Archbishop Aquila: My letter on ‘Synodal Way’ is a call to conversion, not division

Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver expounded on his recent open letter on the German bishops’ “Synodal Way,” in an interview with CNA Deutsch on Friday.

The German bishops’ “Synodal Path” began in 2019 and is ongoing, expected to conclude in February 2022. It includes bishops and lay people, and is meant to address four major topics: how power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

While the bishops initially said the process would conclude with a series of “binding” votes, the Vatican told the bishops their plans were “not ecclesiologically valid.”  

In his open letter dated May 13, Archbishop Aquila said that that the fundamental text produced by the first forum of the synod – on how power is exercised in the Church – revealed an “untenable” view of the Church. His open letter was a 15-page commentary on the synod text.

Below is Archbishop Aquila’s interview with CNA Deutsch:

CNA: Your Grace, your letter came as a great surprise to many people – especially here in Germany. Where does your great interest in the “Synodal Way “come from?
Archbishop Aquila: As the Holy Father’s postponement of the synod on synodality until 2023 to allow for a lengthier preparatory period makes clear, the question of synodality is a very important one for the Universal Church. The letter recognizes the value of synods in some of the questions raised. The concern is about how synodality is being implemented in Germany. There, it is used not only to address local, pastoral issues but to negotiate foundational doctrinal questions of universal import. 

The German Synodal Path, as many other bishops have recognized, affects the whole Church because it calls into question fundamental teachings about the nature and structure of the Church as instituted by Jesus. There is one faith, one Lord. “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Hb 13:8). 

Some readers may think this is out of line—that it’s about playing politics or point-scoring or being divisive. It’s understandable and inevitable for some people to react that way. But the letter is meant to serve what Vatican II calls every bishop to, “…as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, (he) is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church. For it is the duty of all bishops to promote and to safeguard the unity of faith and the discipline common to the whole Church” (Lumen Gentium 23). The letter is a call to all bishops to prayer and reflection seeking to exercise parrhesia, as Pope Francis has urged, out of love for Christ and his Church.

CNA: You yourself wrote: “Considering the sacred responsibility of bearing witness to the One who sent me, I write this letter out of love for Jesus Christ and for the universal Church, which is the Bride of Christ.” What exactly are you concerned about when you look at the “Synodal Way” in Germany?
Archbishop Aquila: Admittedly lengthy the letter addresses concerns in some detail. But the basic concern is fidelity to Jesus Christ and to his teaching. Jesus Christ must be our first love before anything, we are called to encounter him in the fullness of the Gospel. We are called to a biblical worldview that recognizes the Father’s love and mercy revealed in Jesus Christ. The Fundamental Text to which the letter responds suggests that synod participants are reacting to genuine pastoral problems, but in a way that is drawing them away from the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel, the reception of his teaching in the Church’s tradition, and the teaching of Vatican II. Pope Francis has expressed repeatedly his concern regarding this “Synodal Way” and he has called us to a greater coherence between our faith and our conduct.

CNA: In Germany, many Catholics have the impression that the “Synodal Way” serves a small group of paid committee Catholics who need to self-affirm within your bubble. How is this process perceived by Catholics in the U.S.?
Archbishop Aquila: The Synodal Path has been highly publicized and so American Catholics who pay attention to the Church’s affairs have naturally been interested in its activity. Everyone recognizes the importance of the Church in Germany—when Germany speaks the world listens.

It’s hard to generalize about American Catholics’ perceptions of the Synodal Path, which vary.

Quite a few are troubled or alarmed by the ideas they hear reported as coming from the Synodal Path. The letter is not about the behind-the-scenes dimensions of the process in Germany, about which most Americans know little, but about the content of the published Fundamental Text, which seems in places impossible to reconcile with the deposit of faith that bishops are to safeguard.

As the Holy Father wrote to the German bishops, it is necessary to “recover the primacy of evangelizing,” rather than pursuing unnecessary – and also damaging – changes in the teaching or in the structure of the Church” (Letter, June 29, 2019).

CNA: Do you fear that a similar process could be started in the U.S.?
Archbishop Aquila: It is hard to see anything quite like the German Synodal Path happening in the U.S. as there are a very different set of dynamics here. In any case, also here in the U.S. we are called to be attentive and prudent. I want to reaffirm fidelity to the Holy Father, and I am eager for the next couple of years of reflection on the meaning of authentic Catholic synodality. Prayer, the Gospel, the Cross, a biblical understanding of authority and power resting in Jesus and faithfulness to the Gospel must be at the heart of the discussion.

CNA: You also wrote: “Although the financial impact of the abuse scandals on the Church has been severe, this should not be the primary motivation for reform. To the extent that such consequences are just, they are not to be deplored, but should be received as from the hand of the just God.” Do you have the impression that money plays too big a role for the Church in Germany?
Archbishop Aquila: That line was not directed at Germany in particular but to every local Church that has been affected by scandal. It’s about responding to scandal with genuine humility, honesty, and repentance—seeking first the kingdom of God, the will of the Father, and remembering that we cannot serve two masters. The scandals came about for many reasons, but at the heart was a lack of the love of God and neighbor and an incoherent life of faith.

CNA: The Catholic Church is in a particularly serious crisis in Germany at the moment. Where do you see possibilities to face this crisis?
Archbishop Aquila: We just celebrated Pentecost, and Pope Francis has reminded us that the Holy Spirit can always bring renewal. Trust in Jesus, in his word, and remember your first love. Praying for renewal of the whole Church, including the Church in Germany, and of course here in the US. It’s God’s Church, not ours!

Pope Francis reminded us in his Angelus of March 22, 2015, “For this reason, to those who, today too, ‘wish to see Jesus’, to those who are searching for the face of God; to those who received catechesis when they were little and then developed it no further and perhaps have lost their faith; to so many who have not yet encountered Jesus personally…; to all these people we can offer three things: the Gospel, the Crucifix and the witness of our faith, poor but sincere.

The Gospel: there we can encounter Jesus, listen to Him, know Him. The Crucifix: the sign of the love of Jesus who gave Himself for us. And then a faith that is expressed in simple gestures of fraternal charity. But mainly in the coherence of life, between what we say and what we do. Coherence between our faith and our life, between our words and our actions: Gospel, Crucifix, Witness.” We would do well to heed the Holy Father’s words!

Featured photo by Daniel Petty

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash