Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!


There are some 1,378,000,000 Catholics on Planet Earth today. They live in almost every imaginable cultural, social, economic, and political circumstance. They manifest their Catholicism in distinctive ways. The vast majority of them are the lay faithful. Given those numbers and that extraordinary diversity, the claim that the “whole Church is gathered in Synod,” so often heard these past three weeks here in Rome, is obviously an exaggeration (to put it gently). 

Perhaps 1 percent of the world Church participated in some form or other in the preparatory phases leading up to this synodal assembly, and the assembly itself is hardly “representative” of the biblical coat of many colors that is the Catholic Church today. The roster of Synod participants, carefully crafted by the Synod general secretariat, is dominated by what might be called Church professionals: not only clergy and consecrated religious, but lay men and women who work in Church ministries, services, and offices. To suggest that their concerns accurately mirror those of almost 1.4 billion their fellow Catholics is more than a stretch. 

Putting aside for a moment the urgent question of how a Synod of Bishops has morphed into the current hybrid, this year’s synodal assembly is, to any objective observer, heavily skewed. Or to adopt language from the Green world, Synod-2023’s ecosystem is seriously imbalanced. How? Let me suggest some ways.

Throughout the world, the basic unit of Church life is the local parish. Yet if there is a working parish priest here at Synod-2023, I haven’t found him. Or a working parish school principal. Or a parish-based catechist or liturgist. Perhaps a few of these utterly essential members of the People of God are here. But they are virtually invisible, and because of that, so is the parish: the place where the Church lives, and the ecclesial reality with which most of the people of the Church identify.

Consecrated religious are present at Synod-2023, and one of their number, Sister Nathalie Becquart, X.M.C.J., is a powerful force—some say, the most powerful force—in the Synod general secretariat as its under-secretary. But where are the teaching sisters and nursing sisters and the Little Sisters of the Poor? Where are the representatives of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, an association of 112 religious institutes that follow the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata on the appropriate mode of life and dress for those who have taken permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience? Why is the Society of Jesus (whose membership has shrunk from some 36,000 in 1965 to some 14,000 today) so heavily represented at Synod-2023, leading one synodal wag to refer to the “Ignatian Anschluss of the Catholic Church”? 

Beyond the dynamic Renée Köhler-Ryan of Australia, where are the lay Catholic higher educators? One would never know from the roster of Synod participants that the Catholic Church invented what we know as the “university,” or that the Church sponsors the world’s most extensive network of institutions of higher learning. 

Where are the lay leaders of dynamic Catholic campus ministries? A recent survey reported that one-third of today’s American seminarians discerned a priestly vocation through some type of contact with FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students), which sends recent university graduates back to campus as missionaries. FOCUS would seem to be a shining example of a Church of “community, participation, and mission,” Synod-2023’s theme. It’s invisible here.

In its last days, Synod-2023 will discuss what the Synod general secretariat calls “methods and stages for the months” between the 2023 Synod and its follow-on in October 2024. Surely part of that discussion should be the rebalancing of the Catholic ecosystem in this “synodal process,” so that Synod-2024 does not replicate one of the less fortunate dimensions of Synod-2023: its dominance by the concerns of those who form some of the paler colors on the rich Catholic palette.

George Weigel


As just noted, working parish priests are notably missing from the participants of Synod-2023. LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD invited the pastors of two of the best parishes in the United States to tell the Synod of their concerns, as they and their people work to make the New Evangelization come alive in the twenty-first century. Their reflections, entirely relevant in these closing days of Synod-2023, should also help frame the discussion at Synod-2024 and in between. XR II

Yearning for the Gospel                   

by Jay Scott Newman

For most Catholics, parish churches are the very center of Christian faith and life, and from three decades of experience as a parish priest, here is what I would say to the Synod:

The Christian faithful are interested almost not at all in debates over structures of governance and strategies for reorganizing the Church. Attention given to those matters by the Church’s pastors seldom if ever has any effect in the places where the Gospel is proclaimed and the Sacraments of the New Covenant are celebrated for the salvation of souls. Instead, the faithful of Christ are yearning to hear the Gospel preached with life-changing conviction, and to receive the grace of God in the sacred mysteries of our redemption celebrated with beauty, dignity, and reverence. But for that to happen in our parishes, it is first necessary that parish priests be deeply converted disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who have given their entire lives to the Great Commission.

Where priest and people together understand that being a faithful Christian requires surrendering everything we are and have and do in the obedience of faith to the Savior and his Gospel, a parish will flourish and become a beacon in which the Light of the World attracts those who live in darkness. But if the priest or his people are content to be Catholics by custom or cultural convention, without a call to conversion and amendment of life, a parish will decline and become moribund because the salt has lost its flavor. And in such places, the false religion of church membership by tribal identity will wither and die in the harsh conditions of life in the postmodern world: irony, cynicism, and relativism.

The Lord Jesus began his public ministry with a clarion call to conversion: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). And that must always be the starting point of parish life. The world says that to be our true selves we must trust our own hearts and not allow others to tell us what is true for us. But the Gospel reveals that we cannot know or be our true selves until we know that Jesus Christ is Lord and experience the life of the new creation by grace through faith, with all our sins forgiven. The paradox of dying to self to live for God in Christ Jesus must be at the center of all our preaching. Otherwise, we deny the power of the Cross and affirm our people in their sins. And no good shepherd could ever consent to such perfidy.

But the courage to proclaim Christ in this way first requires that the priest know from his own personal conversion that the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16) and that the Word of God is not the word of men (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13), but is rather the supernatural gift of divine revelation which calls forth from us the religious submission of intellect and will to God who reveals (cf. Dei Verbum [the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation], 5). Once that certainty of saving faith shapes the heart and mind of a parish priest, he can lead the souls entrusted to his care to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Anything less than that from the shepherd will not feed the flock.

The duties of every pastor are often grouped into the areas of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, and so I have started with a general description of how a priest should teach in his parish. At the heart of that teaching must be a great love for the Holy Scriptures, and to fulfill his duty as a teacher of the Gospel, the priest must show his people how to read, study, and pray with the God-breathed Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Liturgical preaching should be primarily an exposition of the meaning of the Scripture passages assigned in the lectionary, and this requires of the priest a constant effort to drink deeply from the Bible by his own daily study and prayer. This, in turn, should shape all catechesis in the parish school and programs of religious education, and every effort should be made to foster scriptural literacy among all members of the congregation. If, as Saint Jerome insists, ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, then the more deeply the faithful know and reverence the written Word of God, the more truly they will know and love the Incarnate Word of God.

Sanctifying the people happens first in the celebration of the Sacraments of the New Covenant and the offering of the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours to which the faithful should be invited by their priest. The liturgical instability of the past two generations has left not a few parishes in spiritual chaos, and where the church building, its furnishings, and the rituals which unfold inside are ugly or shabby, the results in the lives of our people will be the same. God reveals himself not only in Holy Scripture but also in the transcendentals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. So the sacred liturgy should summon the faithful to the goodness of upright living through the truth of the Gospel and the beauty of holiness, made visible, audible, and tangible in the sacred mysteries of redemption. This requires our prayer to be a transcendent experience that lifts the faithful out of time measured by the clock and into the everlasting season of salvation in Christ; thus anything that flattens worship into a horizontal experience of worldliness should be avoided. We must therefore give proper attention to sacred music, ritual form, and a liturgical catechesis that reflect the perennial mind of the Church.

Governing the parish is a task for the priest to fulfill according to the servant headship of Christ the Lord. This means that the personal preferences and private opinions of the priest cannot be the standard by which any decisions are made, and instead all things must be done in a fitting and orderly way (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:40), according to the rule of faith and the mind of Christ reflected in the apostolic tradition and law of the Church to which every priest swears fidelity as a condition for accepting ordination and appointment to ecclesiastical office. Such governance is impossible without productive collaboration with the local bishop and the lay leaders of the parish, and a priest who calls upon the gifts of all those in the congregation will encourage them to accountability for their spiritual family.

A parish church animated by radical conversion, deep fidelity, joyful discipleship, and courageous evangelism will call forth many forms of service to those in need, creative engagement with Christians of other traditions and people of other religions, and vocations to fruitful marriage, religious life, and the sacred priesthood. And in all these ways both the parochial and diocesan churches will flourish as faithful witnesses to the life, death, and Resurrection of the only Savior of the entire human race: the Lord Jesus Christ.

[Father Newman is the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and the chancellor of the Diocese of Charleston.]

The Imperatives of Truth, Transparency, and Accountability

by J. Wilfrid Parent

As the pastor of an 1,800-family suburban parish with a Catholic school that runs from Pre-K through 8th grade with almost 600 children, I would ask the Synod to consider how the leadership of the Catholic Church has contributed to the widespread erosion of trust in institutions that plagues society today. From our parish perspective, our Catholic leaders have too often acted like self-serving elites who are more interested in defending their prerogatives than in proclaiming Christ. The first step in evangelizing the world is always inward, to remove the plank from our own eyes, before we reach out to remove specks from the eyes of others. The Synod is a potentially providential time to remove this self-serving elite plank. 

To clarify my admittedly provocative request, allow me to describe a recent experience in the life of our parish, which is located in the Archdiocese of Washington. 

In 2018, our archdiocese was at the epicenter of the McCarrick scandal and our parish was deeply wounded by the many betrayals of trust associated with that scandal. In the fall of 2018, what would eventually become a two-year process of institutional response began to unfold. We conducted parish listening sessions to hear the concerns of the laity and were invited to provide feedback to our bishops.  In November of 2018 our parish sent 595 individually-signed letters to the Papal Nuncio, then-Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and copies of those letters to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, then the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in time for the USCCB fall meeting. We asked for three simple things: truth, accountability, and transparency in the investigation of the McCarrick scandal and in reforms to avoid such scandals in the future.

The initial response by Cardinal DiNardo and the USCCB seemed strong and hopeful. Soon after this national response, they were instructed by Archbishop Pierre not to take action but instead to wait for a response by the universal Church: a Vatican summit in February of 2019 to address clergy sexual abuse. Our parish hopes were raised even further by this prospect, and at every Sunday Mass for nine consecutive Sundays—a “novena of Sundays”—we prayed for the success of this summit.

In retrospect, the process up to and including the February 2019 Vatican summit felt, from our parish perspective, like a microcosm of the Synod—a best-case microcosm in some ways. Like the Synod, the summit would be focused on institutional reform, not doctrinal change. But unlike the Synod, the summit was narrowly focused on a very specific problem about which there seemed to be much agreement throughout the Catholic Church, which ultimately made the summit’s goals seem much more achievable compared to the Synod.  

But the summit and its fruit, the McCarrick Report that was finally published November 10, 2019, did not achieve the truth, accountability, and transparency our parish had pleaded and prayed for. As recently noted by Professor Robert George of Princeton University, the McCarrick Report is “deficient because it doesn’t provide the faithful with the information they are entitled to have.” He observes, correctly in my opinion, that we still don’t know the extent of the institutional corruption that allowed McCarrick to acquire power or “Who knew what, when?” in the subsequent cover-up. George calls for an independent lay investigation to remedy the deficiency of the McCarrick Report. I’m sympathetic to such an investigation, though I doubt that it would have much chance of success at this late date.

Accompaniment in the Church—whether the accompaniment we experienced in response to the McCarrick scandal or the accompaniment of the Synod—is always an important (and perhaps historically underappreciated) dimension of Christian ministry. Welcoming and listening to and loving those who have been wounded by sin—their own sins or our own sins—clearly constitutes the path to much needed healing within the Church and throughout society. Our parish fully supports Pope Francis’s calls for renewal around such accompaniment.

However, Christian accompaniment does not mean walking together in endless circles. Authentically Christian accompaniment has a direction and destination, namely, Jesus Christ. And encountering God’s Word Incarnate always involves an encounter with truth that demands a response. The inadequacy of the McCarrick Report was a failure of truth—not doctrinal truth but shameful truth about corruption among our Catholic elite. In the light of truth, our parish discovered that the accompaniment we had experienced after the McCarrick scandal led nowhere. In retrospect, our experience of accompaniment felt like we were targets of a cynical public relations strategy consisting of pious talk, inaction, delay, and at last a flood of information that evaded key questions. The McCarrick Report is a warning sign of how well-intentioned Church processes can be derailed by an institutional elite protecting its self-interest. 

I have called this problem of self-serving elites a plank—one that is neither confined to the McCarrick scandal nor to the Catholic Church.  But how do we remove this plank from our collective ecclesial eyes? Here I would observe that the overwhelming majority of our theologically centrist parish see in this problem not a need for doctrinal revolution but rather for ongoing reform in the selection and accountability of our Church leaders, ordained and lay, especially our bishops. We are not theological bomb throwers who want to blow everything up: the left to clear the way for an imagined future utopia with women priests or even no clergy at all; the right to restore an imagined past utopia from some era prior to Vatican II. Reform, not revolution, is the path we hope and pray for. The universal Church can and should debate the nature and extent of such reform, and the Synod could at the very least take an important first step by acknowledging the problem. 

[Monsignor Parent is the pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Church in Rockville, Maryland.]


by Lance Morrow

I’d get up at 4 a.m. and study Greek and Latin at the kitchen table, alone in my cube of light in the dead of winter. The big house in Cleveland Park was (at last) silent. The rages had subsided. The clarities of the languages, mostly the Greek (first Xenophon, then Homer), were as sweet as anything I have tasted since.

When it was time, I’d pack my schoolbooks and walk up Newark Street in the dark to the streetcar on Wisconsin Avenue and ride it down the long hill through Georgetown and then east on M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue until we arrived at Lafayette Square, where I changed to a crosstown bus. The White House would be pale and luminous in the cold blue dawn, the Eisenhowers just stirring in their beds, I supposed—lights coming on.  

The bus took me out New York Avenue to a scruffier part of town, to North Capitol Street and the huge brick fortress of the Government Printing Office. There I got off. Gonzaga College High School and its impressive Church of St. Aloysius lay just to the north—its dark grandeur set down like a spaceship in a slum of rundown row houses in the old neighborhood called Swampoodle (once working-class Irish, now black). I made it in time for the 6:30 Mass in the lower church where, among the banks of flickering prayer candles, I and the others (black-clad local widows and widowers, mostly) took communion. Father Donahue could get through the Latin Mass (from “Introibo” to “Ite, missa est”) in twenty-three minutes. 

I loved the Latin Mass. I loved the Jesuits at Gonzaga, too, although I would hardly have put it that way—may not even have been aware of my affection for them, my debt to them, at the time. I went to Gonzaga from 1954 to 1958. Whatever has happened in the years since then to change the Jesuits—some of the changes, in both the Jesuits and me, have been much for the worse—I remember those years with gratitude. I think of them as a kind of miracle.

Before Gonzaga, I went to a public school at the edge of Georgetown, Gordon Junior High. I was bored and miserable there; I learned nothing; I was nearly flunking. A priest who was a family friend—Monsignor George Higgins, well known later on as “the labor priest,” regarded by some conservatives as a socialist—took me in hand and prescribed Gonzaga. Boys from fancier or richer Catholic families—sons of diplomats or doctors—went to Washington’s other Jesuit school, Georgetown Prep, which had a leafy campus in Bethesda. Gonzaga was for the brainy sons of the lesser breeds. All seven of the Buchanan boys (including Pat)—and their father before them—went to Gonzaga. So did the Bennett brothers, Bill and Bob. The Buchanans were a notoriously smart and roughhouse clan, given to riding around on Friday nights in their father’s Oldsmobile station wagon, with a case of beer in the back. They’d cruise the parking lot of the Hot Shoppes on Connecticut Avenue and look for fights with boys from other parishes. Now and then, they’d wreck the Oldsmobile.

I’d only recently become a Catholic. (That was a long story.) At first, I felt like an exile in the strange new culture—or rather in the strange old culture, whose secrets and customs I could not penetrate. The Jesuits eyed me quizzically—they knew that I was a recent convert to the faith (what was that all about?); a few of them (I could see the light in their eye) thought I might eventually make a Jesuit myself. Above all—thank God—the priests and scholastics scared me to death. They were a tough breed, the old school, “God’s Marines.” The prefect of discipline, Father Aloysius P. McGonigal S.J.—a fireplug of a man who worked out with weights, whose biceps bulged beneath his cassock—had been known to strip off his Roman collar and take some hulking, smart ass boy out back to the handball court and beat him up in a fair fight. Father McGonigal eventually became an Army chaplain in Vietnam and died while carrying an M-16 in a Marine assault on a North Vietnamese position in the imperial city of Hue. Years later, I took a rubbing of his name from the wall of the Vietnam Memorial and pinned it above my desk.

I studied hard, got near perfect grades, joined the Sodality of Our Lady, and by the time that May, the month of Mary, came around in my sophomore year, I was leading the student body in reciting the Rosary—I, standing on the fire escape outside the auditorium (like the pope on his balcony) and all the other boys down below in the parking lot, lined up in squads and battalions and calling out the Hail Mary’s at my prompting. 

The gift that the Jesuits gave me was a strong, stable, coherent intellectual and spiritual context—the disciplines of the Church itself at that time, with Jesuit admixtures: high standards and a ruthless, unfoolable, aggressive objectivity. And religious faith. Objectivity plus faith: a handsome paradox. 

Gonzaga was not Georgetown Prep; it had a working-class credibility. We were smarter than the jerks at Georgetown Prep. We could take a punch. The place proved to be a miracle for me, as I have said: what I had before I went there was incoherence that promised failure down the road. I was a messed-up kid, with five brothers and sisters, from what was rapidly becoming a madhouse alcoholic home.  

I have been appalled and saddened—and incredulous—to hear stories about the Jesuits of more recent years. When I have spoken in a sentimental or nostalgic way about them, remembering Gonzaga in the 1950s, friends with more immediate knowledge have shaken their heads, as if to say, “That was a long time ago.” There are a hundred anecdotes about gay culture in the Society of Jesus, for example. I won’t repeat them. They are not the whole story, of course, but what a stupid, miserable business, even so. 

In my years at Gonzaga, by the way, I never saw evidence of that kind of thing among the Jesuits, such was their discipline. I never picked up a hint of abuse, even of the lightest flirtation with the subject. It wasn’t there. Or if it was, it was buried so deeply—suppressed so thoroughly—that it never touched the students. I would have heard about it, I think. There was one French teacher, it is true—a layman—who was so effeminate in his manner that my classmates, the rougher, Studs Lonigan types, drove him to tears, and out the door, before the fall semester ended. 

America was a different country, sixty or seventy years ago. Was it a better world? Was it a better Church? They are questions worth discussing.

I went on from Gonzaga to Harvard. (Recklessly, I had applied only to Harvard and if I had not been admitted there, I would have been out of luck.) The Jesuits were proud I’d gotten into Harvard, but they predicted that, once there, I would drift away from the Church. They were right. It would be many years before I drifted back.  

I confess that something like the Synod on Synodality baffles me—is beyond me. Spiritually speaking, my soul is still back in an earlier time, where I was happy, in the lower church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, just after the winter sunrise, with Father Donahue racing through the Latin.

[Lance Morrow is a regular contributor to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. His most recent book is The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism.]  

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by Didier Descouens via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles