A Reflection on Oct.17 Papal Speech

Church: Pyramidal Hierarchy or People of God?

(For full text of the Pope’s speech on Synod, see: “Turn Hierarchy into Inverted
Pyramid”, Oct.21/15 in Church Citizen’s Voiced (CCV), www.almayasabdam.com.)

dr. james kottoor
What is the Church? In the cacophony of words and phrases used loosely and indefinitely to refer to the Church, are not the following some examples: People of God? Hierarchical Church? Synodal Church? Domestic Church? Teaching Church? Learning Church? Militant Church? Triumphant church? Here we take a cursory look at two only the Synodal Church much talked about these days and the Hierarchical Church.

For ordinary people only two kinds of churches ever existed: The ruling church of dictatorial command and control and the ruled church of unquestioned blind beliefs known as “pray, pay and obey” variety. The ruling group included the whole clerical class starting from the latest person ordained priest to Pope at the top of the hierarchical ladder. However they did not exceed more than some 5 percent of the members of the Church. The ruled class, commonly known as laity, believers, faithful and lately “Church Citizens” formed the bulk of 95 per cent of the Church. In between there is also the group called the religious, a little below clerics and a little above the laity (Something like Purgatory between heaven and hell. No offense intended and no love lost to any one please! Only certain examples drive home the idea very fast.)
Synod, 50 Year Old Dynamite
But the one word that has suddenly shot into limelight, eclipsing all other terms referring to the church is: “Synod”. Is it something like Purgatory? For the untutored, YES, for the enlightened, NO. For the last two years, 2014 and 2015, it has been the byword, the central topic of discussion throughout the whole church, from Pope to thinking sections of Church Citizens. Now Pope Francis has brought it up to the pinnacle of discussion on Oct.17th with his detailed explanation on its various aspects.

His talk suddenly reveals that it (Synod) has been an unseen, unheard of but a potent dynamite, an unsuspected, unexploded bomb laying low among the Church’s rubbish heap. Actually no one even thought in depth of such a thing until Pope Paul VI thoughtfully constituted it 50 years ago on Sept.15/ 1965, as an instrument to carry forward or implement many of the reforms initiated by Vatican II.

What did Francis say about Synod in a nutshell? He said something very simple, logical and reasonable, but it exploded like the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. What it actually did was a constructive destruction of all wrong notions which got associated with that spotless shining pearl (church: “I will build my church”) that came out of the mouth of Jesus. Gold is purified to regain its original shine by destroying by the heat of the fire all the dirt and dross that get stuck on it during the course of time. So burning in fire becomes, not hell but constructive destruction. That is what Pope Francis did.

Hierarchical Pyramid vs Foot-washing
Years ago when I meditated on the ever growing man made rituals destroying the mission and message of Jesus, what struck me were two things: the pyramidal hierarchical church structures standing sky high like the tower of babel now after 2000 years and its actual beginning when Jesus went down on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples at the private dinner party (last supper) he threw for his very close earthly followers, at the end of his three year public mission on earth. For me that was his church, his little flock, a bunch of people who would vie with one another to continue his foot washing ministry on this vale of tears.

The foot washing was a drama that reached its high pitch at the dialogue of Jesus with Peter which almost turned into a verbal duel – or a war of words — between the Master and Peter the servants’ (disciples) leader. Peter admits defeat in the dual, but only reluctantly at the words of Jesus to Peter: “You will know it later”, that is, the full meaning of his foot-washing. Has Peter and his successors learned it even now after 2000 years of struggle to protect, promote and embellish the pyramidal hierarchical power structure and power struggle in the Church? Kneeling at Peter’s feet Jesus was perhaps foreseeing developments in our own times that would turn his church into an unending pyramidal structure and so he was turning it upside down and making it stand on its pin-point pinnacle buried in the ground, to bring it back to its senses.

Church = Synod = Inverted Pyramid
This scribe wrote it some 30 years ago without knowing that a Pope in the person of Francis would ever come to say it more graphically. Listen to what he said on Oct.17th: “Church and synod are synonymous… within the Church, no one can be raised up higher than the others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person be “lowered “ in order to serve his or her brothers and sisters along the way…. In this church, as in an inverted pyramid, the summit is located below the base. For those who exercise this authority are called “ministers” because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each Bishop becomes for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi, (vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper stooped to wash the feet of the Apostles (cfr. Jn 13: 1-15 ). And in a similar manner, the Successor of Peter is none other than the servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God)…. The heart of the mystery of the Church” is for the hierarchical church to find it in Mt 20:25-27: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave”
Heart of the Church
This equality of all, nay this foot-washing attitude which wants to go one step below one’s equal is the very heart of the Church of Jesus in contrast to the church of Constantine. This is to be practised, not only at the global level with the Pope, but equally at national level in each country’s episcopal conferences and at local level in each diocesan synods and councils of priests, religious and families of parishes in each diocese. Where this is not implemented there is no Church of Jesus. Now think of the Conference of Bishops of India(CBCI),the Syro-Malabar Church and Syro-Malankara Church. We hear of CBCI biennial meetings, but hardly about the other Rite-specific secret gatherings. Is there any representative participation of families in the deliberations of these august bodies? If not should they be called Churches? Here again listen to the relevant passage in Francis’s speech:
“The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but inside it as one baptized among the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as Bishop among Bishops; as one called at the same time as Successor of Peter – to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches” Francis does all these because he says: ”I feel the need to proceed in a healthy decentralization." Do all office bearers at the diocesan, national, continental and global level feel this need? Are they convinced of the urgency of implementing this decentralization at their levels? This “necessity and beauty of walking together?” A Church that walks together, listens and learns from each other is a must, because, says Pope: “what concerns all needs to be debated by all.” When that happens the Church can never go wrong in matters of faith and morals (infallible?).
Survey was to Listen & Learn
It was to listen and learn from the least in the community(church) that Francis started his two year mammoth study of families by consulting them through questionnaires placed in their hands twice. Listen: “It was this conviction that guided me when I desired that God's people would be consulted in the preparation of the two-phased synod on the family…how would we ever be able to speak about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish? Through the answers to the two questionnaires sent to the particular Churches, we had the opportunity to at least hear some of the people on those issues that closely affect them and about which they have much to say.”
But here comes the soul searching question to the universal Church and churches in India. What about their failure or refusal not to conduct any survey or proper surveys last year and this year? If remedies proposed by this Rome Synod fail to heal wounded families in India or other countries, the hierarchical churches which refused to conduct proper surveys themselves are to blame. They refused to brief the field doctors details about their families in various stages of ailment. Those countries which did the data collection in time and sent it to Rome are surely going to benefit.
Fly in the Ointment
There is much more to be said about the Papal speech on Synod on Oct.17th. It was a heart-warming speech to the vast majority of Church citizens, at the same time a stinging rebuke to the defenders of the pyramid structured hierarchical churches which know nothing about dialogue with the lowly placed but only hand down diktats. In spite of all my admiration for Francis and his speech, I am forced to point out a fly in the ointment. That is the first sentence or appellation in his speech:
“Your Beatitudes, Eminences, Excellencies, Brothers and Sisters.” How could Francis fail to address his audience as just “dear brothers and sisters”? By addressing the way he did, was he not just rubbishing or cancelling out what his right hand did with his left hand? Or was he actually seeing his audience far superior to him as “Beatitudes and Eminences” while seeing himself as a “sinner” not “his Holiness”? Is it not what he said when the Jesuit magazine interviewed him one year ago? In any case we have his instruction, not to hesitate to cultivate the culture of asking hard questions even to the Pope. He had publicly exhorted his participants during the 2014 Rome synod. So let questions fly thick and fast, back and forth, both in the Synod and outside. Where there is honesty of purpose, they are sure to bring right answers at the right time!
Contact at: jameskottoor@gmail.com

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1 Response

  1. zach nedunkanal says:

    "….at the private dinner party (last supper) he threw up for his very close earthly followers, at the end of his three year public mission on earth. For me that was his church, his little flock, a bunch of people…." That means that the word Church is not a noun. It's a verb. It can be friends gathering together around a meal, talking about things that matter most, building each other up. That's a lot bigger than a gathering on Sunday mornings. “what concerns all needs to be debated by all.” When that happens the Church can never go wrong in matters of faith and morals (infallible?)." This earning for infallibility is out of place in a growing and developing church. According to me this wrong emphasis on infallibility is what hinders the universal church from studying it's own credo written down in AD 321 at Nicea. Please read the article in അല്മയശബ്ദം ബ്ലോഗ്‌: മനുഷ്യൻ, പള്ളി, ദൈവം. Zacharias Nedunkanal

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