Synodality and Becoming One

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Christine Burke IBVM:

My guess is that IBVM and CJ sisters across the world have had very different engagements with the idea or the practice of synodality. What can we offer, what can we learn from the new way of ‘being church’ that Pope Francis is struggling to get us to engage with? What might we learn from the fact that we are called to become one just as synodality is being raised in our church?

 I have been on the road for many years, so I understand the hesitation many of us feel in the face of a new “buzz-word” like synodality, which we fear will lead nowhere. However, my novitiate coincided with Vatican II and in the following years a small group of us benefitted from trying to tease out the changes this incredible Council foreshadowed. It unveiled so many new possibilities. Rather like the couple on their way to Emmaus, since that time we have mourned: “we had hoped…”. The possibility of significant change seemed to slip away.

 Today, I am in the rather privileged position of teaching courses on the theology of Church and Ministry in a seminary for young men from various religious congregations from all over Asia. I have had to super-engage with this topic of synodality: online lectures, books, articles, videos, have been my route to distil the heart of it so I can transmit some understanding of synodality to young men on their journey towards ordination. Many come from cultures that are strongly patriarchal, so challenging clericalism has to be done gently! At the same time, I attend a parish where I have not heard any mention of this process, or any call to participate, so my guess is that many parishes mirror this, and many will say “well, it has not reached our area”.

A second privilege for me is that for the last eleven years I have lived in a combined IBVM-CJ community. In Manila we have 3 houses, and currently our twelve members in Manila come from seven different cultures (we have had others over the years); we are different ages (currently in my house we range from 20-81!). We exist within another vibrant culture that is the Philippines, a very different culture as regards religious practice, but also a culture grounded in community and family: there is great poverty but also great resilience, vibrancy and celebration.

As church and as congregation, we stand on the brink of change. A new church, based on the people of God, or a dying remnant? A new sense of Mary Ward’s charism reaching out to the church and world as a united body, or the temptation to slip back to where we feel comfortable? The choice is stark. As we invest our deepest selves in either new entity – a new way of being church, or becoming one congregation, we jump in faith. No guarantees other than the Holy Spirit as our parachute.

In both commitments trust is basic. Trust in God and trust in each other.  If our church is to change and really listen to the Spirit speaking through those at the edges, then we are caught in a new imagining –we need to learn new ways of listening, praying, planning, and ministering. Mary Ward said in 1617 that “It is a great ingratitude and one of the greatest to think that all things come by chance, rather than accepting them as from the hand of a loving God”. As CJ and IBVM carry forward our discernment, and become one congregation under one leader, who will discern with members where the need is greatest and where most good can be done, it is not by chance that we do this at a time when the Church is being reshaped to reflect more truly our identity as baptized. Like the whole church, we are learning new ways of listening, of honest sharing, of participating, so we can be open to new ways of mission. In both these areas, the way is made by walking.


Put at its simplest, synodality is encouraging us to rethink what it means to be church. Vatican II declared that baptism was the key sacrament (L.G.10), that holiness is to be found in the everydayness of life (L.G43), that any discrimination based on sex, religion, race, economic status is wrong, (G.S.:29) that the church is called to be a sign of God’s love for the world (L.G 1).  Sixty years later we still equate leadership and governance with ordination; we are still struggling to change a mindset which presumes that the vocation to the celibate state is higher than married and professional choices in life; gender-based discrimination is still rampant in the church; and, in many people’s awareness, the tragedy of abuse, not the love of God, has dominated the world’s perception of our church. While Pope John XXIII wanted us to let fresh winds blow through the church, Pope Francis is suggesting that we as church need to step out of our comfort zone and take seriously being a sign of God’s love for the world. He has challenged us to stop deciding everything on the basis of what is best or easiest for the church. Rather, to ask how every baptized person can grasp their call to be the presence of God’s Holy Spirit present in the midst of a fragmented and tortured world.

Three terms sum up this process: communion, participation, and mission. We are invited  to know each other, that means learning  to listen to each other, even when we disagree, together seeking the deeper truth that underlies each person’s experience, so that we are a community in reality not just name; we are invited to rethink roles so that everyone can see a way to participate in shaping this community; and finally we are invited to allow the Spirit to convert us so that every Christian realises he or she has a role in bringing God’s dream for the world to fruition.

This is thinking BIG. We all know that honest conversation happens more easily in smaller groups. So the process has suggested small groups at local level; these feed into diocesan level, then into national level; these feed into regional level, then on to universal church. We do not need to wait for someone to ask us to form a group- we can do it.  Each level calls for ‘conversation in the Spirit’: a facilitated process of honest sharing after prayerful reflection, of deep listening around the group (without giving in to snorts or sniffs of disapproval!), followed by silence and then sharing what each one had heard in that listening. Then the group is invited to move towards some consensus on what the Spirit has been saying in the group. In Rome for the first time, lay women and men, sitting as equal members around a table, on first name terms with cardinals and bishops, spoke, listened, and were listened to; they were voting participants, when consideration of issues came to the open floor.

The report from the first synodal meeting in Rome last year makes clear we are left with a grab bag of different ideas, conflicting points of view, and some areas of agreement.  Many hoped for quick answers, but Pope Francis’ emphasis is on the process, rather than the outcomes. We are called to “do” being church differently. Groups have been appointed to investigate specific issues, but Pope Francis clearly does not want majority/minority reports but reports which show those appointed have “listened to the Spirit”. What the process is trying to develop is a way of approaching difficult interactions, a way of listening that respects others, a way of recognizing the complexities produced by different cultures and experiences. Pope Francis keeps asserting that unity does not depend on uniformity. If we can hold in common the big beliefs of our faith: the centrality of Jesus and his message of a loving God; Trinitarian communion; the ways our God chooses to be present in the world- through a community, through sacramental signs, through human love, through the poor, through the myriad of creatures on our plant; then we can agree to differ less central points. This is a risk for a church which for centuries gloried in all members walking in lock-step. The synod is about establishing more clearly a new way of being together, rather than focussing on the outcomes. It is also clear that this approach could be a gift to a polarised world.

To those who say that this is new, all power should stay with the ordained leaders, theologians point to the first synod in Jerusalem (Acts 15) where Peter acts as a bridge-builder between James and Paul; to the many times church leaders have come together in crises to work out how to talk about Jesus being both human and divine; how to talk about our experience of God as a triune relationship of equal but distinct persons; how to go back to the sources and yet attend to the real period in which we are living. These central truths still carry meaning today. We are the only Christians who have ever lived in the 2020s! Pope Francis calls us to look at our times, and to look to Jesus and the early church, and ask afresh how can we bring the dream of God’s reign into our reality?

Participation is positive speech for removing clericalism. St Cyprian is often quoted as saying: those affected by a decision should be part of that decision. We have not respected this in our church. Leadership has been limited to the ordained, and decisions have come down from on high, apart from those small enclaves where women have exercised responsibility for their own ministries (e.g. religious run schools and hospitals). Now lay Catholics are being urged to share their insights and skills in leadership, working alongside the ordained as equals! This has enormous implications for women as well as lay men. Governance and good decision making, are not gifts given at ordination, but require sensitivity and skill in facilitation. Participation also refers to changing roles in liturgical celebration, allowing space to hear the wisdom of silenced voices, to experience different styles of leadership in prayer, to hear homilies that draw on the lived experience of lay women and men.

Mission is affirming that Jesus’ words “go out into the whole world…”, were not confined to a small group of ordained men, but to every disciple, as Vatican II said, to “every baptized person”. In practice this does not mean preaching on street corners, but living so clearly a life infused by compassion and care that people are drawn to want to know the source of such joy and love. As St. Paul pointed out, all are given a gift for the community and the world. For some it will be preaching, for others setting up justice centres, for others supporting outreach services in their locality or beyond for migrants, for women experiencing domestic violence, for environmental action. For most it will be resisting corruption, backbiting, bullying; creating workspaces and homes where joy and mutual love and respect can flourish.

Becoming One

What can the synodal process say to us Mary Ward women at this juncture?  And is there something we can offer from our experience? Many of us have had 50 years of trying to rethink how we live our life in a changed era. Has our experience anything to offer to our friends grappling with the slowness of change, or priest friends facing the reality of letting go?

Over the past century, Mary Ward women have been in a process of becoming one, having been separated by church laws, bishops, and wars over the 400 years since her realisation that women could make a significant contribution to strengthen people in their journey of faith. We have shared resources, attended each other’s General Congregations, shared prayer in Mary Ward Week, worked together at leadership level and discovered joy and hope in that process. Finally, in this time when Pope Francis is calling for a more synodal model of church, those entrusted by provinces to discern decisions that affect us all, guided by the Spirit, voted unanimously in our two separate General Congregations to take this final step and become the one body, as Mary Ward had dreamed might be possible.

Just imagine how our history might have been different, if listening to another perspective and experience had been the way of Urban VIII! Our ‘circle of friends’, (painting no 22), 400 years before this move towards a synodal church, suggested that community and mission are inextricably connected. Volume II of the IBVM Constitutions claims “we are women at the heart of the Church”. In a fragmented and polarised church, could our move towards union, consciously embracing the “letting gos” and the faith that process calls for, have something to offer to others in our church? As we step out in faith, “communion, participation and mission” might renew our commitment to explore this new union, and our experience might also have something to contribute to the bigger picture of church.

Clearly, it is going to take time for us to grow into one body. It will not happen overnight, any more than the church can become synodal overnight after more than 1000 years of a monarchical mindset. We can meet via zooms, leaders of various groups can work together, but whether at a distance from each other or near-by, each one of us will have to work at union if it is to be more than words on paper. We know that we can dwell on differences, cultivate fear by recounting stories that show our taken-for-granteds are not always the same.  Our positive conversations, grounded in time given to prayer, our readiness to read, reflect and share, will be essential.

For some this might call for letting go of attachment to our name. Mary Ward’s conviction that we should take a title that includes the name of Jesus could help us over that hurdle, as it helped the IBMVs over it 20 years ago.  For others it might be embracing Volume II of the IBVM Constitutions- allowing the freshness of new words to rekindle our commitment. Mary Ward’s vision that we serve God with great love and liberty of mind, suggests that less important things should not overcome the greater good. We will need to talk through key issues like the fourth vow, or aspects of governance, re-engage again with the depths of our Constitutions to realise afresh  the ways they can enable us to be adult women committed to mission. We already know that time and language differences make conversations across provinces hard, yet many have found them so worthwhile. The model suggested by the synod of small, local conversations in the Spirit, with results fed into the larger picture has much to offer- and builds on our experience of the preparation for the last few General Congregations.

Communion. Building communion across differences is not easy. In some periods we might admit we have allowed uniformity to pass for unity, or at the other extreme have allowed individualism to replace community. We have grappled with finding new ways to provide a deep sense of belonging. Re-engaging in depth with our spiritual heritage has enabled us over these last 60 years to try new things, find new opportunities to live out our charism, learn to speak with each other in greater openness and sincerity.  Grounded in Ignatius and Mary Ward, we have found ways towards a different communion from the time when we expected a common roof or common school ministry to bind us together. The current church process is urging us as church to be grounded in familiarity with the life of Jesus and the early church, so that change does not result in loss of who we are as disciples of Jesus. That echoes our GC calls over the past 20 years, so we have insights to share with others. Our community sharing groups can perhaps give us confidence us as we join the larger church in listening to each other, without the need for immediate argument, allowing each one time to speak, trusting that openness even to those who irritate us, will allow new insights to form.

Our journeys have been different- that is true within each province and among provinces. It is worth reminding ourselves that the truth at the heart of Christian faith is our belief in a Triune God, who speaks to us of unity, equality and yet difference. We are called to listen to each other’s experiences.  The more we understand where others are coming from the more we can accept differences- in habits, in prayer styles, in mission. It is great that formators from both congregations will meet together and in time this will be followed by meetings of other women as both groups grow into one. For us older ones, we can accompany these meetings with prayer – and show interest when someone returns. Hearing stories second hand can still be transformative! It helps the attendee to find ways of passing on her insights. It helps us who listen to feel part of a new process.

Second we have to rethink how we do things. The big move in the church calls for participation. How can we also ensure that in this time of consolidation, all people are involved? Models of leadership shift when this is the expectation. The committees set up in spirituality and Constitutions will no doubt help us at local level to talk through aspects of the demands ahead, but we will each need to be generous in that process, and maybe find ways to initiate links with those we know in other provinces.

Some of us have had experience of engaging laity in our mission and in our spirituality. This letting go of our control has not always been easy, but we have reaped great gifts in this period of change. We can offer reassurance to other provinces and to the larger church, because we know that models of ongoing formation and collaboration have worked. Some provinces have set up stewards to manage the great schools we have developed over the centuries, and we have seen lay people move with grace and generosity into these roles. We do not have to be in charge for the Mary Ward’s charism to be passed on. Can we encourage others in our church to let go of fear and trust in the Spirit working in new ways?

The third area is mission. The move in the ‘big church’ towards universal mission is closely in line with our purpose as Mary Ward’s Congregation. She named this as ‘defence and propagation of the faith’. Surely for today we would rephrase that as accompanying people in their journey with God, helping them deepen their sense of God in daily life, listening and supporting them. This is so needed, especially as our church is still in the grip of leaders who, often have been formed to control rather than accompany others. We will find we are women at the heart of the if we  are true to our purpose and we bring the gifts of our charism to this venture: freedom to trust a Friend of friends, to be true to who we are, and to seek Justice with joy.

So, we have something to gain and something to give as we walk our particular path at this time within the bigger church community. Critical to both journeys is making room for the Holy Spirit to transform us. Being open to the Spirit challenges us to let God take control. So often we have wanted to know specifics of the next step and assuredness of the destination. Now, in both the wider Church and Mary Ward’s congregation, we are being asked to let God do what God will through us:

“This seemed the way: that they should first know it, after desire and endeavour for it a little, and God would do the rest.”  Mary Ward 1619

Christine Burke is an Australian IBVM sister, who has helped pilot a combined CJ-IBVM study house community in Manila since 2013, providing a base for young women, mainly  from the Australian and Korean provinces, who study at various institutions here. Manila also hosts the Australian & South East Asia Novitiate, and there are two CJ sisters who have a mission station in a poorer diocese. Christine teaches at the CICM School of Theology.