Pitching Tents for No One

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Lent
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A pastor meets with parish leaders in Philadelphia as part of the synod on synodality, January 26, 2022 (CNS photo/Gina Christian, CatholicPhilly.com).

One of the most frustrating things about serving on consultative bodies in the Catholic Church is the way they often don’t do the very thing they’ve been entrusted with: the job of providing observations, critiques, and recommendations to their bishop or pastor. I’ve seen the same dynamic play out repeatedly in my twelve years of serving. A pastoral matter or other concern is raised; the bishop or pastor presents some initial thoughts or observations, and then turns it over to the consultative body to discuss. Here is where things often go south: instead of offering an informed opinion on the matter, one person comes up with a ministry or event idea instead. Others pick up on that person’s excitement, and by the end of the discussion the consultative body has never really “consulted” on anything. Rather, it just assumes the role of an organizing committee for a special project—a special project that typically does nothing to address what may in fact be a serious or chronic ailment.

Sometimes the conversation goes in this direction not because of the membership itself, but because the bishop or pastor specifically asks for ministerial work, and not consultation. He then might allow the ministerial to proceed, perhaps because he doesn’t understand what a consultative body actually does. Or, he does understand—but doesn’t trust in the group’s ability to consult or simply doesn’t want a consultative body in the first place, and is only playing along for the sake of appearances. Even then the bishop or pastor has an opportunity to salvage the discussion by taking the idea for the ministerial or event to the respective diocesan office or parish director for development. But more often than not, this doesn’t occur. The special project thus consumes the rest of the consultative year, with every meeting devoted to a report on the work being done.

Consultative bodies are one of the only ways that lay people have to debate and speak extensively on important issues facing the Church and society.

This dynamic is especially unfortunate because consultative bodies are one of the only ways that lay people have to debate and speak extensively on important issues facing the Church and society. They are one of the few spaces in which a bishop or pastor can sit with members from the church community and listen to what they have to say, to hear about matters that can shape the decisions he makes in his diocese or parish. Not to take the role and responsibilities of pastoral consultative bodies seriously is just another instance of clericalism. I remember one meeting at which the clergy member clearly didn’t like a recommendation being proposed. He responded angrily, belittling the person who’d spoken. It was so abrasive and alarming that the group’s members were cowed into near silence for the rest of the meeting, too nervous to speak openly and honestly for fear of incurring his anger again. It was nothing short of an affront to the Holy Spirit and a depressing display of pride rooted in others’ fear. 

Consultative bodies are intended to engage in communal discernment, and that communal effort includes the bishop and pastors. For the relationship to function there must be a shared sense of hope in the process, and trust in the people who take part and the Spirit that guides them. Unfortunately, of course, the U.S. Church is suffering from a shortage of hope and trust. And so it’s sadly unsurprising that at the onset of the synod on synodality process I hear people say, “Does it really matter what I think?” or ask, suspiciously, “Who really decides what goes in the reports?” Our first step in the synodal process is to acknowledge that the relationship between the institutional Church and the people is broken.

On this second Sunday of Lent, we hear the witness of the Transfiguration, and we find Peter, sure of himself and his understanding of what is happening before him. 

“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (Luke 9: 33-35).

If the institutional Church takes seriously the call to synodality, then its clergy must be willing to enter the cloud of humility before God and consider the Spirit that moves its people. Within our collection of voices, we hear the voice of God prompting our way forward. Within our collection of voices, there is God’s revelation. If bishops and pastors don’t listen authentically and respectfully, they may find themselves pitching tents for no one. 

This is the second in a series of reflections for each Sunday of Lent. You can read the others here.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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