Synod in Rome – a challenging starting point


A well-worn jest about Ireland goes like this: A lost tourist in Limerick asks for directions to Dublin, and the convoluted directions leave the tourist utterly bewildered. Finally, the tourist gazes into the distance, resigned to the fact that reaching Dublin is impossible. At this point, the local utters the famous words, “Well, if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here!”

This humorous anecdote reflects the complexity of finding oneself in unfamiliar territory and carries a certain wisdom that extends beyond the Irish landscape.

For synodality to have a real chance, one might argue that Pope Francis, the pontiff of the margins, might find himself in the position that Rome and the Vatican, the Church’s centre, is not the best place for the Synod on Synodality.

Perhaps he should contemplate a different point of departure where the capacity to listen, hear, and implement change is greater than the epicentre of Catholicism itself, which seems so out-of-touch, even with the Rome across the Tiber.

Two empires – one city

In Rome, the empires of Church and state share a rich history of position, power, and prestige, displaying their intertwined legacies to full advantage.

Today, the remnants of these two empires serve as tourist attractions, destinations for hop-on-hop-off buses and guided tours.

While these empires have their followers, most tourists, like many Catholics, see them as remnants of a faded glory.

Like the tourists, their guides are weary of the daily routine of reciting a scripted blend of history and anecdotes.

Although equipped with microphones and earpieces, guides and tourists maintain a semblance of communication; their communication is one-way.

As tourists meander through the monuments of old masters, sipping from their water bottles, the guides’ voices dominate, using the language of romanticism.

Rome is more of a living museum

that “hears” the past.

It seems reticent to listen to the present or dialogue with it.

The business of Catholicism

Rome is a city where the business of religion is veiled in the garb of Catholic faith and holiness, using the language of romanticism and piety.

Rome is a cultural hub of sacred art and religious rituals that appeal to emotions rather than reason.

It is a place where the cult of adoration thrives, even as lovers embrace and refugees seek shelter in and around St Peter’s Square, the emotional experience of adoration is a bulwark against reality.

In this city, the magical aspects of religion are strong, symbolised by the tradition of throwing money into fountains and onto tombstones.

Catholicism in Rome is sustained, in part, by a multitude of religious women and men, predominantly from Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

They are the domestic workers of the Church, there to keep the boat afloat. When the day comes that they are no longer interested in advancement via religion, another source of labour will have to be found.

Yet, amidst this city’s complexities, there is another side to Rome’s enduring spirit—an army of people from diverse backgrounds, races, languages, and cultures who serve the needy.

Laity, religious and clergy from around the world prepare sandwiches for distribution to the poor in the streets and along the Tiber River, following Christ’s call to care for the “least of his brothers and sisters.”

A living museum

Rome is more of a living museum that “hears” the past. It seems reticent to listen to the present or dialogue with it.

The language of romanticism and piety is the comfort food that, while keeping a certain type of religiosity afloat, does so at the expense of authentic interaction with the people who see the buildings, the culture and the old masters as curiosities.

With a church on every corner, housing saints in supine sanctity, the religious culture here appears weary.

While these churches are architectural wonders, many are also monuments to their builders.

The Vatican Church will continue its business, sticking to its culture of romanticism and piety, while the Church across the Tiber will continue to evolve.

This entrenched nature of the first warrants consideration of a different starting point for a listening synod for the second.

A new place to listen and speak

The new place needs a new language. In a city where popular piety dominates liturgy, religion, and social interaction, another pastoral language is used to address LGBTQ+ inclusion, second marriages, the use of contraception, and intercommunion. This is the language of incarnation, not romanticism and piety.

The Synod’s challenge will be to find an incarnational language that speaks to people who live on the other side of the Tiber.

History shows that the major changes to the empires of Rome have come from north of the Alps, where the language of reason, more than emotion, prevails.

Rome’s dominant language of popular piety and romanticism, which more closely aligns with conservative Judaism and Islam, will find the language of the north, which is more attuned to the language of liberal Western democracy thinking, conflictual.

A Synod on listening will find itself caught in a cultural milieu that lets people talk but struggles internally to enable change.

The transition to active engagement and implementation of change that many beyond the Tiber are already living will have to include a significant change in the language and culture of the Roman Church.

If the Synod follows the path of the Amazon Synod, characterised by abundant talk but minimal implementation, it will lead to widespread dissatisfaction.

If the narrative of piety continues to lead the Church’s conversations, perpetuating the romantic idea that secularism and modern priorities are enemies of Catholicism, then the Synod may struggle to find the fertile ground it seeks for meaningful dialogue.

If the Synod is to have a genuine chance of success, it must consider a new starting place. A place where listening is ingrained in the cultural fabric and where people are accustomed to discussing, debating, listening, and translating dialogue into action.

Rome may not be the ideal place to embark on this transformative journey.

  • Dr Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. He is currently on Sabbatical and writes from Rome, Italy. His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

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