Synodality New Zealand style: What’s up?

Living with the chaos

The synodal consultation gives insight into the issues shaping the lives of local Catholics.

Although themes such as child abuse, clericalism, and priestly formation are emerging internationally, these issues do not drive local synodal processes with the same intensity or to the same degree.

A synodal process is a local event as much as an international one. It is shaped by local issues, politics, theological imperatives and ecclesial needs, and the consultation feedback reflects this.

The overall response to the synod process and the emerging themes from the consultation in Palmerston North Diocese illustrate our context and frame our experience of synodality.

In Australia, for example, the responses of the Royal Commission and the Australian Government to the commission’s report on institutional sex abuse have been formative of the Australian Church’s approach to the synodal process, its emerging themes, and Catholics’ participation.

In Germany, the issue of child abuse has similarly driven responses to the Synodal Way.

Here, voices for change have become stronger due to the intense focus on the clerical abuse of children and power illustrated in the recent reports from the archdioceses of Cologne and Munich.

In Palmerston North Diocese, the synodal process shows a desire for “things to change”.

A consensus of issues is emerging:

(1) the collapse of the institutional Church structures and the emerging neo-missionary Church and what this means for parishes and pastoral ministry, (2) the struggle between hierarchy and welcome and what this says around exclusion and inclusion of people and (3) the actual level of participation in the synodal process which is very low and indicative of a larger problem of engagement and communication.

End of the institutional Church and the neo-missionary Church

The collapse of the nineteenth-century missionary Church’s institutional structures is due to the rapid decline in the number of church attendees and indigenous clergy.

In Palmerston North diocese, we have 24 priests aged between 30 and 85 located in 13 central parishes actively serving 51 parishes and small rural communities.

Although the pastoral context calls for increased lay formation, lay ministry and lay-parish management, we import seminarians and international clergy from Southeast Asia.

While international clergy provide a functional sacramental ministry, they also contribute to the process of “neo-missionization”, resulting in many local, indigenous communities being further alienated.

The collapse of a functioning indigenous priesthood brings the loss of an immersed presbyterial ministry that leaves many people without easy recourse to a consistent liturgical life and sacramental ministry that is culturally in tune with them.

Where there is no immersed presbyterate or functional international priesthood, a significant theological change occurs in the local community.

The loss is not just the absence of a functioning and culturally aware liturgical and sacramental life; it also changes how local communities view themselves theologically.

The theological change begins with the absence of Sunday Mass.

Sunday Mass, once the hallmark of Catholic identity, is replaced with a Liturgy of Word with Communion.

This “work-around” creates a new “town ecclesiology” where the “theology of the local community” as distinct from the “theology of the Church community gathered on Sunday” takes precedence over everything.

The “town ecclesiology” places the local community ahead of the notion that Sunday Mass (Eucharist) is the central gathering of the Christian community and constitutive to our identity as Catholic Christians.

Instead, local Catholics see their local Sunday gathering as more important than gathering for Mass.

Consequently, where individuals and families travel 50 kilometers for shopping on Friday, they will not travel the same distance for Mass on Sunday, preferring instead to foster their local community.

As a result, the democratization of the local community is seen as a “healthier” or more necessary adaption that is more sustainable in the long run than joining the hierarchical gathering of the larger Sunday community presided over by a priest.

However, this situation needs to be seen in its larger context of a consistent preferment for celibate, male priesthood at the cost of the Eucharistic assembly.

Hierarchy and welcome: two competing concepts

The most consistent and powerful emerging trend from our diocesan consultation is the demand for greater inclusion of the GLBTQI+ community.

Welcoming this diverse community is symbolic of welcoming many other people already excluded by the Church’s institutional structures, theological positions and liturgical practice.

New Zealand has a dual Church system of parishes and State Integrated Catholic Schools. The schools are the means through which most Catholics (Sunday practicing and non-practicing) encounter Catholicism. This unique arrangement tends to create competition between parishes and schools.

Catholic schools are seen by many as places where all are welcomed. Here, faith is nurtured through engagement with families and children. Schools meet people “where they are” and nurture them.

The schools offer a way of prayer, faith engagement and social action that is open, accessible to young people, and relevant to contemporary culture.

Parishes, by contrast, are seen as the places where “faith goes to die”. They are bastions of conformity to Church rules and regulations and are they not moving with the times. Parishes limit welcome through demands that everyone should “do as we (parishes and priests) teach”.

Hierarchy is a “black word” for many because it symbolizes oppression. It excludes people from being welcomed into all aspects of church life. Hierarchy excludes people from participation in the liturgy (even if they are not initiated) and sets up barriers to full participation in ministry.

The argument goes: if the liturgical hierarchy and the Church’s theological hierarchical thinking could be changed, then how we currently “do” parish, liturgy and priesthood will change for the better.

Thus, “welcome” is the antidote to all forms of generational, gender and ministry exclusion. Its removal or softening will result in a better led, better managed, more authentic, and more credible Church.

Clericalism is a synodal concern aligned to hierarchical structures. Though directed mainly at the ordained, it is also occasionally levelled at the laity and religious in positions of authority. The issue is the mentality that drives “clerical” decision-making.

Clericalism is experienced by many, especially those connected with schools and young people, in liturgical practice.

They argue that priests when inviting a young person to participate in the Sunday Mass should ask the young person: what they want to read; when they want to read it; and how they would like to read it, not present them with a lectionary and say “read this at that time”; liturgy is the great divide between the rulers and the ruled.

The idea of “welcome” is symbolic of a substantial movement in the theological values of participants and a more significant movement in a reformed understanding of Catholic theology and practice.

Welcome signifies more than creating a welcoming environment at Mass or greeting someone at the door; welcome is the code word for a significant shift in popular theological, liturgical and ecclesial culture.

Welcome means including cultural perspectives, indigenous languages, ancient indigenous art and prayer forms, and more.

Welcome is the anthesis of hierarchy.

Communication is another form of welcome and inclusion, neither of which the Church does well; thus, the Church is not seen as evangelising.

Church communication is “one way” from the “pulpit to the pews”.

It is not climate-conscious, youth conscious, transparent, diverse and equal; therefore, it is seen as judgmental, lacking compassion and hostile to many who are welcomed in every other social context.

Therefore, welcoming individuals who are welcomed in secular society but excluded from Church society is offered as the antidote for an organization mired in its exclusivist mindset.

Welcome and inclusion reflect and summarize firmly held secular values that challenge many of the Church’s current theologies of the priesthood, sexual morality, relationship theology and social engagement.

Change along the line of inclusion and welcome are seen by many contemporary Catholics as the way forward to a more authentic and credible Church. The view is simple: society catechizes the Church, and it is time to listen.

The actual level of participation in the synodal process

The hidden driver of New Zealand’s synodal process is the non-participation of most Catholics.

The process began in October 2019 and was extended through March 2022. In the diocese of Palmerston North (51,345 affiliated Catholics, 7255 Sunday Mass-goers), only 230 submissions were received from individuals and groups. This equates to 3.17% of the Mass-going population or 0.44% of the affiliated Catholics.

In our parish survey, The Synod and You (Kotahi Ano Newsletter, May 2022) sent to 610 subscribers, 184 (30.16%) people responded to the question did you attend a synod meeting?

Of the 184 people, 63.04% said they had not participated in a synodal meeting during the consultation phase.

The reasons for their non-participation are because they were (1) unsure of the process, (2) did not see its value, or (3) did not like the meeting format.

Strikingly, both those who did not attend a synod group and those who did agree that the synodal process would not reach Catholics outside the Church or parish.

In this, they all agreed that the process was flawed. Like the diocesan survey, most respondents were ethnic European women over 70 years of age.

This is another acute indicator of who is engaged with parish and Church life and invested in the synodal process.

What insight does the flawed synodal process offer?

We stand at the threshold of change.

There are many significant issues at stake here: the transition from an immersed presbyterial ministry to a functional neo-missionary priesthood; the transition from a reformation-responsive Church to a technological, globalized Church; the transition from hierarchy to welcome.

Transitus is the hallmark of the Easter experience. If we look at the transitions, the Church has already negotiated from our Hebrew origins to the present day, we can take courage.

However, there is a sting in that tail. Those transitions were made in a highly divided and theological contested Church. We, too, must be prepared for more division and separation within the Western, Latin Church.

Queen Elizabeth II has said: “Change has become a constant; managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future.”

However flawed it is, the synodal process is one of the steps on that journey.

  • Dr Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

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News category: Analysis and Comment, Palmerston.

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