In his book “Mass Exodus,” Dr. Stephen Bullivant referred to “disaffiliated” Catholics as those who have made an active choice not to participate in a community of worship. It differed from forfeiture in that it was positive and intentional. In this, at least, he shared this sense of intentionality with Sherry Weddell’s analysis of discipleship.
Clerical sexual abuse, Church teachings on certain issues, and the role of women in public ministry have all played their part in declining Mass attendance, in particular, and parish community participation. in general. As a demographic group, disaffiliates are difficult to engage—their reasons, attitudes toward the Church, and ability to engage vary widely.
Pope Francis’ call for synodality is significant as much for its timing as for its intent. As the world emerges from a pandemic, it is right that we address the key questions of what the Church is for, how it should engage, and how these changes could transform its sense of being Church.
These are important questions, not just for practicing Catholics, but for those who have drifted away over the past four or five decades. The themes of the Synod – Communion, Participation and Mission speak eloquently of the need to reimagine our sense of being a community of faith, our ability to collaborate with others and to reach out to those who feel excluded.
By definition, the synodal process is inextricably linked to the need to share the message of the Gospel, to live it in our communities and to welcome everyone there. Synodality is not only a better way of governing the Church, but an essential element of evangelization. Having witnessed the serious decline in participation over the past forty years, the Catholic Church in England and Wales has the opportunity to listen, to listen carefully and with some humility to the experience of disaffiliated .
If the Church is to regain the trust and commitment of these people, it needs to hear and respond. Listening involves active engagement in action; it implies an ability to be reactive. And here is the problem. Synodality is not the way the Church has operated in the recent past. Of course, there have been synods of bishops since Pope Paul VI, but no synod involving the views of all lay people.
It’s new territory. This is not how lay people are used to getting involved. There will be suspicions and doubts about the value of the process. Many disaffiliated will be skeptical, yet it is their voices that need to be heard most clearly, it is their opinions that bishops should be most eager to hear. Most of the synodal activity in England and Wales will be centered on the parishes.
Diocesan contacts will have been encouraged to recruit members to spread the synod’s message and engage in prayerful discussions within parishes. Most of those who respond to this invitation will be, in both senses of the word, devotees. The Church will engage in dialogue with its most committed members. There is nothing wrong with that. This situation is perfectly acceptable. To a point.
We need a mechanism, a process to listen to those who are often ignored; the silent majority who have chosen not to be part of the community. We must build a relationship of trust with at least some of those who have not found the possibility of staying. We need every diocese to ensure that voices from the margins are heard. At the end of 2021, ACTA members, the executive of the National Justice and Peace Network and the core team of Root and Branch committed to collaborate in the synodal process.
They agreed to encourage the participation of their members and to ensure that there are opportunities to listen to the voices of the periphery. Pope Francis referred, in a speech at the start of his pontificate, to the Church as a field hospital. The qualities of a field hospital are an ability to respond to an urgent need, to be immediately reactive, to treat people as they are, and not as described in a medical textbook.
Our Church of the future must have these characteristics. And, just as important, people need to see the Church as such. Field hospitals are temporary. They are installed where the needs are greatest. They are made up of people who recognize the need for flexibility, compassion and listening. They bring the remedy to the most pressing need. Each diocese should think seriously about how to encourage the participation of disaffiliated people. Their 10-page report to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales should reflect efforts to engage with those whose views might be most critical but whose ideas have not only been heard but heeded.
Frank Callus is Chairman of the Board of ACTA – A Call to Action.