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  • Fr. John Jennings

Out Sacred Stories: Living a Synod: Change, Challenge & Fear - Faith, Hope & Love

Change is a challenge. It is also universally necessary. Whether we talk personally or communally, we constantly face changes in our life. The same is true for our church. Change is an ever-present need for us all. And, it always makes demands of us. Thus, it comes as no surprise that we have a tendency to fear, oppose and resist change as we meet it.

Reluctance to accept and work with change is part of the story of our faith community. The idea of our church as “unchanging” and an anchor in our changing world has long been a commonly held view. More than a century ago, in 1910, an Irish priest in Brooklyn NY, Msgr. Edward J. McGolrick, captured this view in a very popular book: The Unchangeable Church.

The perspective was still held by many who resisted the changes of Vatican II, in the 1960s and 70s. At a local retreat in the 1970s, the retreat director, focusing on the changes called for by the Council noted this resistance. He drew attention to a musical work by the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) called: “The Seven Last Words of Christ”. At the retreat, we were asked if we had ever heard of “The Seven Last Words of the Church”? His response when none indicated they had heard of it – “We Never Did It This Way Before”.

Pope Francis has expressed this same thought in a number of ways when reflecting on the resistance to change which haunts our church. In the first year of his papacy, 2013, Pope Francis issued an apostolic exhortation to the whole church on proclaiming the Gospel to all humanity (The Joy of the Gospel). He called for a whole new energy, changing how we do things. He called on the community “to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’ ” (EG 33)

Such attitudes of resistance at all levels of our faith community are blocks to dynamism and openness in the mission we have been given as disciples. Speaking to a community of Jesuits recently Pope Francis commented: “The Catholic Church suffers from a temptation to return to attitudes and practices of the past,… the ideology of going backward”(The New Freeman, Oct.1, 2021). It is an attitude that stems for fear of what we do not know. Any new step poses some risks. We are ever in need of courage to move forward.

The synod process into which we now move is the work of the Spirit as we seek to read the “signs of the times” and to bring the Gospel into our times. Much as we did for Vatican II, the Synod “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission” will demand that we rely on the Spirit and the Gifts of the Spirit to our church. Our church, our faith community will depend on the Spirit’s gifts: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude(courage), Knowledge, Piety (spirituality), and Fear of the Lord (Awe).

Mark’s Gospel (Mk.13:24-32) expresses the fear that can paralyze us humanly and bring discouragement, despair and inaction in the face of challenge and the need to risk. In respone, comes the saving action of Jesus the Christ (Hebrews 10:11-14, 18) and the shining light of God’s love and glory (Daniel 12:1-3). As church and disciples we can trust in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (13:13) “Now faith, hope and love abide…, and the greatest of these is love.”

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