In his book “Mass Exodus”, Dr Stephen Bullivant referred to “disaffiliated” Catholics as those who made an active choice not to participate with a worshipping community. It differed from lapsation in being positive and intentional. In that, at least, it shared this sense of intentionality with Sherry Weddell’s analysis of discipleship.
Clerical sexual abuse, the Church’s teachings on certain matters and the role of women in public ministry have all played their part in the decline in Mass attendance, in particular, and participation with the parish community in general. As a demographic, the disaffiliates are difficult to engage, their reasons, their attitudes towards Church and their capacity to engage will vary hugely.
The call of Pope Francis to synodality is significant as much for its timing as for its intent. As the world emerges from a pandemic, it is right that we address the key questions of what the Church is for, how it should engage and how these changes might transform its sense of being Church.
These are matters that are important, not only for practising Catholics , but for those who have walked away over the last four or five decades. The themes of the Synod – Communion, Participation and Mission speak eloquently of the need to re-imagine our sense of being a community of faith, of our capacity for collaborating with others and for reaching out to those who feel excluded.
By definition, the synodal process is inextricably linked to the need to share the Gospel message, to live it out in our communities and to make all welcome in those communities. Synodality is not just a better means of Church governance, but an essential element of evangelisation. Having witnessed the serious decline in participation, over the last forty years, the Catholic Church in England and Wales has an opportunity to listen, to listen with attention and some humility to the experience of the disaffiliates.
If the Church is to regain the trust and commitment of such people it needs to hear and respond. Listening involves an active commitment to action; it implies a capacity to be responsive. And that is the problem. Synodality is not how the Church has operated in the recent past. For sure, there have been Synods of Bishops since Pope Paul VI, but no synod involving the views of all the laity.
This is new territory. This is not how the laity are used to being involved. There will be suspicions and doubts as to the value of the process. Many disaffiliates will be sceptical, and yet theirs are the voices that need to be heard most clearly, theirs are the views that the Bishops should be most anxious to hear. Most of the synodal activity in England and Wales will be centred on parishes.
Diocesan contacts will have been encouraged to recruit members to spread the message of the synod and to engage in prayerful discussion within the parishes. Most of the people who respond to this invitation will be, in both senses of the word, the faithful few. The Church will be conducting a dialogue with its most committed members. There is nothing wrong with that. That situation is perfectly acceptable. To a point.
We need a mechanism, a process for listening to those who are often unheard; the silent majority who have chosen not to be part of the community. We need to build a trusting relationship with ,at least, some of those who have not found it possible to stay. We need every diocese to ensure that the voices from the margins are heard. Late in 2021 the yrustees of ACTA, the executive of the National Justice and Peace Network and the Core team of Root and Branch committed to collaborate on the synodal process.
They agreed to encourage participation by their members and to ensure that there were opportunities for listening to the voices from the edge. Pope Francis referred, in a speech early in his papacy, to the Church as a field hospital. The qualities of a field hospital are a capacity to meet urgent need, to be immediately responsive, to treat people as they are , and not as a medical textbook describes them.
Our Church of the future needs to have these characteristics. And, just as important, people need to see the Church as being of this kind. Field hospitals are temporary. They are set up where the need is greatest. They are staffed by people who recognise the need for flexibility, for compassion, for listening. They provide the remedy to the most pressing need. Every diocese should be giving serious consideration to how to encourage the participation of the disaffiliates. Their 10-page Report to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales should reflect on the efforts to engage with those whose views might be the most critical but whose ideas have not only been heard but listened to.
Frank Callus is Chair of the Board of Trustees of ACTA – A Call to Action.