From wandering to journeying, thoughts on a Synodal Church

Fr Shane Mackinlay and Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Fr Shane Mackinlay, Master of CTC and Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Vice-President of ACBC. Photo: Peter Byrne, Archdiocese of Melbourne.

From the time of his election, Pope Francis’ presence has invited the Church to move on in ways we didn’t quite see coming, Archbishop Mark Coleridge said as he delivered the Knox Public Lecture in Melbourne on 16 May 2016.

Hosted by the Catholic Theological College (CTC), a college of the University of Divinity, the Knox Public Lecture is given annually to honour the founder of CTC, James Robert Cardinal Knox, the fifth Archbishop of Melbourne.

‘This became still clearer when not long after his election he decided to convene not one but two Synods of Bishops on the theme of marriage and the family. We’d been having Synods for almost fifty years since the Council, but we’d never had two Synods twelve months apart like this.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge during the Synod in October 2015.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge during the Synod in October 2015.

‘The Pope, it seemed, wanted to change the experience of the Synod; and he did so in a number of ways. He moved from an experience of Synod as event to an experience of Synod as process. In other (and more biblical) words, he was summoning the Church to set out on a journey. The word “synod” itself of course means “on the road together”; but Francis seemed to be moving the emphasis from “together” to “on the road”, in search of a new way of being together.

‘In this, he was reclaiming the Second Vatican Council’s biblically inspired description of the Church as a pilgrim people. The significance of the Council’s shift from the static description of the Church as a perfect society to a more dynamic sense of the Church as a pilgrim people can hardly be overstated. It relates to a more general shift in cultures like ours from a static to a dynamic understanding of human experience.

‘Marriage for instance, is seen now not so much as a state but as a journey – which in this culture often begins with a friendship, then perhaps a sexual relationship, then cohabitation, followed by engagement, marriage and all that lies beyond – with offspring appearing at any point of this journey. Similar things could be said of family life, which is seen in essentially dynamic rather than static terms.

‘The journey began when the Pope announced the two Synods; then we had the preparation for the first Extraordinary Synod in 2014; that was followed by the aftermath of that Synod and the preparation for the second Ordinary Synod in 2015; then Francis proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy which was closely connected to the Synod journey, indeed the next step on the way. During the Year of Mercy came the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. It was produced in record time – I presume because the Pope didn’t want to lose the momentum of the two Synods; and it wasn’t produced in the conventional way – I presume because Francis wanted it to appear sooner rather than later.

‘Each of these moments was a staging-post on a journey which is certainly not finished. The journey is Abrahamic because no-one – not even the Pope – knows exactly where the journey is heading. Some are anxious about that; they want a detailed road-map or a trustworthy GPS. But the God of Abraham doesn’t provide either – never has, never will. Certainly Pope Francis doesn’t seem anxious about this.’

Archbishop Coleridge referenced the role that his blog, On the road together, played during the Synod journey. ‘As it turned out, the blog became a key part of the Synod experience for me. I started off doing the posts without ever thinking that they’d reach much beyond Brisbane. But, to my surprise, people began reading the blog far and wide; and once a couple of the better known journalists got on to it, the blog began to go global.

‘I still don’t fully understand why. But it seemed to give people outside the Synod Hall a sense of what was happening. It helped them feel part of the process, which is exactly what they wanted to feel and, I might add, what they had a right to feel.

‘I respected the confidentiality of the Synod, but a lot of stories could still be told. I tried to demystify the Synod, to present its human face, in the belief that doing so, as Pope Francis has done with the papacy, wouldn’t be at all to diminish the Synod. In fact, I thought or at least hoped it would have the opposite effect – again as it has with Pope Francis and the papacy.

‘The experience of the blog convinced me more than ever that synods – either universal or local – have to include the whole Church. They’re not just for bishops; and if social media can help bring a new kind of inclusion, then so much the better.’

The full text of the Archbishop’s address at the Knox lecture is available from the Bishops Conference upon request. The address will be published in the July edition of The Australasian Catholic Record.

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Archbishop Mark Coleridge