Will the Synod Offer Clarity or Confusion?
Christ's 'welcome' message was 'Repent and believe the Gospel'
The recent Gospel about what two sons did with their father’s call to work in his vineyard seems fitting for the week we begin a “synod about synodality.” The Gospel is ultimately about sin and repentance. Both sons sin. One sins by refusing to work in the vineyard, although he later repents. One sins by saying he’d go to the vineyard but never follows through. Did he simply lie? Forget? Get distracted? The impression we receive is that he simply blows off his word.
That impression is reinforced by Jesus’ own commentary. He compares the sons’ responses to how He was received in Israel. The boy who refuses but then changes his mind, Jesus says, is like the tax collectors and prostitutes: they initially rebel against what God calls them to but, then, think better of it and change their minds. The boy who pays lip service to his father’s request but ultimately blows him off is like the Pharisees and scribes: they feign readiness to follow God but don’t follow through. Unlike the other brother, however, this one doesn’t change his mind.
The Gospel, therefore, is ultimately about repentance and conversion. Both brothers have something to change their minds about. Only one does.
Metanoia, the Greek word for conversion, literally means “to change one’s mind.” It literally means to think differently about and respond differently to things than one had previously. Only one brother does that. Only one is converted.
In the runup to the “Synod on Synodality,” I have repeatedly underscored the centrality of conversion. I’ve done that because the synodal process has been overlaid — I’d in fact say encumbered — by a preoccupation with “welcoming.” Is the Church welcoming this group or that group? Does this group feel “welcome?” How can the Church better “welcome” that group?
That entire discussion has always seemed jejune and callow, as if the Church has stumbled through 21 centuries of existence only to discover now that it needs a “welcome” message. The Church has a “welcome” message, given to it by its Savior: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! Repent and believe the Gospel!” (Mk 1:15).
That message might not pass muster with the Madison Avenue advertising crew, but until we decided to outsource our messaging to them, parishes didn’t need “mission statements,” either.
“Repent and believe the Gospel!” Two steps are there, repentance coming first. If repentance — metanoia — means “to change one’s mind,” then the Church’s welcome message to all groups is to think differently about your life: about what you consider right and wrong, good and evil, right and proper, your “identity.” Conversion means thinking differently not just about what you do but, above all else, about who you are, not from the perspective of your identity (whether or not you imagine it to be the identity God “intended” for you) but from the perspective of the Gospel’s, whose application to the diverse circumstances of life across the centuries is the Church’s job to judge. Metanoia is the invitation to leave your baggage behind along with the “old man” and to “put on Christ.” That’s a process you must undertake, because the old man is broken and needs healing.
So, the Church’s first welcome is “think differently,” not just at the level of ideas but of mindset and heart. Its further welcome is to “believe the Gospel.” But the content of the Gospel is not something separate from and even contrary to the Church’s Teaching, as if one looks at the Gospel and then critiques the Church. Rather, the Church proclaims the Gospel and unfolds its implications across time and space, which is the reason why the Church exists. So, “think differently” about life in light of what the Church is teaching you.
That perspective has been downplayed in some approaches to this Synod. Some of its protagonists have acted as if the Church must “welcome” people not by proclaiming what it has always proclaimed but by “adapting,” by calibrating its message to what the times and moderns want to hear. Others have postulated some divergence between the “Gospel” and the Church, as if the Church somehow has fallen off track and needs modernity to help it “find” the Gospel. Such approaches to the Synod are root and branch false.
If this Synod were to conclude with a full-throated reaffirmation of those priorities — a change of mind and heart in light of the demands of the Gospel as interpreted by Christ’s Church — it would be a grand success. What should not happen is a muddled, blurry, confused message that fails to reaffirm the Gospel while leaving the faithful in a fog about what that Gospel and Church teaches. Because — as should be especially appealing to this pontificate that constantly speaks of mercy — the spiritual acts of mercy include: Instructing the ignorant; Counseling the doubtful; and Admonishing the sinner.
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