marianist lay communities and synods – a reflection

2014 International MLC Meeting, Lima Peru
2014 International MLC Meeting, Lima Peru

I may never attend a synod of bishops, but I have attended four international meetings of Marianist Lay Communities; 2001 in Philadelphia, 2005 in Bordeaux, 2009 in Nairobi and 2014 in Lima. As I followed the daily news from the synod, I couldn’t help pondering the similarities with our MLC international meetings.

First of all, there is the mind-opening reality of any international experience. As brothers and sisters in a worldwide community of communities, our commonality is grounded in a shared charism and spirituality. Our diversity is present in how we live this charism in the day to day.

Beyond obvious differences in language and culture, there are differences in political realities and agendas. These differences affect the mission of each community. It is important to share one’s local experience. After all, this is one of the main reasons to gather across the many miles. It is equally important to come with an open mind and heart to listen carefully to the experiences of others. This requires checking in our natural, parochial mindset at the door.

This is especially true for those of us in the western world. Our issues may not be the issues of our neighbours in the global south. We are sometimes so ready with an answer to the problems before us, that we fail to listen, really listen, to the experience and wisdom of others.

MLC International Team, 2009 Nairobi, Kenya
MLC International Meeting, 2009 Nairobi, Kenya

Watching the bishops in the synod halls struggling with headsets reminded me of the long meetings listening to simultaneous translations through static sound systems. It required extra attentiveness to follow the English translation going on in your headset while you could still hear the French or Spanish being spoken on the floor. Add to that the deliciousness of a hefty midday meal, late nights and jet lag, fighting the mid-afternoon demons of sleep was inevitable.

MLC writing team, 2009 Bordeaux
MLC writing team, 2005 Bordeaux

Writing international documents is a major challenge. I was on the writing team at two of the international meetings I attended. We had the added disadvantage of not having a shared language to work with around the table. We struggled to make the necessary changes and edits in three languages. Our translators were our trusted and indispensable companions as they helped us to communicate in our discussions and in our writings. Late, exhausting nights were the norm.

Compiling the numerous statements, comments and edits was often a herculean task. The documents we were writing would become our foundational identity documents. We had to discern which statements reflected the general assembly, and which were indicative of a more individual or local preference. As Marianist Lay Communities, we value inclusivity. The challenge was to make the documents inclusive of our diversity while specifying the foundational characteristics that united us. It was not easy, and there was always a point where our efforts seemed doomed. Relief came when the final document was voted on and approved by the assembly.

As with the synods, our international meetings provided the dual challenge for delegates to faithfully represent the grass roots experience of their region, and to take the fruits of the meeting back home so that visions and carefully chosen words could be transformed into action.

Interest in our international meetings was often mixed at the local levels. Again, as with synods, international meetings come and go while the lives of communities go on.

benedictine wisdom at the synod

Source: Could the synod of bishops fall flat? | Crux

The Synod on the Family is heading into the home stretch. Abbot Jeremias Schröder, president of the Congregation of Sant’Ottilia, is one of the Religious Superiors given voting delegate status at the synod. In an interview with Michael O’Loughlin of Crux, Abbot Schröder shared some insight into the Rule of Benedict and the challenges of a synod.

St. Benedict had a down to earth approach to community that acknowledged our human weakness. Monks are not an elite group of saints. Benedictines live diversity within community each day, acknowledging that the spiritual journey is unique for each monk.

“The rule of St. Benedict, in his wisdom, talks about encouraging the weak while not disheartening the strong,” he said. “In our tradition, it’s very clear that you take care of the needs of the individual, and at the same time, maintain the character of the community. Those two shouldn’t be played off against each other.”

He said it’s not true that “the moment you are lenient or merciful in the one instance, you weaken whole doctrine.”

“I think for a [member of a religious community], that it would be much easier to understand how these two do not harm each other,” he said.

During my years in leadership with the Marianist Lay Communities, I had the privilege of attending several Marianist General Chapters (Society of Mary and Daughters of Mary Immaculate. Both incorporate the Rule of Benedict into their Rules.) Chapters can be exhausting work, like synods. But, the Abbot believes that religious women and men have deep experience and wisdom gleaned from these gatherings.

“We have developed general chapters over centuries that are quite efficient in bringing positions together, fleshing out where the differences are, seeing what common ground there is, where we can move forward together,” he said, referring to the method of dialogue monasteries use to consider important questions about the life of the community.

One of the key differences between the synod and a monastery, however, is that monks pledge to live together for life, whereas a synod bishop will “go home afterward, and may not see his fellow synod fathers ever again,” he said.

“The fact that you know you’re bound together for life prevents you from going to the extremes. You don’t want to rock the boat, you’re aware you’re sitting in the same boat,” he said.

I experienced this in the three Chapters that I attended. Religious priests, brothers and sisters live in community unlike most diocesan priests and bishops. Community can truly be a “school for the Lord’s service” in the words of St. Benedict. It is one thing to have strong opinions, but living in community forces you to temper your opinions in seeking the common good.

As a Jesuit, Pope Francis knows the challenges of community. He also knows the importance of prayerful discernment. At the Santa Marta mass today, he preached on reading the signs of the times saying,

First of all, in order to understand the signs of the times we need silence: to be silent and observe. And afterwards we need to reflect within ourselves.

The first word in the Rule of Benedict is “Listen”. I hope that there was lots of prayerful listening both within and outside the synod halls.

input for the next synod for the family

Roman Catholic bishops are preparing for the second of two consecutive synods on the family. The first, the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, took place in October 2014 and addressed the topic, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. The document from that synod has become the working document (lineamenta) for the October 2015 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops titled “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world”.

The lineamenta for the first synod included a questionnaire. Unlike past questionnaires, this one was meant for all the people of God not just bishops. Sadly, the questionnaire was criticized for its lack of clarity and simplicity. Also, there was a lack of consistency in the solicitation of responses from lay women and men. Some bishops welcomed input from all. Some didn’t.

Enter lineamenta and questionnaire #2. I first read about it on our Archdiocesan web-site last week. There was a letter of introduction from our Archbishop dated January 28th. The online publication date was February 3rd. It was also announced in our Archdiocesan newspaper (received in our parish yesterday – Sunday, February 15th).

The deadline for submissions? February 16, 2015!

How easy is this set of questions? Here are the original questions, included in the last section of the lineamenta. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has published an edited version (eight pages!) to be distributed to dioceses across the country. This is the questionnaire that Canadian Catholics were invited to respond to.

I wanted to shake my head in disbelief, but it would have worsened the headache I got after reading both sets of questions. Keen Vatican watchers could have found the document on the Vatican web-site weeks ago and taken the necessary time to reflect and ponder on the questions in order to give a thoughtful response.

Granted, no one was expected to answer all the questions. In our archdiocese it was suggested that we answer three questions. The CCCB also left it to the discretion of each bishop whom to invite to respond to the survey, and which questions to address. There is also the option to respond to an “open question” at the end of each section.

An honest survey must be attentive to the day to day life of the average Catholic; those same women and men who form the many and varied families that the bishops are attempting to study.  I wonder how many responses will be received? How inclusive will these voices be? Will we hear from those on the fringes of church life? What about those who have already exited her doors because their family was no longer welcomed to the table?

A rhetorical question is one to which you do not expect a response. Is this merely a rhetorical survey?

More to come….