Christian devotees and faithful of other religions pray outside the closed gates of St. Michael's Church in Mumbai following restrictions imposed by the state government amidst rising coronavirus cases on April 7. (Photo: AFP)
Synodality has become a buzzword today, as 60 years ago “aggiornamento” was, or “ecumenism,” or “collegiality.”
As Goethe once put it, “When the mind is adrift, a new word becomes a raft.”
What recent years have shown us all too clearly is that the old model of the Church — hierarchical, clericalist, magisterial, patriarchal and locked into a Roman template — does not hold anymore.
All over the Catholic world, particularly in the West, the model is rapidly breaking down.
Pope Francis has realized this and, with Jesuit perspicacity, he is proposing another model of what the Church should be: synodality.
The Greek word "synod" means “walking together along a road” and implies a fellowship of people journeying together towards a common goal.
If the past is any guide, Catholic Indians would prefer to keep their “social distance” from other Catholics not of the same skin color or social class
Vatican II conceived of the Church as a “pilgrim people,” a related metaphor.
What are the implications of synodality? The subtext reads as communion, participation and mission, stressing three aspects of a renewed Church, which ought to involve everybody.
How will synodality play out in India? It is an intriguing question, not that easy to answer.
For one thing, the Catholic Church in India, though minuscule in terms of the total population, is fairly large and pluriform and local sensibilities are often rooted in caste and tribe. This means what makes us different from each other is usually stronger than what brings us together.
Not everyone wants to walk along the same road; not even at their own pace. Not everyone seeks communion with fellow travelers.
If the past is any guide, Catholic Indians would prefer to keep their “social distance” from other Catholics not of the same skin color or social class.
For another, the hierarchy of the Indian Church is a timid group, always looking at Rome to “tell us what to do” but not always doing what Rome tells.
The past few years have been times of crisis for all minorities in this country. Yet church authorities are loath to take public positions on national issues, and even less to plan or strategize.
Two years ago, there were agitations when the government enacted laws prejudicial to its minorities and where the prolonged opposition from Muslim women was put down with vicious brutality. But no Christian churchman opened his mouth to show solidarity with those oppressed or even comment on the government’s doings. Fear possibly kept us silent.
The New Education Policy (NEP 2020) is slowly and inexorably coming into effect with the avowed objective of strangling all minority initiatives in education and dispossessing all our institutions. The NEP game plan is to enforce a uniform syllabus that suits Hindu-nationhood philosophy upon everybody.
Yet there has not been a whimper of protest or any concerted action led by church authorities to confront this government initiative. Really, Catholic leadership?
The laity in the Indian Church are a fractious lot, largely obsessed with caste privilege and disdainful of “those others not like us.” Several dioceses in the country have tensions between communities based on language and caste.
At the same time, various state governments have enacted anti-conversion laws to stifle the Catholic community. Simultaneously, rabid groups of vigilantes attack Christian prayer meetings and personnel with impunity, crying “forced conversion.”
Have there been any protests from church authorities, any litigation? Hardly any, it seems.
Synodality must embrace the most pressing issue of our times — climate change and environmental disaster
So what form and shape will synodality take to determine the future of the Church in this country? Here are some thoughts.
Firstly, it will not be led by priests and bishops but by the hierarchy together with the laity: women, Dalits, tribal people. These three groups have been explicitly mentioned because though the Church is largely composed of them, they are absent from most areas of decision-making. Discrimination against women and Dalits is rife. In a synodal church, this must change.
Next, if “dialogue is the new way of being church,” as Pope Paul VI said long ago, a synodal church must be as inclusive as possible. Hitherto, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox have been indifferent to each other, and all three have looked down on the Pentecostals. A change of attitude is overdue.
The recent Pew survey on religious attitudes in India revealed the hostility of the major religions to any change of faith. This is typical of static and fundamentalist religion and this is what religions in this country have become — rigid and superstitious, and obsessive only of what not to eat and drink.
A synodal approach will welcome “the dialogue of life and work,” where Catholics join others in educating and agitating for matters of justice and human rights. But careful! The synodal path may become a slippery slope uphill.
Finally, to have any relevance in the world of today, synodality must embrace the most pressing issue of our times — climate change and environmental disaster. If communion and participation are the working methods for this new church, then its most urgent mission is saving our earth and our future from the few whose rapacious greed will destroy the planet.
To sum up our synodal tasks for the decade: Walk with others, with other Christians, and appreciate their differences. Walk with those of other faiths in dialogue and work with them for a more just and humane society. Walk with those who care for creation. Engage in ecological harmony, the most significant issue of our age.
The synodal path is a long and winding road, and mostly uphill. With God’s help, we’ll get there somehow, some time.
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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