Ordinary Catholics experience of synodality

Ordinary Catholics experience of synodality

When I ask ordinary Catholics what they think of all the discussions about synodality and Pope Francis’ call for us to become a synodal Church, I usually get blank stares.

Some assume that I am one of those academic types that enjoy asking irrelevant questions; others simply say that they haven’t got a clue about what I am talking about.

We had better face an awkward truth: while theologians and clergy are agog about synodality – some eager, some disdainful – for a very large proportion of the People of God, it is just some complicated new idea that makes little sense.

I had better clarify what I mean by ordinary Catholics.

By ordinary Catholics, I mean someone who

  • is not a cleric
  • nor a member of some special group within the Church (such as a prayer group, or the choir, or the parish council), and
  • who probably does not subscribe to any special religious news service whether it is CathNews or The Tablet –
  • and who probably just passes by the various leaflets, magazines, and diocesan papers that are at the back of church buildings.

So, the question arises: what will reach this large group of sisters and brothers? How will their experience of being disciples be touched and enhanced by our turn towards synodality?

Experiencing synodality

If this whole movement is to be more than just words, it must give disciples a richer liturgical experience. This is because it is at the liturgy that most ordinary Catholics have their experience of what it means to be Church.

That experience must, somehow, to do three things:

  • It must engage them as individuals within a community.
  • It must, to be true to the fundamental insight of synodality, involve a deeper listening to the word of God and to one another.
  • It must lead to a greater sense of their own dignity as brothers and sisters in baptism who are called as a people to offer praise and thanksgiving to the Father.

If synodality is about renewal in the Spirit, a renewal of liturgy is one of the forms it must take.

What will it look like?

In this arrangement, the Word of God is being shared among the gathering in the University Parish in Leuven, Belgium.

The assembly is arranged so that it is a community-event of listening. They are not consuming a message being dispensed from the front of a lecture hall.

We are the people of memory. Only when we recall “the mighty acts of God” can we recognize our identity as disciples of the Christ.

Listening is not just hearing words; it is giving the words a chance to seep into us. Yet most ordinary Catholics are arranged in row after row like children in an old-fashioned classroom.

We now know that the lecture hall only works as a communication venue for those already highly involved, but (60 years after the liturgy reform) this much better format is strange to most Catholics.

It is worth noting that in this church-building they did no elaborate re-building work – they just put the chairs in a rough circle because this allows people to feel they are a community and it helps focus people in their listening.

Any liturgy

that is not speaking to us

in our depths as humans,

will soon be a depopulated liturgy

and becomes just a set of formulae

that are drained of vitality.

Thomas O'Loughlin

We are all celebrants

The great shift in liturgy at Vatican II was a move from the notion of a presbyter who celebrates on behalf of the baptized to the recognition that we, as God’s sons and daughters, are all celebrating God’s goodness. We are all celebrants.

But how does the ordinary Catholic get an experience of this?

We are not consumers at the Eucharist. We are guests.

This photograph allows us to recall the words of the First Eucharistic Prayer:

Remember, Lord, your men-servants (famuli) and your women-servants (famulae), indeed all who are standing around (omnes circumstantes) …

We are a celebrating community.

If synodality is to take root, it will require an experience of solidarity in discipleship.

In an arrangement like this, that solidarity can become a weekly experience.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment, Special, Synodality2.

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