What can I do to make Indian Church more synodal?”


By Astrid Lobo Gajiwala

Bengaluru, Jan 19, 2023: I was privileged to attend an international conference on “Towards a Synodal Church: Moving Forward” in Bengaluru.

The January 12-15 conference was organized by Bengaluru’s Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram (Pontifical Athenaeum) in collaboration with Chavara Central Secretariat in Kochi, Kerala.

I must admit I found the topic of this panel problematic and my spontaneous response was one word: “Nothing!” There is nothing I can do to make the Indian Church more synodal, simply because the structures of the Church do not permit synodality. 

Thanks to a hierarchy, which we are reminded constantly is divinely instituted, all decision-making and leadership in the Church is restricted to the clergy. As one who is non-ordained, and can never be ordained because of my gender, I therefore have no authority in the institutional Church. I can do nothing without the approval and cooperation of the clergy. I can only function within parameters defined by a clergyman, be he a parish priest, a bishop, or a Pope, and that, to my mind, is contrary to the spirit of journeying together as “co-responsible collaborators”. 

Synodal Process

This clericalized hierarchical structuring has resulted in a flawed synodal process. Avenues may have been opened for the faithful to share their joys and sorrows, but much like in our country today, dissent is not looked on kindly in the Church.
In 2021 for instance, some officials in the Roman Curia tried to clip the wings of the German bishops by suggesting to them that “the Synodal Path should not include discussion of settled doctrines, even secondary and derived ones, that have no claim to infallibility.” Fortunately, the German bishops withstood this curial pressure, and the result was a controversial document on the exercise of power in the Church, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality. It threatened to cause a schism in the Universal Church, but the dialogue in Germany continues. 

The “Suggestions for Dioceses and Episcopal Conferences on the preparation of the synthesis” issued by the Vatican, makes it clear that “The Bishops are responsible for the synodal process at the various levels (diocesan, national, etc.). Therefore, even with the necessary involvement of the drafting group, the Bishops exercise their responsibility to guide discernment by determining the modalities of elaboration, discussion and approval of the text.” In short, the bishops have the final word at every level, and “uncomfortable” voices are conveniently edited out. As expected, this has obstructed the synodal process. In Australia, reform groups have already expressed their dismay at the editing out of challenging and creative suggestions in their working document, “Continuing the Journey”. 

What perplexes me is the Vatican’s suggestion to circulate the draft for feedback “confidentially” to a few of those persons who participated in the synodal process. If the people who participated in the synodal process are supposed to be representative of the larger community, what is the need for secrecy? Would it not have been a true sign of synodality to make the draft public and invite comments from the faithful who could not be physically present because of logistic issues? In India, for those interested, reports are available of the Synods held by the Latin churches. My attempts to get the reports of the synods of the Syro-malabar and Syro-malankara churches however, hit a wall. I do not know if they exist.

\Given this background, one wonders which voices will finally be heard – those that preserve the status quo or those that challenge it?

Grassroots Synods

While I was not invited to participate in the diocesan or national synods organised by the clergy, I did participate in the discussions and multi-lingual survey of Catholic Women Speak, a coalition of Catholic women’s groups and networks from 104 countries. The survey elicited more than 17,000 responses, which were submitted to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops for inclusion in the Synod feedback. 

I also participated virtually in the workshops of the Root and Branch Inclusive Synod organised in Great Britain by two Church reform groups composed of women. It was called “a synod that starts with women but does not end there, and embodied the sensus fidei fidelium, essential for genuine synodality. All were invited, unlike in India where the participants of the diocesan synods were mainly those already at the centre of Church life, functioning within canonically sanctioned spaces. According to the CCBI synthesis, “many of those distanced from the Church could not be included”. 

Designing the Change

What has become clear to me over the past year is that the synodal church already exists outside canonical structures, and this is the Church I would like to build. Maria Mesrian , German theologian and activist engaged in Maria 2.0, a women’s grassroots initiative to transform the Church, puts it well, “Change is only possible if we design it ourselves. The Church is unable to do so because of its structures.” 

Making the Indian Church more synodal, for me therefore, means using my agency to move beyond the binary of the sacred and the secular, and discover Sophia at work in the everyday and in the struggles of the people.

This would mean joining hands with secular movements working for social and political change, while at the same time initiating and supporting the creation of new spaces for the baptised to be heard and supported, especially those who are not practicing or are excluded from the church or from ministry because they are unable to fulfil the exacting norms of being “Catholic”, like those who are in “irregular” interfaith marriages because either the pressure of the Church to baptise their children threatens their marriage, or they are unable to cope with the censure of the community; the divorced and remarried who yearn to receive the sacraments; unwed mothers who are censured by the community, and women who are crushed by the burden of an abortion; couples who are weighed down by the guilt of using contraceptives to plan their families; same sex couples and LGBTQI persons; women who want to be ordained.

Given the Church’s uncompromising theological stand on most of these concerns of its faithful, developing synodality within the institution is a challenge. However, women are managing to do it in creative ways. 

A small group of Indian Catholic women of whom I am a part, has decided not to wait for the hierarchy but to be the change we want to see. We have begun to redefine our church, expanding it beyond canonical walls, to make it more synodal. 

One of the fruits of the COVID pandemic was the realisation that networks were possible across geographic boundaries and outside structures controlled by clerics. Over the past 3 years we have formed WhatsApp groups where people in the pews are challenged to walk and talk together. New ways of being church that are inclusive, non-hierarchical and free from the dependence on clergy are being supported. We have been meeting virtually with unfailing regularity, conducting webinars, retreats and liturgical services that are rooted in life, and that encourage the inclusion of all. Inclusive language is the norm, and there are no restrictions on how we name and experience God. Together, we break bread, filling the void left by a gender discriminatory, androcentric, rule-driven Church. These spiritual encounters sensitise us to the vulnerabilities of common people, especially women, and energise us to serve the community. 

Action for Synodality

At an individual level I will continue to animate and support new ways of being church that are inclusive, non-hierarchical and free from the dependency on clergy. 

Since I strongly believe that clericalism, which Pope Francis denounces as a “scourge” that must be “decisively overcome”, is one of the biggest impediments to synodality, I will continue to speak out against it, and educate priests, women religious and the People of God, about its evils. I will use every opportunity to point out that kissing bishops’ rings and using titles like “Your Beatitude” “Your Excellency” and “Your Lordship”, are neither Christian nor synodal. It is ironical that while we propagate a synodality that is characterised by equality, we are unable to let go of the institutionalised hierarchies that mitigate against equality. 

I will do all I can to create spaces for women’s voices to be heard, through the written or spoken word. I will consistently affirm their presence and draw attention to their absence, so that I disturb the status quo and contribute towards making gender sensitivity a way of life in the church. 

I will continue to fight against the discrimination of women and speak up about the subtle misogyny practiced in the Church through the persistent use of sexist God-language and the exclusion of passages from the lectionary that showcase women’s decisive roles in Christian tradition. 

I will promote women’s leadership in the church including standing by women who want to be ordained to the priesthood or diaconate. And I will ask uncomfortable questions like: As we enlarge the space of our tent (Is 54:2) will we bring in the seven women from Germany, Austria, and the US who were ordained on the Danube in 2002 and promptly excommunicated by the Church? 

I will continue to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse and keep reminding the Indian bishops about the need to establish in all church institutions and dioceses, Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) as mandated under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act). 

I will continue to make visible the struggles of Catholics, particularly women, in interfaith marriages. These are a burning challenge in Asian Churches where Catholics are a tiny minority, but have been ignored by a predominantly western Church that is only now slowly awakening to this reality, because of migrant populations that are changing their demographies. I will raise my voice like I have been doing for decades, to get the Church to see these inter-faith and inter-cultural marriages as a “sign of the times” and that with the proper catechesis and accompaniment they can be inspirations for living the reality that Fratelli Tutti advocates, the “need to think of ourselves more and more as a single family dwelling in a common home” (No. 17).
In short, I will intensify my involvement in the “ministry of irritation” that women have started, to make people aware that there are women who recognize that to be synodal the church really needs change, and have already done some work on what those changes might be. 

I’d like to conclude with the words of Auckland’s Bishop Stephen Lowe who affirmed the Catholic women’s provocative public art protest called “Pink Shoes into the Vatican,” demanding equality of women in the church.

In a letter to them he referenced the New Testament’s account that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Jesus, and when she announced this to the disciples they didn’t believe her. “Perhaps this is a poignant reminder that the Twelve and their successors can get it very wrong,” he wrote. “May we have the courage not to get stuck in the structures that are not necessarily of God.” 

I add my prayer to his.

Pros & Cons of the Process of Synodality

Virginia Saldanha

1. The Synodal process has generated interest in the laity globally to come together to talk about structures in the Church. People have discovered that their aspirations resonate with the People of God worldwide.

2. IT and ZOOM have facilitated the conversations between the People of God.

3. The worldwide Corona lockdown also facilitated interest in people coming together virtually

to have these conversations. They also discovered ways to pray and worship as a global community of the People of God. People felt part of the global community of the People of God.

4. With Pope Francis calling for Bishops to Listen to every voice. People organized their own gatherings and listening sessions and gave their input into the Synod office. People began to put their voices out there, even though their bishops did not listen or include them. The Synod Office receiving inputs directly from people and organizations helped people to get their voices into the conversation. As a result the Document for the Continental Stage was a refreshingly hopeful document.

5. However, the continental stage has been disappointing because only the bishops are in charge and voices that they wanted left out were out. You cannot dismantle the Master’s house with the master’s tools!

6. In the whole process ultimately, it is the bishops who have all the power. At a gathering of about 350 women at a women’s day celebration last Sunday, I asked the women present, how many of them had heard about the Synodal process that was going on in the Church and only about 15 put up their hands. This speaks volumes of how the bishops have chosen to keep their people ignorant of this big event in the Church. So, we ask, have the bishops truly listened?

7. The continental stage has turned into a filtering out stage, where, only what the Bishops want will emerge.

8. The actual Synod which will have only one woman voting is sheer tokenism. Here more filtering out will take place. So, in the end it will end up being business as usual with just some cosmetic changes.

9. Most expect Pope Francis to use his sweeping powers as Pope to make sweeping changes. But being the man who practices what he preaches, he chooses to act synodaly. He wants to get all the bishops on board to make change. Sadly, the bishops have been nurtured in clericalism and they are not going to let it go. Their power is too intoxicating. They do not want change.

10. The only hope we have is to leave behind us the legacy of dialogue and solidarity among the People of God for the generations to come, to continue to speak prophetically. To make change from the bottom up. Pope Francis has described this as a Church of accidents, a field hospital. Maybe our future generations will be more successful in bringing about a Church we envision.