I spent some time earlier today reading the Synodal National Synthesis for the Dioceses of England and Wales. This document is a collation of all the diocesan and local reports which have been written in response to the request of Pope Francis that the entire Church takes time to actively listen to the people of God and to the Church in every corner. It was a broad and fascinating document and there was much in it which was of great interest to me, because of which I will go back and read it all again. I saw many themes which have arisen time and again in other similar reports, both local and national from elsewhere in the world.
Amongst many other sections, one particular line caught my imagination –
“People saw how the Church is called to be: more missionary and merciful, ‘a Church of bridge builders rather than castle defenders’..” (Synodal National Synthesis, n.8)
The document went on to note that there is “a hunger amongst the people .. to be listened to. It is clear they want their voice heard. No longer is it possible to expect people to be silent.“
The trouble is, all too often we treat the Church as though it is a castle – and see ourselves as the knights sent to guard and defend it. This is not infrequently seen in the online persona of many who choose to represent themselves with knightly imagery and Latin profile names, as though this gives gravitas and authenticity.
Pope Francis frequently reminds us that this is not his vision of the Church in the present day. Quite the contrary – he sees it very much as a field hospital, it’s arms open wide to all, extending the tender mercy of Christ who welcomes all and seeks to heal and to love and to cherish.
Castles do not offer the same perspective. Their task is not to welcome but to exclude. Castles have walls, buttresses, ramparts, battlements and a surrounding moat – all designed with the intention of keeping out the unwanted and unwelcome, the ‘other’. Hospitals, conversely, have none of these things; they offer salve and balm; they bandage the deepest wounds of aching humanity; they embrace, with their presence as much as their actions, at those moments in human life when compassion is needed above all else.
Straight away, then, there is a clear divide in what each of these two images of ‘Church’ suggests and offers. In fact, not so much a divide as a chasm.
There is a further difference between the two.
Most castles are now in ruins, little more than places to see whilst on an excursion out for the afternoon – certainly not a place in which to remain for any length of time. Hospitals, however, are simply too busy welcoming, consoling and healing – they don’t have the time to fall apart, no matter how tough things might get, and no matter who comes to the door. They are not about retaining, but giving of themselves. And that is a costly thing to do, especially when done well.
I think Pope Francis has the authentic vision – and it is one I share.
And so I am delighted – and relieved – to see that vision reflected clearly in this Synodal report.