A Church of gardens, not walls￼25 Sep 2022
In his prayer intention for October Pope Francis makes it clear he wants a church that is open, loving and welcoming.
This year Catholics have heard and spoken a lot about synodality. Pope Francis has made it the topic of a coming Synod for which Catholics in parishes around the world will prepare by meetings. It was much discussed in the Plenary Council in Australia, and various Catholics and groups have offered their interpretations of it and of what it means for the future of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis has also made synodality central to his prayer intention for October. His description of the qualities that he looks for in the Church help us understand the place of synodality in the Church. It is a way of living as the church that Christ hopes it will be.
Above all, Pope Francis wants the Church to be faithful to the Gospel. That is the Good News of God’s love for us that led God to join us in Jesus, share the joys and sufferings of our lives in his teaching and preaching, be faithful to us through rejection and a tortured execution, and to rise and gather us together to live like him and with him. Being faithful means trusting in God’s presence with us through Jesus and following his way.
Pope Francis also wants the Church to preach the Gospel. We do that best through our lives more than through our words. We are called to live as a community and as persons as Jesus did, joyful in our trust of God, generous and loving of each other, and hospitable to all the people whom God loves and especially to the most vulnerable. We do it also in speaking of Christ and the place he has in our lives.
If we are to commend Christ to others and to make the message of God’s love for us plausible our shared life as Christ’s followers must be attractive. The Gospel spread quickly in the early Church partly because people who saw the way they lived said, ‘See how these Christians love one another’. When they saw it, they asked why, and were attracted to their message of God’s love. Pope Francis spells out the qualities Christ wants the Church to display. First, it is to be a community with deep relationships, not just a gathering of strangers who happen to be Christian. That implies solidarity. People will be there for one another, ready to reach out to one another, and to see the suffering of others as their own. The sufferings of Christians in other nations who are persecuted will weigh on us, stay in our prayers and conversation, and receive our help.
The Church will also be fraternal. This means we shall see one another as brothers and sisters, not as strangers. Brothers and sisters, of course, spend much of their time fighting with one another, but ideally come back to friendship through forgiveness and acceptance – the daily business of friendship. They will have differences but not become enemies. Pope Francis also wants the Church to be welcoming. It is not a place of walls but one of gardens through which people can pass and will feel comfortable. In all this we shall echo in our Catholic life God’s relationship with us. To God we are family no matter how we respond.
Pope Francis describes these qualities as living in an atmosphere of synodality. This word describes both the relationships that should exist among Catholics and the way in which the Church can be the Church that Christ wants. It says that at every level in the Church people should relate as companions and not as rivals, enemies, or as bosses to servants. The Church should be a Church of conversation in which people can share their own faith with its tentativeness and its strength, and their hopes and doubts about life in the Church. The conversations should be characterised by listening, looking always to what Christ wants, and not by the desire to have one’s own opinions prevail. Disagreements will remain, but people will not be disagreeable to one another. If they are, they will apologise and be forgiven.
This atmosphere takes time to build and will spread from the local level. We should also expect changes within the Church and their effects to take time. They will come, as they always have, through local initiatives and faithfulness. It is at the local level, of course, that being a Church open to all must begin.