By M.A. Joe Antony, SJ

There are certain events which reveal to you things about yourself, even things you may not have fully realized or acknowledged. Think of Jesus’ death on the cross. All those who were in Jerusalem on that day would have realized who exactly they were by looking at how they responded to this event that darkened the sky and opened the doors of paradise. You must have heard the song that asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

The Second Vatican Council is one such event. By their response to what it meant and what it brought people still continue to reveal themselves. The Synod for a Synodal Church which started last October in all Catholic dioceses across the world and will conclude in October 2023 in Rome is another event of such magnitude. If we think of what it aims to bring about in the way the Church conducts its affairs, we can claim that this Synod is the next most significant event in the recent history of the Church.

Most probably in the vision of Pope Francis this Synod has the pride of place among the reforms he has managed to bring in as well as the reforms he hopes to usher in. We know that the film The Two Popes, is a clever mix of fact and creative imagination. But if you have seen it, you’d understand why the much-needed changes are important to Pope Francis and all those Cardinals who elected him. The film will have you believe that even the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, thought it was time for change and so for someone like him to retire and someone like Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to become the Pope.

This is why, right from the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has spent his time and energy trying to bring in changes that would make the Church relevant today. He does not see the Church as an isolated castle guarded by fierce soldiers. He sees the Church as a field-hospital that moves where the wounded lie, waiting for people who would care for them and cure them. 

He has brought changes  in spite of the opposition and criticism he has faced from those who do not want change.  He has tightened rules and norms so that in the future the clergy who would abuse children and adolescents would be held responsible and face action. He has appointed women to important posts in the Church. He has repeatedly emphasized that the Church should not condemn or shun the LBGTQ people but should treat them with kindness and understanding. He has done even what many thought impossible. With the help of a committee that worked for nine years and met over forty times, he has recently promulgated what are called ‘Curial reforms’ – reform of the Roman Curia. But the changes he wants to usher in through this Synod on the Synodal way must be more important to him than anything else.

Why is this important to him and all those who think like him?

An example from recent Church history may illustrate what happens when the Church abandons the synodal way of doing things and resorts to its very opposite. The first English translation of the Roman Missal was done in 1973. Since many felt the need for a better, improved translation an international committee of experts was formed in the mid 1980s. After working for several years they managed to come up with a translation in 1998 that many considered excellent. It turned out to be so good that 11 out of 12 Bishops Conferences of English-speaking countries approved it enthusiastically.

The changes Pope Francis wants to usher in through this Synod on the Synodal way must be more important to him than anything else.

But they had to submit it to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship (liturgy) for the final approval. The Congregation sat on it, without any response. Three years later, in 2001, it came up with a document, titled Liturgiam Authenticam, with new guidelines on translating liturgical texts. In short, this affirmed that translations should be faithful and similar to the original Latin. Many experts and scholars left the Committee in order to protest this unexpected turn of events. But the Congregation appointed another committee to come up with an English translation that would be more faithful to the Latin version. What this Committee produced was published in 2010.

This translation that was imposed on all English-speaking countries raised a storm of protest from all over. Trying to be faithful to the original Latin version, this translation turned out to be abstract, difficult and unidiomatic. The structure of sentences sounded bizarre. It was full of abstract words like prevenient, consubstantial, ineffable, unfeigned etc – words even the priest would not understand.  Bishop Donald Trautman, a retired U.S. Bishop, who was a liturgist himself and a former chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, wrote, “This translation does not communicate in the living language of the worshipping assembly. It fails as a translation. It fails to lead to full, conscious, and active participation. It is ungrammatical, unintelligible, and unproclaimable. Our translated text is intended for prayer, worship, lifting up the heart and mind to God. If a translation – no matter how exact – does not communicate in the living language of the liturgical assembly, it fails as a translation” (The Tablet, 24 March, 2015)

Those who want to know more about what the people of God lost because of this imposed translation should read the book, Lost in Translation: the English Language and the Catholic Mass, (Liturgical Press, 2017), written by the well-known Australian Jesuit author and theologian, Fr Gerald O’Collins, SJ and John Wilkins.

When he visited Brazil in 2013, Pope Francis told the Brazilian bishops, “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and impart an intellectualism foreign to our people.”

Pope Francis has now restored to the local Bishops Conferences what was usurped by the Vatican Congregation – the right to decide on translations of the Roman Missal into the local languages. But, unfortunately, till today in several countries anyone who wants to celebrate the Eucharist in English has to put up with this translation. This is what happens when the Church abandons the synodal way and resorts to an authoritarian style – when the Church ceases to be a synodal Church and becomes a pyramidal Church.

That the Church was indeed a synodal Church in the beginning would be clear to anyone who reads the Acts of the Apostles.

That the Church was indeed a synodal Church in the beginning would be clear to anyone who reads the Acts of the Apostles. All those who loved Jesus and believed in him – men and women – were together. What united them were fellowship and prayer (Acts 1: 12-14).

Chapter 15 of the Acts describes how the Church handled an issue that threatened to divide the followers of Jesus. Jesus and all his disciples were obviously Jews. But after Paul and his companion Barnabas began to preach the good news of Jesus in Antioch several non-Jews began to believe in him and follow the new ‘Way’.  Some Jews who came to Antioch from Judea told the new Christians that it was not enough for them to accept Jesus and his teachings. They insisted that like all Jewish males, the new Christians too had to get circumcised.

Paul  and Barnabas, leaders of the Church in Antioch, want to discuss this with the apostles and leaders of the Church in Jerusalem and so they travel to Jerusalem. Christian leaders in Jerusalem warmly welcome their counterparts from Antioch. All are determined to find out what the Lord would want. So they dialogue, listen to one another with respect and an open mind. They discern. This synodal process helps them find an amicable solution to the problem created by some Jews affected by a blind zeal. They decide that, except for a few things they see as essential, they would not burden the non-Jewish converts with an insistence on circumcision or any other Jewish practice. This decision gladdens the hearts of non-Jewish Christians in Antioch.

While the synodal Church unites, the authoritarian Church divides. The synodal process makes everyone happy, while other ways of arriving at decisions that affect everyone disappoint, and antagonize many who may like to quit. A Church that journeys together, prays fervently, shares freely, listens keenly and thus builds a consensus is the Church that will carry every pilgrim in its onward journey. That is the kind of Church that Jesus would have envisioned. That is the kind of Church that his followers would have naturally formed, if they let themselves be guided by his Spirit – not by politics, men in power or ideology.

Therefore, let us allow this Synod to reveal who and what we truly are. It will do so, if we watch carefully what we think, pray for, say and do regarding this historic Synod.