In recent days, two narratives have begun to merge in the life of the Church, and in ways that are deeply consequential. The first is the continued narrative of clergy sexual abuse and the need for the Church to respond at every level and on every continent. The second involves the vision of synodality that Pope Francis has declared as the way of the Church in the third millennium.
On Sept. 12, in response to calls by bishops and many others, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would convene the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences in Rome from Feb. 21-24 for a meeting dedicated to the issue of abuse in the Church (read our story here). As many have demanded decisive action around recent scandals and crises, including the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the announcement of this gathering — slated to occur five months from now — might seem underwhelming, an example of just more talk. But this is where it’s important to understand how this pope views his role and ministry as successor of Peter.
In the years since his election, Pope Francis has shown time and again that he sees the practice of synodality as how the Church discerns its path forward in the world. A gathering of bishops from around the world reflects how Pope Francis seeks to exercise his authority — universally but collaboratively. The Church moves forward and affects a paradigm shift as one.
The fact that the hundred-plus bishops who will be in attendance are presidents of their respective bishops’ conferences is also a telling move. This puts the emphasis not on these bishops themselves, but on the local churches they represent. The identities of those in the room has been determined not by the pope, but by the bishops of the world who elected them. And bishops’ conferences are themselves bodies where bishops gather as the leaders of their respective dioceses.
This synodal motif has been underscored in recent days by the Vatican’s release on Sept. 18 of a new apostolic constitution, Episcopalis Communio (“Episcopal Communion”), which explains the purpose of the Synod of Bishops, as well as the release of the English translation of the International Theological Commission’s document from this past spring on synodality in the Church (read essay here).
These structures that have been put in place demand an active laity fully to realize them. With Pope Francis hearing from the presidents of conferences, laypeople who want to be heard must convey their concerns to their own bishops, who must likewise be candid with Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The call from the pews must not be ambiguous, and it must be communicated fervently. Bishops must be as equipped as possible with the sensus fidei (sense of the faith) to make the most of the model Pope Francis has invited them into.
In Episcopalis Communio, Pope Francis says a bishop must be “simultaneously a teacher and a disciple,” the latter requiring him to listen to what the Holy Spirit has inspired the laity to tell him. The five months till this meeting occurs are critical. Laypeople who want their Church to round a definitive corner on sexual abuse must speak out. They must continue to demand zero tolerance, full transparency, accountability and an end to the structures and practices that allowed abuse and cover-up to fester and perpetuated a Church where laypeople are seen as less than full members of the Body of Christ.
Lean in, laypeople. This won’t work without you.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young