gift of the Spirit “the synod will help us to name the unusable past and to aim for the necessary future”.

But as part of the process of Synod, we need to challenge our misconceptions of what ‘church’ actually means. “The church is not just an old institution with rituals, but a communion of real people with many gifts. We all belong in the one body of Christ. Together we are a sign or sacrament of human communion with God, a sign of peace among brothers and sisters, a sign of passionate purpose in a futile world” It is not every day that each of us is called a sign of passionate purpose in the world. In Limerick our passions tend to revolve around the Gaelic Grounds and Thomond Park  and it is a reminder to us of Jesus call to be salt and leaven in the world we live in, in such a way that it is drives us, challenges us and consumes the very fibre of our being. But are we open and ready to be challenged on this point?

Being on pilgrimage together brings us into contact we people who we might not readily journey with if we had a choice. It is a reminder that in synod “We journey together toward this dynamic sign from different starting points. We come with distinct roles, different talents, varied preoccupations, and diverse experiences. But we meet as peers: all of us baptized into Christ, anointed by the Spirit, and called to the work of building up the church”. And we need to be realistic about what that means for us as delegates in the work we are undertaking and the humility and patience we will need with our fellow pilgrims on the way recognising our mutual giftedness in the journey. It is also a reminder that baptism is the qualification for participating in synod, not whether one is ordained or not or has theology qualifications to your name. Each of us can contribute to the process of synod.

But what is the purpose of Synod for us in Limerick? What does it mean to say we want to re-found the diocese and rediscover what it means for us as a Christian community? “The synod’s purpose is to bear witness to Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Can the Diocese of Limerick, its parishes and its people, become a persuasive sacrament of the risen Lord’s presence? Christ shares his Father with us and invites us to intercede for the world around us and to sanctify it as we touch it....It is an invitation to wake up in the Body of Christ. God needs us not only as devout believers, but also as creative agents of his mercy”. Again the call, the reminder to us is that being Christian is not a passive occurrence in our lives. As Pope Francis is constantly reminding us we are asked to be living signs in our world, that our faith should mean something to us and that this should be seen in the way that we live. That we are agents, angels, implementers if you like, of God’s loving mercy. In many ways Fr Philibert is echoing the great theme of Pope Francis ministry to date which in turn of course is only reflecting the ministry of the Carpenter of Nazareth over 2000 years ago.

But Limericks Synod is not happening in historic isolation. We are following in the footsteps of the early church right back to the first witnesses to Jesus life, death and resurrection and as we set out we hope that at the end of the process we will be able to follow their example.

”The first synod we know about is the so-called Council of Jerusalem in 48 A.D. when Paul and Barnabas brought to Peter, James and John the unresolved question of whether the church might move beyond Judaism into the Gentile world. It was a moment of deep crisis, as Acts 15 and Galatians 2 portray it. Its resolution changed history, for Paul and Barnabas were sent back to Antioch with this blessing from the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem: ‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ for you to follow Christ without the burden of circumcision and the Law. (Acts 15:28) Even now, a synod gathers in confidence that the Holy Spirit will accompany, guide, and strengthen the church. At the end of the Diocesan Synod of Limerick, please God, you will say, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

At the same time the Synod is also occurring in the context of the modern church and we are reminded how the universal Church understands the role of diocesan synods. What we are about to undertake is a formal canonical process under the present Code of Canon Law (§460-468). The Code describes the diocesan synod as an assembly that brings the bishop together with his presbyters and his people to assist him in governing his diocese. The bishop is the sole legislator; the authority for the synod’s decrees comes from his approval and promulgation. But those decrees will flow from wide consultation, pastoral dialogue with the people, and profound discernment. The synod will engage the entire Catholic population in sharing their needs and wisdom”.

The success or failure of the Synod, if you like the “re-founding mentioned before will be rooted in the synod's success in articulating in down to earth language the lofty challenge of becoming a living sign or sacrament for the world. It will make the church’s ageless tradition contemporary with current needs and present culture”. Often when we encounter Church teaching and documents they can be lofty and seem far above us and our daily lives. The challenge is for us to bring them back down to the everyday experience which we live in Limerick today and into the future for our children and grandchildren.

There is also a reminder that “a diocesan synod is a consultative body. It is not a constitutional convention, but a new Pentecost. It invites the Holy Spirit to become visible, present, and active in the midst of God's people”. This is an important and challenging point for us all to remember. As part of the emptying out which we are called to imitate is the reminder that we gather as the representatives of the diocese, not in a political manner but rather to express the out pouring of a new Pentecost. It means that we need to leave aside our personal agendas and pet projects to focus together on the common good of the diocese.

But moving from the historic to the universal context, Bishop Brendan also brought the local Irish context to mind in the convocation of the synod. “In his letter of convocation, Bishop Brendan Leahy indicated the obstacles that the synod will have to face. He referred to the ecclesial trauma caused by the revelation of horrible deeds done to children. Those wounds will need to be acknowledged, and clear changes of policy will need to be credible and fully understood. Healing and forgiveness will be on everyone’s mind. Beyond that, the practice of the faith has declined. The majority of our young adults have not settled down into the church as a spiritual home. Also not just Roman Catholics, but the Irish people as a whole find it harder to see the link between faith and culture in these changing times.” These are not small things to be rushed over or ignored but are rather the naming of the ‘signs of the times’ in which we are living and to which we as a diocese have to respond to as we journey through synod.

Our understanding of church is going to be radically challenged by the process of Synod. “The church of the future will not be the church of our grandparents...... In those days the parish priest was sanctifier, consoler, social activist, and (sometimes) miracle worker...... exaggerated ideas of the priest’s role were not good for the ordained nor for the laity.....Although we now have vast resources for communication unimaginable to our grandparents, we have effectively lost the deep practical meaning of the Christian life. What on earth might be done about such a predicament? Hold a synod”.

In many ways Fr Philibert summed up one of the biggest challenges for us in getting to grips with how the majority of people understand what it means to be “church” based on the ancient medieval model of Christendom. “The church of Christendom [was] a church of rituals, a clerical church in which the faithful are clients of ordained leaders, a church of spiritual comforts in which ‘sacraments’ are found exclusively in church; and a church that is afflicted with nostalgia for an imagined perfect past...... Ordinary lay life was essentially indifferent: prayers, the Mass, the sacraments, and obeying commandments were sacred parentheses within the stream of life. Holiness was imagined as a trickle-down structure”. It can be a familiar image for us, but is it the image we want of our church in Limerick diocese after Synod? Or would we rather consider a renewed, living, vibrant community and communion?

“The renewed ecclesial world that I am calling a charismatic communion is a church with a living liturgy that extends beyond the 60 minutes of Sunday morning Mass into a life of joyful sacrifice........This charismatic communion is not made up of people who go to church, but who are church. They receive the sacraments of the church, but so as to become, as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer III, "one body, one spirit in Christ" – to become the sign-sacrament of Christ. It is a church in which everyone has spiritual riches to distribute, spiritual gifts to give away, and a vocation to witness dynamically to the way divine love changes lives. It is a church where God can be found at the family dining table as well as in the tabernacle. It is a church that is gathered by word and sacrament, but then scattered far and wide to be Christ, to say Christ, and to share Christ throughout the day, throughout a lifetime”.

The image presented to us of such a communion is hugely challenging and almost intimidating. It up ends for many of us what we thought ‘church’ meant and presents both an appealing but also overwhelming  vision of church. It would be well worth our while to reflect line by line on the description given above and to really reflect on it and what it means for each of us.

Independent of the serious question of a shortage of ordained ministers, there is a broader ecclesial question here. How can we foster a movement from passive, client congregations to active, mutually ministering congregations? How can an entire parish community of apostolic members understand themselves as and choose to be evangelizers? How do we move from church as Christendom to church as charismatic communion? As I suggested earlier, we have to let go of some things and learn some things.

We will need to let go of looking at the Mass as the consecration of bread and wine surrounded by the unimportant ornamentation of readings and songs. That means letting go of Eucharist as a sacred object and entering Eucharist as a communion with God who calls us..............

We will also have to learn how to celebrate the living Word of God as an essential part of Eucharist in which God is truly present...........

There are two tables in the Mass: the Table of the Word, and the Table of the Eucharist.  Often we do not come to the Table of the Eucharist with deep hunger or profound reverence because we have not really been fed at the Table of the Word.........

We must stop calculating Christian life only in terms of Masses, rosaries, and novenas. These were the lifeblood of Catholics in the hard times, and they are due all proper respect. But we can’t think of the saving sacrifice of the Mass as something done for us but without us........

We live the liturgy not just under the rafters of the parish church, but in the whole scope of our daily lives........‘the laity is given [this] special vocation: to make the church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.

............‘What will the Synod mean for you?’, we can say that it will pose a series of questions that will shape not only the ministry of the diocese, but the life and witness of its people. Do you want to be clients of an ecclesiastical franchise? Do you want to be observers of sacred, sacramental rites performed for your inspiration and spiritual comfort? Do you want to continue to be part-time Christians who visit churches but live in a lusty world? Or, by contrast, do you want to be an active member of a mutually-ministering community that has the world and its culture in view? Do you want to be agents of a Eucharistic community that together with its priests is constructing a credible sign of Christ-alive? Do you want to be full-time Christians who ‘preach’ at home and at work, in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, always and everywhere?

And what is the role of our ordained ministers in this charismatic communion? Where do they stand amidst all this? “The ministry of bishops and priests is essential. Their prophetic ministry teaches the faithful to know their full dignity in apostolic life and holiness; their priestly ministry leads the faithful to offer themselves along with Christ; and their pastoral ministry guides the talents and gifts of the faithful toward the fulfillment of the church's mission. How could people know their apostolic vocation and their dignity as members of Christ's body without the teaching, celebration, and pastoral imagination of the ordained? We are entering into an age in which ordained ministry may possess an importance and dignity unknown since the patristic era if we rise to the occasion”

But what does it all mean? When all is said and done and the Acts of the Synod are published what will it mean for Limerick that we have held a synod? What will it mean for the mission of the diocese of Limerick and it is self understanding of itself? Fr Philibert poses the challenge to us in terms of the call by Pope Paul VI for the church to rediscover that it is called to be evangelisers in the world ‘The task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the church.’ The church ‘exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace’ to the world. Paul VI also insisted: ‘The church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.… She has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the gospel.’

But to be able to be communicators of the Good News, to be able to share the “hope that is within us” we need to rediscover or maybe for many of us discover for the first time the shock of the message in the gospel. ‘Most Catholics today were baptized as infants. They never experienced the shock of the kerygma that was visited upon those evangelized by Paul and Barnabas.’ Hearing the preaching of those earliest evangelists people must have thought, ‘Can I really believe that God became human? Can I really believe that this human God died and rose from the dead? Can I really believe that through him the Creator of the world and the Source of life invites me into intimacy with God?’

But have we been taken by the shoulders and shaken; have we been knocked over the head with the astounding message of God's love? He who is all became nothing for us; he who is the source of goodness took our sins upon himself that we might find forgiveness and know goodness”.

That is an important point for each of us to reflect and think about. Have we ever really ever sat and thought about what it is that Christianity teaches? The perceived absurdity? The astounding nature of what we profess every Sunday when we stand up to recite the Creed? That is the wonder and gift which is available to all of us at this time of Synod, to discover again the very wonder at the heart of our faith.

But such openness to such a gift is risky, it is challenging; for many it may be frightening. It calls out of us a generous response. But “the generosity being asked of you by your bishop – and by the Holy Spirit – requires a risk. But if you do risk for the sake of the gospel, there is every chance that you will experience the payoff in these terms:

You are being invited to move beyond lethargy, beyond apathy; to let go of anger and frustration; to risk going beyond pain and fear. You are being asked to become less self-centered, self-concerned, and see yourselves and everything else in a new way.

The synod could be an invitation to enter a new age of hope and discovery, a new age of joy and investment, leading to new challenges but also to deeper peace. It is a chance for a spiritual freedom that will allow you to rediscover the call of your Lord and Savior and to respond from the depths of your heart with generosity and creativity.

I asked, “What will the synod mean for you?” The answer of course will be different in each case. But for everyone it will mean taking responsibility for the gifts that we have been given and bringing them to life. It will mean becoming Christian in the world for the sake of the world. It will mean learning how to become a sacrament of divine love.”