At the presentation of the Sixteenth General Congregation of the Synod, Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, offers a spiritual reflection on 'The seed germinates.'
General Congregations 16 – 23 October 2023
In a few days’ time, we shall go home for eleven months. This will apparently be a time of empty waiting. But it will probably be the most fertile time of the whole Synod, the time of germination. As Jesus said: ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, yet he does not know how’.
We have listened to hundreds of thousands of words during these last three weeks. Sometimes we have thought: ‘Too many words!’ Most of these words have been positive, words of hope and aspiration. These are words sown in the soil of the Church. They will be at work in our lives, in our imagination and our subconscious, during these eleven months. When the moment is right, they will bear fruit.
The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry,
He can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly
‘Transmuted into summer’. The earth bestows.
Although nothing may appear to be happening, we can be confident that if our words are loving they will bud, flower in the lives of people who we do not know. As St Therese of Lisieux said, quoted recently by the Holy Father: “C’est la confiance et rien que la confiance qui doit nous conduire à l’Amour”. “It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to Love”.
These eleven months will be like a pregnancy. Abraham and Sarah are promised they will have descendants more numerous than the sand on the seashore. But nothing appears to happen. Sarah laughs when she hears this promise the third or fourth time, as she listens hidden in the tent to the strangers in Genesis 18. Probably a bitter-sweet laugh. She has heard it all before, and she remains barren. But in a year’s time she will bear a child of laughter.
So we, my sisters, and my brothers, we are pregnant with a new life. If you will forgive me, this reminds me of the first time I ever tried to make a speech in Spanish, in Latin America. A bishop got confused – which is very rare. He thought I was an Irish Franciscan instead of an English Dominican. I explained, he blushed, and I said, ‘El obispo esta embarrazado’. I meant to say ‘the bishop is embarrassed’. Unfortunately, it meant: ‘The bishop is pregnant.’
This is a time of active waiting. Let me repeat the words of Simone Weil I quoted during the retreat. ‘We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them…This way of waiting, looking is, in the first place, attentive. The soul empties itself of its own contents in order to receive the human being it is looking at, just as he or she is, in all their truth.'
This is profoundly countercultural. The global culture of our time is often polarised, aggressive, dismissive of other people’s views. The cry is: On whose side are you? When we go home, people will ask, ‘Did you fight for our side? Did you oppose those unenlightened other people?’ We shall need to be profoundly prayerful to resist the temptation to succumb to a party-political way of thinking. That would be to fall back into the sterile, barren language of much of our conflictual society. It is not the synodal way. The synodal process is organic and ecological rather than competitive. It is more like planting a tree than winning a battle. Sometimes battles are unavoidable. Think of Saint Athanasius. But as such it will be hard for many to understand what we are doing, sometimes including ourselves!
But if we keep our minds and our hearts open to the people whom we have met here, vulnerable to their hopes and fears, their words will germinate in our lives, and ours in theirs. And there will be an abundant harvest, a fuller truth, the Church will be renewed.
Humanity’s first vocation in Paradise was to be gardeners. Adam tended creation, speaking God’s creative words, naming the animals. We shall have some gardening to do in these eleven months, my brothers and sisters to nurture the tender plant that is the Synod. Will we speak fertile, hope-filled words, or words that are destructive and cynical? Will our words nurture the crop or be poisonous? Will we be the gardeners of the future or trapped in old sterile conflicts? We each choose.
St Paul said to the Ephesians: ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear’ (4.9).
Synod: Spiritual reflection by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe at 12th General Congregation
At the presentation of the Twelfth General Congregation of the Synod, Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, offers a spiritual reflection on 'The Council of Jerusalem.'
General Congregations 12 – 18 October 2023 Spiritual Inputs: Council of Jerusalem: Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP So: ‘Participation, government and authority: What processes, structures and institutions are needed in a missionary synodal Church?’ Luke, whose feast we celebrate today, tells us in Acts 15 about the so-called Council of Jerusalem called to face the first great crisis of the Church after Pentecost. The Church is profoundly fractured. First, between the Jerusalem Church and Paul, with his gospel of freedom from the law; Within the Jerusalem Church the convert Pharisees are divided from the rest, and the apostles led by Peter are probably divided from the ‘elders’ who looked to James, the brother of the Lord. So the Church faced a crisis of identity which exceeds anything we can imagine today. Pope Francis said at Lisbon this summer, ‘a life without crisis is an aseptic life… a life without crisis is like stagnant water, it’s not good for anything, it doesn’t taste of anything.’ We mature through crises, from the crisis of our birth to the crisis of death. If we embrace crises in hope, we shall flourish. If we try to avoid them, we never grow up. My American brethren gave me a T-shirt which said, ‘Have a good crisis!’ We read that: ‘the apostles and the elders gathered together to consider this matter’ (Acts 15.6) The Church is always being gathered, as we are today in Synod. In the Third Eucharistic prayer, we say, ‘You never cease to gather a people to yourself so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a perfect sacrifice may be offered to your name.’ The Greek word for the Church, ekklesia, means ‘gathering’. Are we willing to be gathered together, not just physically, but our hearts and minds too? Gazing at Jerusalem before his death, Jesus said, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, but you were not willing.’ (Luke 13.24). Are we willing to be drawn beyond mutual incomprehension and suspicion? Or shall we be like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son who stands on the edge, refusing to be gathered into the joy of his brother’s return? The disciples gathered in Jerusalem so as to be sent out to Antioch and the whole world. We are gathered in the Eucharist so as to be sent out. This is the breathing of the Holy Spirit in our lungs, gathering us in and sending us out, oxygenating the life blood of the Church. #we are gathered in to discover peace with each other and sent out to proclaim it to our poor world, crucified by ever more violence, in Ukraine, the Holy Land, Myanmar, Sudan, and so many other places. How can we be a sign of peace if we are divided among ourselves? The Council of Jerusalem gathered ‘in the name of Jesus’, as we are too. In the Synod we pray every day: ‘We stand before you, Holy Spirit, as we gather in your name.’ To be gathered in the name of the Lord means in the sure confidence that God’s grace is powerfully at work within us. Peter said to the lame man by the Temple gate: ‘I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, [rise and] walk." (Acts 3.6). Often people have told me: ‘This Synod will not change anything.’ Some with hope and some with fear. That is a lack of faith in the name of the Lord, ‘the name which is above every name’ (Philippians 2.9). An ancient hymn begins ‘I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity.’ If we are gathered in the strong name of the Trinity, the Church will be renewed, though maybe in ways that are not immediately obvious. This is not optimism but our Apostolic faith. My first great teacher was a Sri Lankan Dominican, Cornelius Ernst. He wrote of the power of God’s grace to make new. I quote: ’It is dawn, discovery, spring, new birth, coming to the light, awakening, transcendence, liberation, ecstasy, bridal consent, gift, forgiveness, reconciliation, revolution, faith, hope, love…. it is the power to transform and renew all things: “Behold I make all things new” (Apoc. 21.5)’ The Church is always new, like God, the Ancient of Days and the new born child. The disciples gathered because they saw that God was already doing something new. God had gone before them. They had to catch up with the Holy Spirit. Peter proclaims that ‘God, who knows the human heart, testified to [the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us,’ (Acts 15. 8). This was surely hardest for St James, the brother of the Lord, to accept. His identity was founded in a blood relationship with the Lord. It is marvellous that he is the one who proclaims this new identity. ‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.’ What courage and faith it must have taken to say ‘us’, an identity which gathers in all of the divided Church. He still calls Peter by his old family name, ‘Symeon.’ He is awakening only slowly to this new identity, a Church of Jews and Gentiles. It took time as it does for us. During the civil war in Burundi, I toured the country with two of my brothers, a Hutu and a Tutsi. At night the three of us celebrated the Eucharist together. One Englishman and two Africans, a Hutu and a Tutsi: A new sense of ‘we’. We received in it the Eucharist before we grasped it in our minds and hearts. Today our God is already bringing into existence a Church which is no longer primarily Western: a Church which is Eastern Catholic, and Asian and African and Latin American. It is a Church in which already women are assuming responsibility and are renewing our theology and spirituality. Already young people all over the world, as we saw at Lisbon, are taking us in new directions, into the Digital Continent. In the Preface for Holy Men and Women, we thank God because ‘you renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness’. They are already among us. We rightly ask: What shall we do? An even more fundamental question is: What is God doing? Do we accept God’s gracious newness? Can you believe it, some Dominicans even opposed St Ignatius of Loyala! Nostra culpa. Fascinatingly, James can only understand the new as a rebuilding of the old. He quotes Amos: ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.’ The new is always an unexpected renewal of the old. This is why any opposition between tradition and progress is utterly alien to Catholicism. Now we shall consider what new processes, institutions and structures are needed. These will not be solutions to management problems but fuller expressions of who we are. The history of the Church is of endless institutional creativity. After Christianity became a recognised religion of the Roman Empire, new forms of Christian life emerged in the desert fathers and mothers, to counterbalance the new dangers of wealth. In the thirteenth century, new Universities emerged to sustain a new vision of what it is to be human. During the Industrial Revolution, hundreds of news forms of religious life sprang into being, to express who we are as brothers and sisters of the new urban poor. What institutions do we need to express who we are as men and women of peace in an age of violence, inhabitants of the Digital Continent? Every baptised person is a prophet. How do we recognise and embrace the role of prophecy in the Church today? What about the prophetic voice of women, still often seen as ‘guests in their own house’? Finally, the Council of Jerusalem lifted unnecessary burdens from the Gentiles. ‘For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things’(verse 28). They are freed from an identity given by the old Law. How shall we lift burdens from the weary shoulders of our brothers and sisters today who often feel ill at ease in the Church? It will not be through anything as dramatic as abolishing the Law. Nor will it be through such a fundamental shift in our identity as the admission of the Gentiles. But we are called to embrace a deeper sense of who we are as the improbable friends of the Lord, whose scandalous friendship reaches across every boundary. Many of us wept when we heard of that young woman who committed suicide because she was bisexual and did not feel welcomed. I hope it changed us. The Holy Father reminded us that all are welcomed: todos, todos, todos. A man was lost in Ireland. He asked a farmer, ‘How do I get to Dublin?’ The farmer replied, ‘If I wanted to go to Dublin, I would not start here.’ But wherever people are, that is where the journey home starts, the home of the Church and the home of the Kingdom. It takes a Dominican to explain that a Jesuit pope Francis, the Jesuit pope, chose a Dominican, Timothy Radcliffe, to set the tone for his Synod on Synodality, which has been under attack by reactionaries in the church. The Rev. Timothy Radcliffe speaks during a pre-assembly retreat for members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Those familiar with Catholic Church history know that through the centuries there have been many disputes between Jesuits and Dominicans, two of the largest religious orders in the church. On the other hand, when the Jesuits are in real trouble, they know they can turn to the Dominicans for help. Thus, when the Jesuit superior general Lorenzo Ricci died in Castel Sant’Angelo in 1775 after being imprisoned by Pope Clement XIII, it was the master of the Order of Preachers who was willing to preside at his funeral when no one else in Rome wanted anything to do with the Jesuits. Dominican masters have presided at the funerals of Jesuit generals ever since. As a result, it was fitting that Francis, the Jesuit pope, chose a Dominican, Timothy Radcliffe, to set the tone for his Synod on Synodality, which has been under attack by reactionaries in the church. Before the participants gathered in the Vatican for the synod, they took time for a three-day retreat led by the Dominican preacher, who in a series of six talks laid out a spiritual and theological vision for the synod. Radcliffe did not beat around the bush but in his first talk acknowledged the divisions in the church. “We are gathered here because we are not united in heart and mind,” he said. “The vast majority of people who have taken part in the synodal process have been surprised by joy. For many, it is the first time that the Church has invited them to speak of their faith and hope. But some of us are afraid of this journey and of what lies ahead. Some hope that the Church will be dramatically changed, that we shall take radical decisions, for example about the role of women in the Church. Others are afraid of exactly these same changes and fear that they will only lead to division, even schism.” He noted that even the disciples of Jesus misunderstood each other and quarreled. “Do not be afraid,” he said, quoting St. John. “Perfect love casts out fear.” At the same time, he urged those at the retreat to “always be sensitive to the fears of others, especially those with whom we disagree.” “We may be divided by different hopes,” he acknowledged. “But if we listen to the Lord and to each other, seeking to understand his will for the Church and the world, we shall be united in a hope that transcends our disagreements.” In his second talk, Radcliffe spoke about the church as home but admitted, “different understandings of the Church as home tear us apart today.” “For some, it is defined by its ancient traditions and devotions, its inherited structures and language, the Church we have grown up with and love. It gives us a clear Christian identity. For others, the present Church does not seem to be a safe home. It is experienced as exclusive, marginalizing many people: women, the divorced and remarried. For some it is too Western, too Eurocentric.” He said that gay people and people in polygamous marriages “long for a renewed Church in which they will feel fully at home, recognized, affirmed and safe.” He ended his second meditation by quoting Carlo Carretto (1910–1988), a Little Brother of Charles de Foucauld: “How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you! You have made me suffer more than anyone, and yet I owe more to you than to anyone. I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal, and yet you alone have made me understand your holiness. … Countless times, I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face — and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms! No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you. Then too — where would I go? To build another church? But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects.” Granted the problems and divisions facing the church, what will a successful synod look like? “This Synod will be fruitful if it leads us into a deeper friendship with the Lord and with each other,” asserted Radcliffe. He acknowledged that this is a hard sale. “The foundation of all that we shall do in this Synod should be the friendships we create. It does not look like much. It will not make headlines in the media. ‘They came all th e way to Rome to make friendships! What a waste!’” These friendships are formed by being “truthful about our doubts and questions with each other, the questions to which we have no clear answers,” he continued. Radcliffe quoted Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, a Spanish Catholic priest who shared his doubts with a communist mayor. The priest says: “It is odd how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only with himself.” “Friendship flourishes when we dare to share our doubts and seek the truth together,” concluded Radcliffe. But to do this, we must listen. Listening and conversation in the Spirit are central to the synodal process. Radcliffe noted that the religious orders have something to teach the church about the art of conversation. “St Benedict teaches us to seek consensus; St Dominic to love debate, St Catherine of Siena to delight in conversation, and St Ignatius of Loyola, the art of discernment. St Philip Neri, the role of laughter.” “Conversation needs an imaginative leap into the experience of the other person,” explained Radcliffe. “To see with their eyes, and hear with their ears. We need to get inside their skin. From what experiences do their words spring? What pain or hope do they carry? What journey are they on?” This conversation leads to understanding, respect and love. Radcliffe countered those who see conversation as a threat to authority. “Authority is multiple and mutually enhancing,” he asserted. “There need be no competition, as if the laity can only have more authority if the bishops have less.” He told the retreatants that authority comes from beauty, goodness and truth. But “Without truth, beauty can be vacuous,” he said. “Without goodness, beauty can deceive. Goodness without truth collapses into sentimentality. Truth without goodness leads to the Inquisition.” A prophet, he asserted, must have a love of truth but also compassion for those for whom that truth is eclipsed. Finally, Radcliffe noted that “Our society is filled with burning rage,” which springs from fear. But we need not be afraid because the Lord promised, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” But Radcliffe is not naïve. He recognizes the problems in the church (sex abuse and corruption) and in the world. “We are careening toward an ecological catastrophe but our political leaders mostly pretend that nothing is happening,” he reported. “Our world is crucified by poverty and violence, but the wealthy countries do not want to see the millions of our brothers and sisters who suffer and look for a home.” Being afraid leads to a fear of losing control, “which is why the Synod is feared by many,” said Radcliffe. But “being led by the Spirit into all truth means letting go of the present, trusting that the Spirit will beget new institutions, new forms of Christian living, new ministries.” Like a mother bird, he said, “The Holy Spirit sometimes kicks us out of the nest and bids us fly! We flap in panic, but fly we will!” Radcliffe concluded: “If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit of truth, we shall doubtless argue. It will sometimes be painful. There will be truths we would rather not face. But we shall be led a little deeper into the mystery of divine love and we shall know such joy that people will be envious of us for being here, and will long to attend the next session of the Synod!” Radcliffe the Dominican did very well explaining Francis the Jesuit.
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