Being and Building the Body of Christ: The Synod

By Cardinal Roger M. Mahony
The Tidings [Los Angeles CA]
Downloaded February 21, 2003

My Sisters and Brothers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles:

No one needs to be reminded that these are difficult, painful, and challenging times for the Church of Los Angeles - and for the entire Catholic Church in the United States.

I know that some, perhaps many, of the faithful of our Archdiocese are disheartened and even angry. Unprecedented scandals regarding priests involved in sexual misconduct and abuse, seemingly unfathomable decisions on the part of Bishops and Church leaders, and a host of related issues that beg for attention and action have discouraged many of you, my sisters and brothers.

While we remain one Body in Christ, there are tensions among us that are real; there are wounds that are deep. Because of these tensions and wounds, some members of the Church of Los Angeles, no doubt, view the approaching Synod with a certain skepticism, even with cynicism. Some have judged that I have already set the agenda for the Synod and am directing both the process and its results. While this is not the truth, I nonetheless believe that I understand such attitudes and feelings.

Over the past year, all of us in the Church have been challenged to face the human condition, our human limitations, and the limitations of the Church itself. Perhaps this is the grace that has been offered amidst the unprecedented distress of the past year. We know now, perhaps more clearly than ever before, of our ability to wound rather than heal, to criticize rather than encourage, to be defensive rather than open to authentic listening and true communication, to divide rather than unite.

With faith and in hope we have continued with our listening sessions and Regional Synod Assemblies throughout the past year. This has been a bold step on our part. Many have judged it silly and frivolous to engage in this process at a time of crisis. But we have sensed all along that these difficult, painful times are nonetheless rich with promise. Our most pressing challenge, I propose, is to actualize our God-given potential to be and to build the Body of Christ, the Church, at this particular moment in our history. It is this challenge that prompts me to write to you, the people, priests, and religious of the Archdiocese, first as your brother Christian as well as your Archbishop.

Unless we understand more clearly what it means to be equal members of the Church, to respect our common dignity as disciples of Jesus the Christ through our one Baptism, we will resist the Spirit's call to move beyond our personal concerns and personal pain and to address the urgent challenges that confront us today. Without such understanding, without a mutual respect for our common mission as disciples of Jesus Christ through the gift of the Spirit, the promise of a renewed and vibrant Church will lie fallow.

After considerable reflection and prayer, let me tell you what I believe is necessary for us to be more fully the one Body of Christ here and now. What I am about to say is said with an awareness of our shared love for the Church of Los Angeles and of our common commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In spite of some painful differences and real tensions we are, nonetheless, one people, a communion of faith grounded in God's abiding goodness and in the mercy revealed in Jesus Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

We are a people of enduring hope, even and especially when circumstances lead some to judge our confidence in the future to be absurd.

And we are a people struggling, with God's grace, to love, even our enemies, and especially those who have betrayed us - just as Jesus did. We do not need to be reminded over and over again that our faith, hope, and love have fallen short of the mark. We know well our limitations. This realization calls us to put forth our very best efforts to be and build the Body of Christ, even if we do not manage to do so perfectly.

It is clear to me, your brother in Christ, that God's Spirit is calling us to a new spirit of mutual trust and candor if we are to move ahead into this new century, so clearly a time both of danger and of great promise - with wisdom, courage, integrity and commitment.

Especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has acknowledged that the wisdom of God is to be discovered in the hearts, the lives, of ordinary faithful people, the people who are God's own: the People of God, the Body of Christ. We believe this, we teach this, but I am not sure that we have always acted on this belief.

We Church leaders, for example, have not always listened carefully enough to the experience of parishioners struggling to lead lives of faith in a violent, competitive, and materialistic society; to parents struggling to raise children in a culture that trivializes the importance of education and shows little respect for human life; to youth and young adults for whom the truths of our faith raise more questions than they answer; to our own priests and religious whose pastoral experience deserves to be taken far more seriously.

Being and building the Body of Christ requires that we respect one another because of our equality rooted in the one Baptism. It demands that we take each other with utmost seriousness, that we deepen the honesty and openness of our conversations about our ongoing struggles to live the Gospel here and now. The Church itself - member for member - is to be a "holy communion."

And where there is communion in Christ there should be a corresponding "holy communication." By this I mean that we need to have a profound respect, indeed reverence, for one another, to really trust each other -especially when we speak and listen, when we challenge and affirm, when we bring our insights rooted in our pastoral experience to the various assemblies of our Local Church. Without such reverence and trust, without real openness and honesty, our Synod will be a big disappointment.

Recalling that the Synod is principally an opportunity for prayer, dialogue, discernment and decision, let us take stock of several crucial factors as we approach the vitally important synodal events in the year 2003, seeking to more effectively be and build the Body of Christ.


Brothers and sisters, in our listening sessions and in our speak-up sessions you have spoken openly of your concerns and anxieties, your needs and fears, your gifts and strengths, your hopes and dreams. Through this process, you have come to a better knowledge of how other Catholics throughout the whole Archdiocese feel about the present state our Local Church and about its future.

Of course, whenever we speak from our hearts, we become vulnerable. Some will misunderstand our efforts to be faithful to the Gospel. Others will misjudge us - criticizing us for what they consider to be disloyalty to the institution of the Church. Still others will dismiss what we say because it appears to threaten their spiritual security, their sense of Church.

In spite of the risks, we stand at a juncture in our history that requires both honest and humble speech, and open, respectful listening as we help chart our future together, as we develop our pastoral priorities and to establish new structures of participation, accountability, and governance in our Archdiocese. This kind of communication, we all know, requires considerable energy and demands plenty of courage.

No doubt there is some disillusionment, some discouragement in our Local Church from Catholics who have tried to speak honestly and openly in the past and who believe they have not been listened to carefully or taken seriously. I urge one and all to not lose heart. I invite you to gather the courage to speak again in trust, to listen again in hope, and to have the confidence that your voice will be heard.

Here it is crucial to recognize that not all that we would like to do for the good of the Church is possible at this time. Several crucial questions that have been raised, such as the admission of women to holy orders, or the possibility of restoring to active ministry those priests who have married, or dispensing with the discipline of clerical celibacy. While I believe that these are important issues facing the Church today, they cannot be resolved at the level of the Local Church.

However, we do have some problems and challenges that can be discussed honestly and resolved at the level of the Local Church. We need to explore the new possibilities for serving the Gospel at the local level, even as we work for constructive change at the level of the wider, universal Church.

Moreover, some of you may believe that you know what your Archbishop wants to hear and what he does not want to hear. And some of you believe that you know what your pastor wants to hear and what he does not want to hear. Wherever such convictions hold sway, only the courageous heart dares to speak.

Deference is, when all is said and done, a disservice to the health and vitality of the Church. We have had this kind of deferential mentality in many quarters of the Church for far too long. It often creates a false tranquility and leads to an equally false sense of unity. Wherever blocks to authentic communication exist, whether in personal conversations or in Parish Assemblies or in the processes of the Archdiocesan Synod, the very life of the Church, as well as the integrity of its members, is compromised.

I urge you, therefore, to speak to me, to your pastor, and to each other honestly, openly, and without fear. Anything less is simply not in keeping with our Christian dignity. And anything less will subvert the final phases of the Archdiocesan Synod.


If we take human experience seriously, we will find traces of God's presence and the very wisdom of God's Spirit in the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures of our lives. The present moment, then, is not only a time for honest and courageous speech. It is also a time for open and respectful listening.

As your chief pastor and teacher, I may not always have taken your experiences of the Christian life as seriously as I should have. No doubt, some of your pastors may have failed to take your experience as disciples of Christ as seriously as they should have. Indeed, we ministers and teachers in the Church have not always taken our own pastoral experience seriously enough in responding to the growing and ever-changing needs of our people. We may have been too quick to respond to pressing contemporary questions with well-worn, but no longer satisfactory, answers.

Parishioners, too, may not have listened carefully enough to the sometimes disturbing stories of faith and doubt, of hope and disappointment that fellow parishioners and pastoral ministers have shared. Where this has been, true, we beg the forgiveness of one another and count on the mercy of God who, every day, gives us an opportunity to begin again. And again.

In the next phases of the Synod process in the months ahead, a new kind of listening will be required, not merely desirable. At the heart of this listening is a profound respect for the one who speaks as well as the humble conviction that each of us can learn from each other, that each of us may be an instrument of God's Spirit. We will be creating together new structures of participation, accountability and governance across the Archdiocese, so that we can more effectively achieve the pastoral priorities now emerging from your input in the synodal processes.

The necessary testing and sifting of what we hear, through continual prayerful discernment leading to clear and theologically sound pastoral decisions, is of critical importance. But before arriving at such decisions we must first listen respectfully and patiently to the concerns and anxieties, the hopes and dreams of our sisters and brothers in faith, with hope, through love.


Some, if not many of you, are wary of words. At times I, too, am wary of words. But words have the power to bring about change. We need, however, fresh words, holy words precisely at this time of challenge and promise. We need to hear words spoken courageously and humbly from the heart. We need to hear words that have been given shape in quiet prayer and reflection. We need to hear words that are spoken without arrogance and with a degree of modesty, with a measure of tentativeness.

No one of us has the definitive answer. Our words, after all, may be off the mark or may not be in harmony with the Gospel. Words which harmonize with the language and the logic the Gospel will lift our spirits and help us give shape to a new vision for our Local Church. Together we will recognize these honest and holy words. And the assembly of God's people will say "Amen!"

Fresh, honest, and inspired words need to fall upon open, trusting ears. As with our spoken words, our listening needs to be rooted in quiet prayer and a genuine openness to the experiences and vision of those who speak to us. Words that have been spoken over and over again may suddenly be heard as if for the first time, ringing with a truth we have long missed. If we listen from our hearts as well as with our heads, I am convinced we will come to see a new horizon, a new direction along the path God invites us to follow.


The final phases of the Synod will be upon us in a relatively short time. How we prepare for the Synod, spiritually and practically, is of vital importance. If we do not engage in these final phases in a spirit of prayer, dialogue, discernment and decision, we may give in to discouragement, and the whole Local Church will suffer as a result.

In embarking on the Synodal processes we have undertaken a noble task worthy of our best efforts. Discouragement will only undermine the good will and faithful commitment that has been so evident in the work already accomplished in anticipation of the Synod. May our faith in Christ and our trust in the fundamental goodness of one another cast out all discouragement from our hearts.

Brothers and sisters, we have nothing to fear. Christ has promised us the wisdom and strength of the Spirit until the very end. This is the hope to which we cling. This is our firm conviction.

As we speak candidly to each other and listen without prejudice to each other in the months ahead, we must invoke the Holy Spirit dwelling in the heart of each one. Without the most basic listening and speaking at the heart of prayer, what we say to each other, and hear from the mouths of one another, will divide rather than unite us.

Let us together seize this time of promise and expectation. Yes, there are great risks with the kind of openness and trust I am calling for here. But there are much greater risks in carrying on as usual because of lack of courage, lethargy or lack of interest. I urge you, therefore, to prayerfully reflect upon your experience as a member of the Body of Christ in this Local Church of Los Angeles. Let us together listen lovingly to our sisters and brothers, then courageously and humbly speak the truth in love for the love of Christ in his Church.

Will you trust together with me - without blinking - in the presence and the power of the Spirit of Christ, the Love given to each one of us for the life of the world?


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