28 March 2022, The Tablet

What does synod have in common with the Cat in the Hat?

There has been quite a lot of expectation management around the synod, from the bishops before it started, and even from Rome.

What does synod have in common with the Cat in the Hat?

Pope Francis pictured at the start of the synodal process that will lead up to an assembly of the world Synod of Bishops in 2023.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

How’s your Synod going? We’ve done our consultation meetings, created our considered submission to send on to the archdiocese and now we are seeing it move out of our hands. We have even had two further Synod meetings for some parish feedback, after our submission went in to the archdiocese, so we have definitely moved to the next stage of the process. Now we are talking (with a little more confidence) about not only our own concerns, but those of other parishes and the diocese generally.

Our delegates had their first meeting with all the delegates from the other parishes of the diocese, and the archbishop, and they reported back to us. This wider meeting was obviously a significant event for them, which they found uplifting and very worthwhile, even though it was on Zoom, and had all the drawbacks that implies. There were lots of people, so whole screensful of little square boxes, and a lot of organising and time-keeping, but our people reported real (if brief) discussions and genuine communication. Encouragingly, the themes raised by our own meetings in the parish seem to have been what everyone else wanted to raise as well.

The time frame now remains extremely tight. The diocesan synod group met on 17 March, so clearly St Patrick cast a friendly eye over it and removed any snakes, and after that we received the draft synthesis which they have created from all the parish submissions. That draft is finalised and was sent to the England and Wales Bishops’ Conference (and presumably on from there) on 25 March, so our excellent chairman, who is impressively committed to transparency and feedback, has already set up another two meetings for us. Let us hope that the diocesan draft arrives early enough for us to have a look before the meetings, because that’s the bit we can’t control.

This is all a bit daunting, complicated and hurried, but we mustn’t flag now. As the document moves further up the line, it gets further away from us, but if we want it not to get further away from what we said, we have to keep watching and commenting where we can. At the moment I can’t help being reminded of the Cat in the Hat when he is juggling more and more things while standing on a ball and waving a fan with his tail, if memory serves – just before he falls and everything goes everywhere. Still, through chaos comes opportunity, we hope. This is all looking forward, though, and I want to reflect on our own parish meetings about our own submission first, before events carry us on.

With time being as tight as it is, meetings have to be squeezed in where they can fit. The first meeting to review our submission and get feedback from our delegates was after the evening Mass on Sunday, impossible for me and some others, but it was livestreamed and posted on the parish website. Then the second one was after the Monday 10am Mass, again a difficult time for many, but I could manage this one. This was just as well, as it was held more informally in the hall, where we don’t have livestreaming facilities, but we did have a cup of tea. Experience has shown how much people value the livestreaming, however, so our next two meetings will probably be back in church, so that we can livestream both.

Both meetings followed the same pattern. Our submitted documents are on the parish website, but the one-page summary was available on paper in the hall, just in case anyone had not yet seen it. The chairman and the other two delegates talked about the submission that they had sent on to the diocese, and a little about how it had been produced. It had clearly been a friendly and co-operative exercise in our parish, with no big disagreements about emphasis, and the group’s approach had been to include not exclude, which was indeed one of their suggestions for the Church. The guidelines had asked for clarity, brevity and simplicity, so that had informed their work, but they had also tried to use the actual words of respondents where possible, to keep the personal flavour of the contributions. They invited feedback, comments and views from those who were there, mostly people who had been at the earlier meetings, but fewer of us. They also told us more about their Zoom meeting, and what it had been like to attend. They are Zooming again after the diocesan document appears, and they will be getting an in-person meeting around the end of March, which they were clearly looking forward to with pleasure. Then they explained how the process was going to keep on unfurling, and what further opportunities there would be to contribute.

As it has been throughout, the atmosphere was polite, sincere and unhurried, if a little ponderous. This is partly down to simple mechanics, and the need to transfer the roving microphone from speaker to speaker, plus the group is a slightly odd one, where everybody knows everybody else, except they don’t really; we all recognise each other, but we have never had these sorts of conversations before. It’s too big for a private conversation and too small for a list of approved speakers, so when we are asked for our comments, no one wants to be the first to speak, and the microphone means that you can’t have casual interpolations or clarifications. Apart from the delegates, speakers at the meetings remain off-camera, which makes them more comfortable, I think, but also means that I can’t tell from listening how many people are there. The notes of the earlier consultations give the numbers of people attending, about one hundred across all five meetings, plus one hundred and seventyfive viewing the livestream. The post-submission meetings were smaller.

People wanted to express their gratitude for all the work involved on producing the submission; there were not many comments (positive or negative) on the substance of it, which I think indicates that the Steering Group did a good job. People felt that it accurately reflected the substance of our discussions over five meetings, which was quite an achievement, and we were all grateful. Our parish has sent in not just our three-page submission but also the notes of the actual meetings, and the appendices from individuals, and people appreciated how carefully this had been done. It must have been a relief for our delegates to discover that most parishes were coming up with similar areas of discussion. Looking at the Synod as a general and genuine listening exercise, it is clear that the laity does indeed have some common themes it wishes to raise. The two themes our chairman picked out from the process so far were the question of identifying and using the talents of the laity and the role of women in the Church. One person was critical of the fact that there was no “green” angle to our parish’s submission, but it was gently pointed out that ecological matters had not been raised at any of our meetings, though some other parishes had apparently included this in their discussions.

All the local parishes were invited to contribute and as far as we know most did, but in different formats and styles. Some parishes were represented by their local clergy, but not many, which I think is a credit to our priests. It’s difficult not to be defensive in this situation, but our own parish priest has sat in on most of our meetings and not said much, intervening usually to clarify or correct something. And obviously this does temper the discussion to some degree, but not too much. We have had diametrically-opposed comments, some asking for more clergy input, some worrying about how much editing priests and bishops will impose further up the line. We understand that the clergy as a group will have its own chance to make submissions, and of course there are more opportunities for them to discuss matters with the deanery and the Archbishop;  this has been a unique, once-in-two thousand-year event for the laity.

There has been quite a lot of expectation management around the synod, from the bishops before it started, and even from Rome, when they saw how enthusiastically many people were welcoming the chance to take part. We have been told repeatedly that the Church is not a democracy, that a Synod has no power to change doctrine, - effectively that we should not expect too much in solid results, but even just letting people talk in these small and well-ordered groups has led to a feeling of opening up, of fresh air and light coming into closed rooms and stuffy cupboards. What happens next will depend on the openness of the hierarchy.

What happens next in our own parish will depend partly on what the draft document looks like, but only partly, as both our parish priest and the chairman of the synod steering group have pointed out that we could pursue some of the suggestions already, just on our own. This is exciting and encouraging. As just an ordinary parishioner, though one who has been interested to observe and take part at parish level since the synod preparation started,  I have to say that I am surprised by how protective I feel about the process by now;  I feel that we are already seeing hesitant little shoots of new growth emerging, not just after the Covid-winter, but as a first chance after a long while for lay people to make a difference. I need to be engaged but maybe not protective; it’s not our job to keep things safe, but commit them to the Holy Spirit and then let the wind blow where it will, and see where the ship is carried.

It’s still too early to evaluate the process and procedures, even at the parish stage, as it is still ongoing, with (at least two) more meetings waiting to be held and then reported. We are going to be dependent on the quality of the reporting, not just from our delegates, but later, from the wider Catholic press and the various bishops’ conferences, and that is also going to be difficult at this time when world events are so momentous and gripping (not to say heartbreaking and terrifying). Sometimes you look at the news about Ukraine and feel that our little efforts to support and engage with the Synod are merely an indulgence. But this is precisely the sort of time when we need the Church to be flexible and responsive : if we are to work out “where the Holy Spirit is calling us to mission and service”, as the Synod guidelines say, we need to make the Church as good as it can be, so we have to keep working.


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

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