There can’t have been many clergy filled with unrestrained enthusiasm and Christian joy when told of the requirement to hold a “synodal process” in our parishes. Weren’t the Vatican and bishops aware of the anxieties and additional pressures caused by the pandemic, just as another variant seemed poised to break over us? The deadlines for submissions were extended, yet the decision was made to press on.
We wondered what precisely this “synod” was – given that it did not seem to fit the provisions laid down by canon law. Those with some knowledge of the German Church or the Church of England feared a quasi-parliamentary adversarial structure with the inbuilt potential for conflict. Consulting the faithful is good, but shouldn’t it be preceded by formation? The bishops of England and Wales helpfully set out parameters: we were not expected to debate the doctrine and discipline of the Church.
The next question: who precisely was to run this process at the local level? Overtures were made to parishioners in this young, professional parish. Most, of course, were far too busy to take on this commitment. Fortunately, we have a paid lay assistant. Running a synodal process was promptly added to his job description.
Considerable latitude was granted as to how, practically, the process was to be implemented. We opted for one general parish meeting together with consulting each of the parish groups: young parents, young adults, daily Mass-goers and the Scripture study group. The Diocese of Westminster issued a questionnaire which brought some focus to the situation, inviting parishioners to reflect on their own spiritual lives during the pandemic, their practical experience of the Church at this time, and their hopes and concerns for our parishes into the future.
Despite publicity and a pastoral letter from the Cardinal, the response to the general parish meeting was distinctly underwhelming. Attendance didn’t even reach double figures. (Deanery meetings suggest a similar response elsewhere.) The tone was polite and civilised, but several wished to share some particular grievance: a negative experience or anger with the perceived lack of clarity in the teaching of Church leaders.
The reflection occurring among the parish groups – possibly because participants already knew one another – tended to be more fruitful. There were moving accounts of lockdown experiences. Some were bewildered or angered by the closure of churches and the lack of access to sacraments. Others told how they had been sustained by prayer and the livestreaming of Masses. There was real appreciation for those who had volunteered to help others during the pandemic, with particular praise for the stewards who had enabled our churches to reopen. Some expressed a feeling of guilt for having had a “good” lockdown, relishing time spent with family or in spiritual reflection while deeply conscious of the suffering endured by others.
Possibly it was English reserve, but the parishioners generally expressed themselves as a largely contented group. The parish is an essential and valued part of their lives. Some referred to the role of women in the Church, but none pushed for married or female priests. There was far more interest in nurturing their own interior lives and service of the wider community. The failure of family members to practise the faith was a source of considerable sadness to many. They were, however, encouraged by the diversity and young families encountered in the parish. There is a widespread desire for reverent liturgy and thoughtful preaching.
The young adults’ group comprised students and professionals in their twenties. Liturgical concerns were most prevalent among the young. They sought an encounter with the holiness of God in a confused world. They regretted what they perceived as an unnecessary attack upon those for whom the Extraordinary Form is one part of their spiritual nourishment. Their very presence in the synodal process indicated their willingness to engage in ordinary parish life. They also expressed the desire for assistance to understand better the Church’s teaching in the more contested areas of sexuality and bioethics. They wish to be equipped for mission. Their desire for truth, however, was matched by their wish to show Christ’s compassion to the world.
At the parish level, the synodal process was completed before Christmas and an overview submitted to the diocese. This parish priest was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. If the numbers participating were not as great as they might have been, the level of theological reflection and spiritual insight was extremely encouraging. The opportunities to discuss and listen together in this way are limited. It was good, therefore, to discover that priest and people are largely singing from the same hymn sheet. Now we can transfer our anxieties to what may happen at the level of the universal Church!
Father Mark Vickers is a parish priest in West London and an author
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund