Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
I’ll admit it! Talk about “we are the Church” may sound more than a little hypocritical when used by certain hierarchs and theologians, almost as if to deflect accountability for less than stellar leadership and counsel. I refer specifically to the use of the word “we” as if to exculpate such “official” leaders from their inability, hesitancy or unwillingness to include many other disciples of Christ — largely those not ordained — in the mission of the Church, with the exception of prayer and financial support, without which it cannot even be driven.

It is understandable that those who do not perceive themselves as included, valued or even listened to as disciples essential to the whole mission of the Church — which includes prayer, evangelization, sacramental and liturgical celebration, visioning and management (among many other things) — would want to take advantage of an opportunity to raise their voices to, even against, a “Church” seemingly like a train they are not connected to, running on another track.

I do not put much stock in “right track, wrong track” polls but I would venture a guess that many Catholics, both frequent and less frequent churchgoers, see “The Church” as on another track from where they live, if not the “wrong” track. Okay, I made my point.

The process of synodality that we have embarked on begins with a certain assumption — maybe presumption! — that there is only ONE Church and that her mission is to bring the Good News — the Gospel — to the whole world. It is the mission of every disciple. We each have different roles as members of what St. Paul, among others, has called “the Body of Christ.” It is the action of the Holy Spirit that helps us discern which members do what and how we fit together in what God has designed us to be and become. So the process must begin and evolve with listening to the Holy Spirit, a prayerful discipline.

Since God is intimately relational — we worship a Trinitarian God — the “image of God” reflected in humanity reveals that, like our Creator, each of us finds our identity not only in our uniqueness and individuality, but in our relationships to God and with one another. This is more than mere complementarity, which can be used as a way of excluding and even isolating “the other,” reinforcing boundaries rather than affirming the full “image of God” in each of us. To borrow a metaphor from sacramental marriage, a couple does not lose their genetic, historical, intellectual and emotional identity by becoming “two in one flesh” when they exchange their vows. What changes is their intimate connectedness through which they now pledge never to live only for themselves but for themselves AND each other before God as one being. Nothing on earth is quite as God-like in its promise.

If we may also appropriate this metaphor for our Church, as St. Paul and many philosophers and theologians propose, based firmly on the teachings of Christ, we are invited to commit ourselves, as disciples of Christ, to a vision of Church in which we live not for ourselves alone but for one another, united in Christ for our common mission. I am saying nothing new that the Scriptures and the Church have not proclaimed for some 2,000 years. And the synodal process that we are engaged in is nothing other than an exercise, a means of making the experience of living that common mission more credible and real. 

Our common mission is to the whole world, proclaiming the Gospel to every creature. St. Francis, legend has it, took this quite literally, including sentient and even non-sentient created entities in his preaching. As disciples of Christ, we must pray for, help build, and maintain our identity through the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, uniting us in our common mission. This is the foundation upon which our conversations must be constructed and conducted: respectful listening to one another in the Holy Spirit, calling us to our common mission. 

If our common mission is to proclaim the Good News — the Gospel — to all, then we must first be united in what the Gospel is. The most primitive and foundational kerygma — or proclamation — is that “Jesus Christ is Lord!” If we are to stay on mission then WE must be HIS Church now, since the Church was founded by Jesus precisely to proclaim HIS saving message to the world. Jesus saves!

But here is where the rubber hits the road. The world in which we live has many voices that do not always speak in harmony with this message of universal salvation, of a God who loves the world and everyone in it and treasures all of creation as our common home. The first “action” of evangelizing — proclaiming the Good News — is often one of just showing up, being personally present in this world to one another, and listening. Yes, listening before speaking. What we listen to first may not be words of praise or hope, but of pain and often desperation.

To use another image from the Scriptures, it is not the healthy who need the physician, but the sick, those who are ailing and in pain. It is essential that every doctor first listen to the patient before prescribing medication. It is not arrogance or pride on the part of the doctor, any more than that of the evangelizer, to be confident that he or she — or the team working together — have something salutary to offer. Neither can know, however, how to address the woes and wounds of the suffering persons without beginning to know them, their symptoms, their story.

It has been suggested that a teaching Church must also and always be a listening Church. Our synodal process is a graced way of being both. It does not compromise the role of the magisterium — the teaching office of the Church that safeguards the doctrine of the faith — nor does it exclude the role of all the faithful to participate in both proclaiming it and applying its healing balm to wounded hearts and souls. There are as many ways of doing this as there are disciples and ministries in the Church and no one of us can or must do it all! This is where much of our conversation will doubtless challenge us to discern. But one thing we can all do, wherever we are and with whomever we encounter, is to listen with the heart — even as we count on God to listen to our prayers.

We know that God does not always answer prayers immediately. Nor must we expect that at all times “The Church,” we personally as evangelizing disciples, will have all the answers. Saints and those on the road to sanctity have discovered that a holy patience can intensify desire and hunger to receive the truth, the healing that will go deep, not just relieving the symptoms or reducing the cries, but forging the cure, saving the soul. Being that saving presence patiently in the world is who “The Church” is — who we are all called to be — the mission that defines and unites us