Por: Maria Teresa Morgan
St John Vianney College Seminary
As I perused the national synthesis of the responses to the Synodal Consultation of the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod, the words No estamos huecas …(We are not hollow…) aptly appraised the process and observations found therein. The phrase is found in Teresa of Ávila’s Way of Perfection (28:10) where the saint, with her wit and inimitable prose, at once challenges some enduring attitudes of her time as well as affirms the untapped and unacknowledged possibilities within the human person.¹
In this brief reflection, I propose to contextualize the above words of Teresa of Ávila as descriptive of the responses found in three selected groups; for the feedback emerging from the consultations conducted in parishes, schools, organizations, dioceses and national regions totaling 700,000 participants underline the inner aspirations and talents of the people of God as well as point to the “hollows” that are yet to be sown with “seeds of renewal” (page 12). The gifts of the People of God come from their lived experience (page 12), which guided by the Holy Spirit, the Giver of all good gifts (see: Lumen Gentium 12) provide a rich resource for the local and universal Church. The “hollows” that yet prevail are identified in the document as “a deep hunger for healing and the strong desire for communion, community, and a sense of belonging and being united” (page 6).
But first, a few words about the ecclesiology of Teresa of Ávila. Even a casual reading of her works evidences her love for and commitment to the Catholic Church. And her life attests to her indefatigable work on behalf of the reform of the Carmelite Order. Hers is not an ecclesiology learned through treatises, but one that was forged in the joy and crucible of her experience of Church. Always one who searched for an authentic obedience devoid of blind submission, her faithfulness did not prevent her from being aware of the dysfunctionalities present in the Counter Reformation Catholic Church in Spain. We glimpse this institutional brokenness in the Way of Perfection, chapter 1, paragraph 3, where the Saint refers (obliquely as she must under the circumstances) to one of the specific reasons for her reform. Throughout her approximately 500 extant letters Teresa leaves no doubt that she was immersed in the ecclesial issues and controversies of her time and that she endured suspicion and persecutions from some members of the hierarchy, finding herself at the center of the age old conflict between charism and institution.² Indeed, as Enrique Llamas asserts, “The book of the Life of Mother Teresa was born under the Inquisitorial sign.”³ Proportionately, many facets of Teresa of Ávila’s ecclesiology provide a model for the synodal journey: a deep love and commitment to the Church together with an awareness of the need for renewal in the manifold ways in which the Church comes into our lives.
I now proceed to a brief examination of the responses from three selected groups that participated in the synodal consultations, applying the heuristic key of Teresa’s statement No estamos huecas… for her words provide an insight into the overarching theme in the responses that consistently show the desire of the faithful to use their gifts for service in the Church. The three identified groups are: the laity, the youth and immigrants.
1 The phrase is a protest against a prevalent attitude of her time that held the laity, and especially women, were incapable of engaging in contemplative prayer, and should be limited to vocal prayer. Teresa takes up the challenge by issuing another challenge: that of commenting on every petition of the “vocal prayer” of the Our Father, a commentary that remains a classic and incomparable source for contemplative prayer. Teresa’s words are also an affirmation of the riches and beauty of the soul graced by the divine indwelling. It is worth noting that ten years before she wrote what is considered her masterpiece, The Interior Castle, the image of this castle of innumerable riches and beauty already appear in the above mentioned chapter 28 of the Way of Perfection.
2 Tomás Álvarez, O.C.D., St. Teresa of Ávila; 100 Themes on Her Life and Work, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. (Washington, ICS 2011) 437.
3 Enrique Llamas Martínez, Santa Teresa de Jesús y la Inquisición española (Madrid: CSIC, 1972) 228.
The desire of the laity to be counted and acknowledged as a people who are “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19) weaves throughout the synodal report. The document points to their willingness and readiness “to assume their responsibility for service in the Church and in the world (page 11). It also underlines that: “Many want to see Church leadership take more seriously the talents and knowledge of the laity.”
Participation and decision making in Parish Councils and Diocesan Pastoral Councils, increased understanding of the mission of the Church and opportunities to evangelize (see Ad Gentes 35), stand among the noteworthy issues that emerged in the responses. Leadership in administrative and organizational fields, in which many lay people are gifted and trained and where ordination is not required also were specifically mentioned. I found that the responses of the laity signaling a “relationship of collaboration” with the clergy and hierarchy, a more participatory approach in the Church rather than being passive and voiceless, mirror the Conciliar teachings on the laity found in Lumen Gentium 30-38, Gaudium et Spes 43, Apostolicam Actuositatem, Ad Gentes 35 as well as in Christifideles Laici of John Paul II.
I learned the most from the responses given by participating youth. We often lament that young people are leaving the Church. The synodal consultation provides a reason for their diminishing interest: the marginalization and exclusion they experience in the community of faith. An interesting detail is the youth’s rejection of being labeled “the future of the Church” for they want to be counted as members of the Body of Christ that are meaningful and integral to the identity of the Church and whose gifts can enrich the entire people of God “in the here and now” (page 9). Surprisingly (one would think this to be more applicable to middle aged members), their responses included a need for formation in the rich spiritual tradition of the Church. They also desire the Church to address contemporary concerns such as social justice, racism and climate change. It is worth noting that these very areas often trigger acrimonious discussions among the faithful.
Nativist tendencies among some Catholics today seem to forget that Catholicism in the “new republic” of the United States grew and benefitted from successive waves of immigrants that brought their Catholic faith with them: Irish, German Catholics, Italians, Slavs and French Canadians are among those groups.
Immigrants are identified as “diverse cultural and ethnic communities” that at times may include the undocumented (pages 8,9). The responses highlight the consequences of the socio economic status of ethnic minorities and the undocumented, which result in an increase of their sense of isolation and in being overlooked due to “lack of power and influence.” They feel unwelcome, marginalized and unappreciated by the faith community and are seen more as intruders. This particularly vulnerable group longs for a more welcoming and inclusive Church and for being counted among those who can contribute valuable insights, perspectives and unique experiences. Their desire for faith formation, liturgical celebrations and social experiences are pressing needs not currently being met. Language continues to be seen as a divisive issue in acceptance among monolingual English speaking communities of faith under the lame excuse that it does not promote unity. I would propose a reflective reading of Acts 2: 4-11, for Pentecost provides the biblical paradigm for unity in diversity within the multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual Church of the United States.⁴ I was happy to see that Region II affirmed that cultural and ethnic diversity “rather than divide us can become a source of strength.”
4 Maria Teresa Morgan, Tongues as of Fire; The Spirit as Paradigm for Ministry in a Multicultural Setting. College Theology Society annual volume #49, 2003 (Orbis; Maryknoll, NY.)
According to the USCCB Synthesis of the Synodal Consultation of the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod on Synodality the most salient and common theme in the responses is the need for a more welcoming and pastoral Church, where all the People of God can find accompaniment and support in the journey (pages 4 and 7). I also found that as often as the responses affirmed the gifts of the People of God, they also lamented the empty spaces of lost opportunities, the need for healing and the desire for unity.
At every stage of the report I was reminded of the words (of doubtful origin and attributed to various authors) cited by John XXIII in his first encyclical Ad Petris cathedram (72): “In what is necessary unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” It remains for us to discern through communal dialogue and processes that foster communion how to begin to journey with others with tolerance and respect for their liberty, and eventually with love.
Opposite the high altar in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception a bas-relief depicting “the universal call to holiness” invites the visitor to reflect on that vocation, so beautifully described in Lumen Gentium, chapter 5. At the center of the sculpted mural, the Holy Spirit, in the scriptural form of a dove, illumines those on the journey with seven rays of light representing the seven gifts of the Spirit. The People of God – imaged in families, clergy, lay and religious, single men and women, young and old and depicted in various ethnicities- walk together towards the light of God beckoned by Mary, who with open arms invites and encourages us on the journey. The visual impact of this image is a fitting symbol not only of the universal call to holiness, but also of the unity for which we long in the synodal journey.