Call for synodality part of a bigger strategy, Part 1 of 2
Pope Francis launched “Synod of Synod 2021-2023” in October 2021 for the faithful to walk together and participate in a two-year process that would lead towards a synodal Church. The overarching goal of the Synod is to “develop a spirituality for synodality.” Hence, a synodal Church is an inspiration for every Catholic to make spiritual synodality as a way of life while fusing the three key elements of communion, participation, and mission.
The power struggle taking place within the Catholic Church is a continuing evolution with pre-conciliar roots. It pits traditionalists or conservatives against the liberalists. In a nutshell, it was St. Peter versus St. James the Just in the beginning of Christianity and has carried over to the present day. The fact that the Catholic Church today has two popes with Pope Francis representing liberal ideas in consonance with the Acts of Apostles; and Pope (Emeritus) Benedict invoking traditions and conservative dogmas.
The current Liturgical War is really a continuing fight between two ideological forces vying for power to influence the current directions of the Church. Pope Francis’ call for synodality can be viewed as a cry for help for Catholics to rally behind the synodality goals and liberalization started by Vatican II stirring away from the divisive edicts of the Council of Trent. However, the synodality call can be viewed as part of a bigger strategy to revitalize the Roman Catholic institution and its hold in the business of saving souls.
From the beginning of his papacy, Francis embarked on a personal mission to transform the conservative, albeit damaged image of the Catholic Church as a result of clerical sex abuses, scandals and financial mismanagement. He has used Vatican II as the springboard to reform the church governance. Francis has learned that the synod of bishops that Pope Paul VI established in 1965 was rendered ineffective because of the “Red Hats” that lorded over the Roman Curia. Hence, reforming the Curia was a priority.
Pope Francis has opened many Vatican offices to lay people including heads of departments (now called dicasteries) opening the door for female candidates (nuns). To wit, Francis has recommended three women to the Dicastery for Bishops who will be recommending names of new bishops. The Roman Curia is a large administrative unit of the Vatican that serves the pope following a monarchical model where the pope is king.
Francis has now turned the curial administrative staff into civil servants supporting not only the pope, but bishops as well. If the pope is no longer king, then the cardinals and bishops are no longer the elitist bunch they were before acting like princes and other titles of nobility. The pope, however, retains absolute power of the papacy to “exercise his supreme, full and immediate authority over the universal Church,” and to hire and fire employees of the various departments according to the apostolic constitution Francis recently issued (Praedicate Evangelium).
Pope Francis’ new awesome power was in full display when he dealt in a public way (as they made the news) of bishops and cardinals implicated and prosecuted for predatory criminal acts, financial scandal of the Vatican Bank among others. But, he was careful not to punish dissenters.
The call for synodality was an effort to get the laity involved in the governance of the Church through their involvement in the “listening” consultations by synodal teams. Each of the major episcopal jurisdictions were to submit a report that bishops can discuss during the Synod of Synod convocation in 2023. The reports will provide the impetus to further reform the image of the Church and how it is run.
The papacy is a political entity patterned from civil governments and monarchies. It has its own central government, the Holy See with the legal personality to involve in diplomatic matters like ambassadorial postings, treaties, issue passports, and receive “co-equal” heads of states. It is a monarchy in which the king (pope) exercises executive, legislative, and judicial power over Vatican City and the Holy See.
The reforms that Pope Francis has done and continues to do can be viewed as an effort to preserve his legacy in furtherance of a more moderate, albeit liberal Church envisioned by the apostles and Vatican II. With his advanced age and health problems, it is inevitable that the pope will step down eventually (or die) before his lifetime term is over.
The recent consistory at the Vatican naming 20 new cardinals (16 qualified as electors) brings to 83, the total number of cardinals that Pope Francis has appointed. This is the magic number needed out of 123 total electors or two thirds needed to elect the new pope. Notable was his choices for the new “red hats” where the pope has chosen two Africans and six Asians (two from India, first cardinal from Timor-Leste, Mongolia, South Korea and Singapore), eight from Europe, four from Central and Latin America, and one from North America (San Diego, CA).
The priority of evangelization and the role of the laity are clearly linked to his choices of new cardinals. In 2020, the Vatican released statistics showing the world’s population of Catholics increased by 16 million and now at 1.36 billion (17.7%). Stated differently, 82.3% of the world population is not Catholic. Of the total, 48% are in the Americas, 20% in Africa, 12% Asia, and the rest elsewhere.
Christianity today is well-rooted in six Asian countries: the Philippines, East Timor-Leste, Cyprus, Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. Russia has the most number of Christians (142 million), followed by the Philippines (90 million), Georgia (4.1 million), Armenia (3.2 million), and East Timor (1.1 million). East Timor is a classic example of the power of evangelization. Formerly a Portuguese colony, the number of Catholics grew from 20% of the population when Portugal granted it independence in 1975.
Today, 97% of East Timorese are Catholics – a 77% conversion rate! Thanks to Indonesian colonization of nearly 25 years, brutality and starvation pushed more Timorese to seek religious succor. Their success belied the often notion that Catholicism was a European invention and therefore, a foreign acquisition of “ideological colonialism.” Pope Francis clearly noted the powerful imagery of Catholicism forming the unity (or synodality) of a modern state as it shapes the future unity of the universal church.
Clearly, Francis is laying out a path for the Church to have more diverse voices in matters of the Church. More importantly, his selections point to ensuring that the path laid by Vatican II continues. Guided by the pronouncement of the Asian Synod in 1998 that the “Church in Asia,” will only advance if it is Asian in spirit and life;” thus, the need to commune (ecumenism) with other faiths such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism versus forcing Christianity on them. To be continued…