What the synod is really all about

Bishops and cardinals take shelter from rain as they leave the synod (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

The family synod’s first week included the feast of John Henry Newman, fixed not on the date of his death as is customary, but on October 9, the date of his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845.

Newman’s feast is not much observed in Rome; even at his titular church of San Giorgio in Velabro there was no note of it. (There was though a large poster in the portico advertising a triduum for St John Leonardi, whose feast is also October 9 in the universal calendar.)

That Newman’s conversion is his feast day draws attention to the signal decision that had the greatest impact on English ecclesial life. Newman himself wrote of the centrality of conversion in his life.

His first experience of it was in his youth, an interior conversion from an indifferent (Anglican) membership to an intense life of Christian discipleship.

Conversion is at the heart of the debates at the synod. The differing camps are variously described as favouring either doctrinal clarity or pastoral charity, or emphasising truth on one hand or mercy on the other. Newman’s life, both as an Anglican and in becoming Catholic, seems to me to propose another way of looking at the synod.

Being Catholic is not simply something one is, inherited passively from family or culture, but rather something that has to be chosen. That choice involves choosing to be something different – or something more – than what one currently is, which can serve as a rough description of conversion. The question before the synod fathers is whether people today are capable of conversion and, to put the matter more bluntly, is the Gospel still worth converting one’s life toward?

There is no debate among pastors about whether the Church should draw close to those in difficulty, accompanying them on their path through life. The question is whether that accompaniment should satisfy itself with offering solace to those where they are, or rather aim to convert them to a different way of life. The dominant reason many European bishops desire to modify Catholic sacramental practice to accommodate the sexual revolution is because they lack confidence that conversion is truly possible. Bishops from more vital local churches see conversions frequently; consequently they are convinced that the purpose of accompaniment is to receive the grace of conversion.

Building his October 10 synod intervention around the biblical episode of Emmaus, Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto – a scholar with a great love for Newman – addressed himself to the synod’s treatment of “the art of accompaniment”.

“First, Jesus drew near, and accompanied his downcast disciples as they walked in the wrong direction, into the night,” Cardinal Collins said. “He started by asking questions about their present disposition and by listening to them, but he did not stop there. Instead, he challenged them with the Word of God: ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’ (Luke 24:25) His presentation of the objective vision of Scripture broke through their subjective self-absorption and, along with his loving presence, brought them to conversion. The disciples of Emmaus accepted the Word of God that challenged them, and … they changed direction and, with burning hearts, raced through the night to Jerusalem to bear joyful witness to the community gathered there.”

To convert is to change direction, to run back in the opposite direction. The great division at the synod is between those pastors who are confident that conversion on the road to Emmaus, or to Damascus, or to Littlemore, is still possible, and those whose confidence has become weak.

If conversion to the fullness of the Gospel is a lively possibility, then it is possible to speak urgently about the “foolishness” and “slowness of heart” of those being accompanied. Yet if conversion is not possible, then to speak in such a way would be pointlessly harsh, if not cruel. There are not a few synod fathers who would consider the language of Jesus on the road to Emmaus as just that.

Those who blanch at the demands of conversion are apt to seek a middle way. Newman himself attempted to establish whether a Via Media might be possible that would allow him to remain an Anglican. Convinced that none such was possible, conversion became the hard, but clear, path before him.

In Rome there is much talk about “journeying together”, as the Greek etymology of “synod” has it. The question remains though about the destination of the journey. Toward Jerusalem or farther into the night?

This article appears in the Catholic Herald (16/10/2015)