Five years ago, a group of my friends and colleagues began getting together to study and discuss church teachings, share doubts, and encourage each other in understanding and living the faith.

We meet regularly in my living room, all of us dedicated Catholics. We have raised children and held responsible jobs and positions of leadership in our communities. Within our church, however, we exercise no formal influence; there is no way for our voices to be heard. Indeed, at the time we first gathered, our discussions would have been seen by many church leaders as disloyal and disruptive—the church had spoken its final words on such matters as artificial contraception and women’s ordination, and the faithful were bound to docile assent.

There’s been a blessing in disguise here, for our very powerlessness in church affairs has given us freedom to explore new ways of thinking about matters that touch us deeply. And we are confident that we are exercising that freedom well within the tradition, from Acts to Vatican II. Indeed, we follow Canon 212 in the Code of Canon Law, which states that the laity “have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the church.”

We began by inviting a bishop to converse with us, and then another, and included our priest friends. We’ve had Catholic writers and editors, women religious talking about their painful experiences during the Vatican investigations, theologians exploring same-sex marriage. Sometimes there are a dozen of us, often more, but as with the loaves and fishes, we always have enough room and enough time for everyone to have their say. We are a small version of Conspiratio, Cardinal Newman’s conspiracy of the pastors and the faithful that he called for in “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.”


IT’S FROM THIS GRACED perspective that we have followed the Synod on the Family. We were surprised and grateful for Pope Francis’s outreach to us in the survey, although dismayed at its clumsy format, its uneven distribution, and the spotty publication of results. We were heartened that Francis chose to consider contemporary family life, the possibility for the divorced and remarried to participate in the Eucharist, ways to welcome gays and lesbians.

But then we saw the synod’s guest list, and realized that people like us weren’t invited. Along with the 270 celibate bishops and cardinals, there were only 17 married couples, and 40 auditors and collaborators. Precious few of these were women, and none had a vote. So much for the millions of Catholics who live in families of every size and form, whose experience and expertise would have grounded the synod discussion, whose wisdom would have ensured that its outcome would nurture our family lives.

Newman once said of the laity that the church would look foolish without them, and from the beginning the synod did indeed look foolish without us.

Still, there were hopeful signs. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, moved by survey responses, acknowledged that “this family witness to the church is very, very important, more than what the church can teach the family.” During the synod gathering, Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher found the Spirit “working in a lot of situations that, on the face of it, do not correspond to church teaching.”

There is a refreshing humility here, an openness to the ways in which people living in family might make essential contributions to the formation of church teaching. Whether such openness would inform the final synod recommendations remained to be seen.

In the meantime, we were treated to ongoing drama—leaks, feuds among cardinals, partisan public statements, Pope Francis himself asking “forgiveness in the name of the church for the scandals that have happened in this last period both in Rome and at the Vatican.”

U.S. Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Maureen Kelleher, co-founder of NETWORK and a non-voting auditor, gave us a view from within the proceedings. She recognized the strong bonds forged in the common education and formation of the prelates, and the pain they seemed to feel in dealing with thorny pastoral situations while fulfilling an obligation not to confuse the laity.

But she also felt keenly their condescension to her as a woman, and their limited approach to the matters under consideration. She got the feeling that they arrived with their views already packed up in a suitcase, there to supply whatever they might need.

Midway through the synod, Pope Francis laid out what God expects from the church of the third millennium. Francis will henceforth open the synod to priests and laity as well as bishops, all of whom are to speak freely, to engage in mutual listening and learning from each other and from the Spirit of Truth. Francis himself is embarked on a “conversion of the papacy,” that is open to the new without renouncing the essential.

This would be a sea change. If indeed we are all invited on the journey, we will need more than the prelates’ suitcase. We will need a great steamer trunk full of Scripture and tradition and doctrine, but also less-celebrated treasures. Let’s learn how to keep counsel together from Patricia Farrell, OSF, and her sisters in the United States, whose courage and clarity during their recent harassment by the Vatican was grounded in finely tuned processes for group decision-making. And listen to Benedictine Abbot Jeremias Schroder, who speaks of the need to encourage the weak while not disheartening the strong, taking care of the individual while maintaining the character of the community. Let’s follow our Jesuit pope in this momentous exercise of Ignatian discernment.

But perhaps most importantly, let’s fill that trunk with the experiences of all those living out their faith. Many have written of late about the need for our church leaders to recognize the messiness of family life. Living as I do in the context of a large and complicated family, and after forty years of marriage, I appreciate this plea for understanding. But it implies that there are other ways of life that are neat.

You simply can’t live a full life without engaging in its challenges and contradictions. Such engagement offers the opportunity for failure, for sin: that’s been made clear. But it also comes with grace, and a call towards holiness. We learn to follow Jesus’s way of compassion, to go and do likewise. We learn that rules do not change hearts, that no institution has all the answers. That the great sins are not about sex, but about power. That no matter what our son or wife or neighbor does, we persevere, loving them through. That love itself teaches.


CONSPIRATIO, OUR LIVING-ROOM synod, met the day after the final report was issued and Pope Francis closed the gathering in Rome. There was a quiet excitement among us. We have felt that Francis would be at home with us, that he understands how suppressing the great conversation among the faithful is eroding the church. And here he had just called for the voices of families to be heard in frank discussion.

Several of us confessed we had not expected ever to see the change Pope Francis is calling for—a change of heart, one far more deep and fundamental than changes in discipline or commonly held beliefs. Our chaplain saw the movement of the Spirit in the way the German bishops brought about consensus. The political realists cautioned that the dissension we’d witnessed in the synod would continue. We all wondered if Francis’s call for open exchange would include women and others with no official voice. Would it bring the official church’s understanding of sexuality into the twenty-first century? Or lead to more representative church governance? Can it accommodate a range of different cultural values and practices within a unified body of believers?

For all our questions, it was clear that however the synod’s final document’s language is parsed, however Pope Francis chooses to move ahead with its recommendations, tectonic shifts have occurred. We hope that a great conversation will commence at every level of the church, and that a well-formed conscience has been reaffirmed as essential to moral discernment.

Our reflections on the synod gathering cannot represent those of other church communities. I am sure the friends I met in Kenya through Catholic Relief Services or the Filipino family that cared for my parents in their later years will make their own distinctive contributions, as will the local Opus Dei parish.

I am reminded of a scene in Acts, when Jesus’s closest followers emerge from the house where they were gathered, filled with the Spirit. They are emboldened to preach the Good News, and they speak in different tongues, which nevertheless are understood by all. What does this mean, they wonder, as do I. Then Peter raises his voice and proclaims that our sons and daughters shall prophesy, our young men shall see visions, our old men shall dream dreams. I pray that we are so inspired, that we make of this moment a new beginning altogether.

Catherine Wolff is the editor of Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero (HarperOne, 2013).

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