Last week, the General Secretariat of the Synod published the continental document which summarizes and presents the results of the first stage of the consultation, around the world, on the Synod on Synodality called for by Pope Francis. It is an exhaustive document and contains the expression of millions of Catholics of different countries, backgrounds and roles within the Church. From those who expressed concern over the role of women within the Church to those who questioned the limitations on the traditional Latin Mass, a broad expanse of issues, concerns and agendas have been expressed. The document is clear in presenting what all expressed and especially the sentiment of those who feel excluded from the life of the Church due to opinions or personal situations. This document will now be further discussed on a continental level with these results again being discussed by dioceses. The final report of these discussions will result in a working paper to be presented for the Synod to take place in Rome in October 2023. Pope Francis, to ensure the purpose of the Synod, has added another session to take place in October 2024.
The recent document uses as its title an image from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” (Is 54:2). This image represents both the process of the Synod as well as what the Synod envisions the space of the Church to be. This includes: 1) Listening as open to welcome; 2) Our outgoing drive toward mission; 3) Carrying out the mission assuming a style based on participation; 4) The construction of concrete possibilities for living communion, participation and mission; 5) The liturgy, especially the Eucharistic liturgy, the source and summit of Christian life. “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” makes absolutely clear that, “it is not a conclusive document because the process is far from being finished; it is not a document of the Church’s Magisterium, nor is it the report of a sociological survey; it does not offer the formulation of operational indications, goals and objectives, nor a full elaboration of a theological vision.” With this articulation of what the document is not, it is important to understand that it “profiles the synodal experience, presents the difficulties encountered and the most significant fruits gathered, identifying the cornerstones of what constitutes an authentic collective experience of the Christian faith. In this way it does not provide the definition of synodality in a strict sense. … but expresses the shared sense of the experience of Synod by those who took part.”
The process of the Synod has been an extraordinary one, with its most extraordinary process and results still before us. It is certainly a time of enlarging our tent and listening to all those who are part of the Church and want to be part of it. We are grateful to Pope Francis for this process of emphasis on synodality as part of the very nature of the Church. We continue to listen to each other carefully as a possible expression of the Holy Spirit, especially as the document, “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” calls for. This is a time for growth within the Church and listening in a particular manner as perhaps never experienced before. It is a graced moment.
It is quite understandable that even at this time of the Synod process, and especially in view of the document “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent,” there may be a good bit of confusion and misunderstanding in regard to the Synod and what will result from it. It is important to reiterate, as the document does, that the Synod is not meant to alter the fundamental teaching of the Church. It is meant to help us listen to all as an expression of the Church and to make the Church as available and welcoming to all who truly want to be a part of it. While the tent may be as expansive as can be to accommodate all, there is a narrow gate that is part of the Church to which our Lord referred. He gave all of us a challenge which reminds us, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow is the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13).
It has to be understood that, while we want the tent to be as expansive as possible, we cannot widen the gate. The widening of the gate is up to the Lord. The condition of the Lord for becoming part of His Kingdom is always the admission of our sinfulness and our turning away from it. Jesus always welcomes the sinner and condemns those who do not, but He never condones the sin. He reminded us that He came to call the sinner, the weak, those in need of healing and those who felt they were in need of conversion. Admission to the Kingdom requires a change of heart. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf Lk 16:19-31) is a vivid reminder of this. The rich man who ignored Lazarus cannot enter heaven no matter how much he begs. While the Synod calls for a wide welcome, it does not call for a radical change of the Church in a manner that goes against its very mission. It calls for a radical conversion of all those who want to be part of it.
The reading we just heard on All Saints’ Day from the Book of Revelation (7:2-4, 9-14) gives much insight regarding the large tent of God’s Kingdom. We read, “I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue. They stood before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.” It is explained that “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” The Lord’s Kingdom is a large and expansive one, and all can enter the narrow gate but only through His sacrifice in which we participate. We welcome the document “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” as we continue with the process of moving forward to the Synod. May the Synod help us to have a deeper understanding of the Church and what the process of synodality brings to it. We are reminded that we must widen the space of the tent of the Church as much as possible, but can never widen its gate. We need a conversion and change of heart to be disciples of the Lord.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
November 4, 2022