A couple of evenings ago, our diocese held a Synod event at Carfin Grotto. The weather wasn’t the best as there were various weather warnings in place thanks to Storm Babet. And this almost certainly reduced the numbers of people who were present that evening from across the diocese.
Alongside this, there were anecdotes of some parishes not having been told anything about the synodal event taking place; and at least one parish – whose priest is perceived as being not in favour of the Synod taking place – was said to have arranged a service at the same time that evening, seemingly as a counterpoint to what was taking place at Carfin.
All of this notwithstanding the event took place as planned. Although not massively attended, still there were a good number of people present and all of them were very keen indeed to take part. This alone said something about the Church and about the people who are that Church. On a cold, wet and very miserable night, they travelled from parishes across the diocese to be there and to take part and to say what was in their hearts.
Reflecting the Synod itself, there was no ‘top table’ – although pride of place was given to the Book of the Gospels, around which we gathered. Everyone joined together in small groups just like the ‘circuli minores’ of the Rome participants. Even the Bishop, who was present with us, sat at a table in this way. The whole point of this arrangement is that it reminds us of the equality that comes from our common baptism, and it encourages that real sharing and engagement and dialogue which is at the heart of what the Synod is trying to do. In short, it is trying to teach us how to be Church in a new – and yet ancient – way.
We began with the Prayer of the Church – and this was offered in a deeply prayerful manner. After this, we began to discuss anything that had arisen within us in that time of prayer, before going on to examine and discuss one of the three core areas which the Synod is looking at. There were questions to prompt the beginnings of discussion although in the end, these were not necessary.
For me, these discussions were astonishing. There was a very mixed group of people at the table where I sat, both lay and cleric, male and female, older and somewhat younger. And all of them, without exception, really shared with one another. I think what really surprised me was that this sharing was more or less immediate – there was no quiet period, that moment of deathly silence where no-one wants to be the first to speak. Rather, everyone at the table was keen to speak and to share and – most importantly of all – to listen to the experience of one another.
And that related experience was very varied indeed. Some spoke of parishes where the priest was at pains to encourage a synodal spirit, to make what is happening in Rome a real and living part of the local church. Others spoke of places where quite the opposite was the case. There was talk about priestly authority and the effects this produces, for good or ill, within a parish; and there was talk about how best to share this authority for the good of the parish – and of the obstacles to doing so; one participant spoke about the difficulties of doing this from a clerical perspective – not through obfuscation, but simply because it is hard to change the habit of a lifetime. And so we spoke about the tensions between ordained ministry and what the Synod has called ‘the ministry of all’.
Elsewhere, there were informal discussions about the present state of the Church and the perceived need for change of some kind – not so much about any change in doctrine, despite what some fear, but about finding a new way for the Church to really go out and evangelise to a world which is not listening and does not really want to listen.
When all the groups had completed their discussions, we gathered together once more to listen to the fruits of those discussions from the perspectives of the others who were present, listening attentively as one group. This led, finally, to giving thought to some practical ways forward. One of the interesting points which arose here was the sense that there is a clear need for on-going formation of the laity of the diocese – not for the younger people, who already have access to this, but for older Catholics, who seem to be forgotten all too often.
As the Synod reminds us, the job of the Church is mission; and if she is standing still and is focused on maintaining the status quo of past times, this will prevent – indeed, it is preventing – her from moving forward and doing what she was instituted to do.
A lot of the most powerful discussion and sharing took place over coffee and cakes and this, I understand, also reflects something of what is happening at the Synod gathering in Rome.
Driving home afterwards, I came away with the clear sense that there is deep realisation amongst the people of God that we need to do things differently, no matter the opposition in some quarters. There was broad agreement that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in the Church in this moment – it is truly a moment of grace. Someone said that trying to halt the spirit of the Synod is akin to trying to hold back a waterfall – it is not possible to do so.
I spent the hour before the gathering alone down in the Grotto, and there I prayed hard for what was to take place and for the Church in our diocese. The Synod is, above all else, a spiritual endeavour. Prayer is the foundation of it and the driving force behind it. As the Holy Father has said, there can be no Synod without prayer. And so I prayed. And I know of many others who are similarly praying, day after day. And I am certain those prayers will bear good fruit. I was acutely aware that the spot on which I was standing was the very place where, just a few years ago, the nation of Scotland was formally consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by the people and bishops of Scotland. Now, as then, I have no doubt that She both heard and accepted that Consecration; I prayed that She would obtain grace for the Synod and it’s work and the effects of it within the Church here in Scotland in this moment.
We are fortunate here. Ours is a good diocese, with a good bishop, good priests and good people. Even those who are not in favour of the work of the Synod are well-intentioned and sincere, something we can easily forget and then begin to see them as ‘the other’, which would be wrong. The whole point of the Synod is to find not only where there is convergence, but also divergence – and to discuss the tensions between these two so that we can find some way forward together. All of us have the good of the Church at heart.
May this one common goal bring us together and lead us forward in unity as one Church.