Synodal virtues of mutual trust

Unless the ordained ministers and the People of God sincerely trust one another, there will never be a synodal Church.

Jan 14, 2022

Shaking hands – a basic sign of trust. (LCI photo)


By Fr Thomas O’Loughlin
Every human institution — be it a family, a village, a company or a worldwide Church — must rely on certain virtues that are common to its members if it is to survive. This is the truism that is at the basis of every system of ethics – both those that have been written down, and the countless others that have never achieved that level of formality. Moreover, it is the presence or absence of particular virtues that often determines the differences between groups.

Different styles of society call forth, from their members, different values of behaviour. In a clericalist Church, the most widespread virtue needed by the majority of the members is the virtue of obedience. Obedience to the hierarchy was even included in the old list of the “Six Commandments of the Church”. And any act of disobedience was punishable by canon law.

The highest compliment that could be paid to a Catholic lay person was that he or she “was a loyal son or daughter of the Church”. By this was meant that the person obeyed the rules and did not seek – for instance as a politician – to limit the scope of the Church leaders to use their position to influence legislation, control hospitals and schools, and perhaps act as the “guardians of ‘public morality.’”

In such a simple two-tier society, the relationship between clerics and laity was analogous to officers and those in lower ranks. Power descended, and obedience and loyalty joined the two levels together to form the society of the Church. It is this virtue system that is often summarised in this phrase: the laity are there to pray, pay and obey.

New situation, new virtues
But if we are to move to a synodal Church, we will have to discover and learn to live with a new set of virtues. A basic idea of synodality is that bishops came from a variety of places and met together — the place of the synod was, in effect, a crossroads. Once they met, they had to trust one another that each was working in his own place — near or far — for the good of the whole group. This is the virtue of mutual trust. But what does mutual trust look like in the new synodal Church we are seeking to bring into being?

Trust within a Eucharistic community
Clearly, the majority of each community — “the laity” — are expected to trust the presbyter who presides at their celebrations. They are expected to trust that he is working, both for their own good, and the good of the whole People of God. They trust that he is giving careful attention to the liturgy; for example, that he thinks and prepares carefully each time he seeks to break open the Word of God in a homily. And they trust his giving careful attention to the poor of the community and to the sick, as well. They also have to trust in the virtue of the presbyter being the public face of that Church. And they must trust that, in so far as he takes on that public role, that he is a model of Christian service. This is not just the trust that the community places in their presbyter — and for which they sustain him with their contributions, but this is what the formal structures of the wider Church expect of him as expressed in canon law.

Truth or Distrust?
A basic question in every community. It is this trust that has often been shattered, in the last couple of decades by the scandals of abuse that keep coming out in country after country. The problem will continue, partly because we are fearful of looking deeply at the problem and partly out of our embarrassment. Every organisation tends to diminish the extent of the problem in a vain hope that it will preserve the organisation’s public face. But that still leaves this fact: a community needs to place trust in the person who presides at the Eucharist. They have to see him as leading them as a beloved brother in their sacrifice of praise to the Father in union with the Christ. They have to trust in him as their teacher, guide, confidante and healer — that he will be the Spirit’s instrument in guiding them along their pilgrimage of faith.

Vice-versa
But if the community has to trust the presbyter, the presbyter has also to trust the community of the baptised because it is they together who constitute the priestly people of God. For Roman Catholics it goes — almost without saying — that those in the community have to trust in the sacrament of Holy Orders. But the harder task is that the ordained have to trust in the Sacrament of Baptism. Every presbyter has baptised many people; sadly, very few really believe what the Church — not just the western, Roman Church — believes about Baptism. But if the Holy Spirit lives in the heart of every baptised person, then that person deserves trust and respect within the Church.

          The prayer of the faithful

A few years ago, a parish priest in Scotland wanted to create a Sunday synodal liturgy in his parish. The community would bring their gifts to the gathering each week and share them with the community of the baptised in their thanksgiving to the Father.

So, this presbyter set up several little groups of three or four people who would take it in turn to prepare the Prayer of the Faithful. And to help them, he instructed them in the theology of this action and gave them training in doing it well. This might seem surprising because, in many places, this part of the Sunday gathering is mistakenly called the “prayers of the faithful” as if it was just a list of “give me” prayers. In other places it is called “the bidding prayers”. Again, this conveys the idea of listing what we want.

The Prayer of the Faithful is, in fact, the intercession of the new priestly people – who are made such by their baptism for the world, the whole Church of God, all who are in need and for their particular needs. This is a priestly act of entering into the presence of God – and standing there as a people – and making intercession. The roots of this are in Judaism and the daily work of the tribe of Levi, the cohenim. It is an expression of the new, unique priesthood of the Risen Christ in which we all, as the holy People of God, take part. The ordained brother who presides takes part in this prayer by virtue of his baptism, not his ordination. The Prayer of the Faithful can be seen as an expression of the synodal Church in action.

But what about trust?
A new, young priest came to the parish in Scotland and did not like what his predecessor had done. He was going to lead the liturgy and only he was going to lead the liturgy! His first step was to require the group who prepared the Prayers of the Faithful to show him — for his approval — what they were going to say. Then he vetoed texts that did not fit with his own vision of the Church. He wanted them to use his texts or to read them from a book. The prayer shifted from being an expression of this particular community of the baptised, to being one more formula read out for them.

This Church was no longer making its specific and unique intercession but simply agreeing to a something. The people were naturally hurt that their efforts, and their ministry to their sisters and brothers, were being set aside. One said: “He just wants us to pray, pay and obey in his words! He thinks in terms of a clerical church!” said another. And another said: “He simply does not trust us!” All agreed that that was the basic problem.

This presbyter simply did not trust his community. He did not trust what we believe about Baptism. He did not trust that the Spirit speaks in the hearts of the faithful. And he simply did not trust that when the three or four people are gathered to compose a text for the Prayer of the Faithful on Sunday, that the Lord Jesus was among them. Plain and simple, this presbyter did not trust the faithful.

Trust is a two-way street
Every time I meet a bishop, a presbyter or a deacon, I hear concern over the sad fact that they have largely lost the trust of the people. But when I talk to groups of lay Catholics, they are usually more concerned that they are not trusted by their clergy. Trust goes both ways. It is a basic value for synodality. Unless our presbyters learn to trust the People of God, the synodal Church will not come into being. -- LCI (https:// international. la-croix.com/

(Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’ Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).

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