The most popular word in the Catholic world today is “synodality”. It is the theme of every symposium or retreat, a title of articles in every church bulletin, journal, or website — so common that it has become dull and trite.
Sometimes presented as the solution to all our present ills, synodality has become a word for everyone and everything that means nothing.
But does it mean anything to me as a Vincentian?
One bishop in Asia sent me a text message during their meeting on synodality. He asked: “If you are to be consulted, what for you is the most crucial theme on this Synod?” I texted him back: “Do not forget the poor and the vulnerable. They are the least heard sector in the church.”
I strongly feel that synodality is not merely about us — our equality, our communion, our participation. No, it is about “the other” whom we have always marginalized.
The socially excluded stare us in the face and put our structures, priorities, theologies, and liturgies into question. “Where am I in your synodality thingy?” Sa Tagalog, “Ano nga ang ibig sabihin ng salitang ‘yan? Kasali ba kami dyan?”
Vincent de Paul whose feast we celebrate lived almost 500 years ago. Does his life show us some intuitions about this theme? My answer has two parts: (1) Vincent’s refusal of power; (2) Vincent’s moves toward empowerment.
The first point is refusal: Vincent’s refusal of power in the Church of his times. Clericalism is not a new thing. The France of St. Vincent has more than a good share of it. As it was then, power, money, and ambition can be more easily gained through church “service”.
One author, Jacques Delarue, writes: “In a flash, they pass from the Court to or from war or commerce to the altar, and they have the chalice in their hands before they have the tonsure on their heads.”
Paris was full of these kinds of high clergy. They were all in the city and preoccupied themselves with theatrical pomp and pageantry while leaving the rural areas to ill-prepared “lower clergy”.
His insistence that his priests and sisters would go to the rural areas is a sign of that protest to what was going on — a long five centuries before Pope Francis called us to go to the peripheries.
Many other narratives show how Vincent vehemently opposes political and clerical power. His brave confrontations with Cardinal Richelieu and Mazarin are well-known.
But let me narrate a small story where Vincent obliquely resisted clerical power. The sociologist, Norbert Elias, analyzed in the “Court Society”: “If power exists but is not visible in the appearance of the ruler, the people will not believe. The people must see in order to believe”.
This is shown in specific courtly etiquettes, their manner of dressing, their pomp, and pageantry which marks the level of their hierarchical status.
Vincent was a part of this court society being a member of the Council of Conscience. But he refused to participate in the play of theatrical display.
He is content to come to court in clean but simple attire — or, to use the words of Abelly, in “his good manners which were both simple and humble.”
One day, Vincent came with a twisted girdle. Cardinal Mazarin seized this opportunity to mock him: “Look how Monsieur Vincent comes dressed to Court and what a beautiful girdle he wears.” Vincent was quiet and did not respond to his tirades.
Traditional interpretation reads this incident as a sign of Vincent’s humility and detachment. But beyond an act of individual virtue, Vincent’s non-conventional ‘courtly’ etiquette was an act of resistance to the seemingly formidable dominant power that reproduces itself in courtly bodies.
In other words, his simple but self-assured presence unwittingly poses itself as a threat to others who compete for this highly contested courtly space.
If you prefer a more religious language, his simplicity of lifestyle poses itself as a prophetic challenge to this power-hungry and position-conscious environment. Resisting power and clericalism in all spaces today is the first step towards synodality.
The second point is empowerment. If we want a synodal Church, we need to empower all its sectors. “To be a listening church” only happens when the person on the pew has the capacity to speak. To speak out is not an automatic capability for most people. Some have been used to being silenced for centuries. They think they do not have such rights.
First, if the lower clergy were the neglected parts of the French church, Vincent directed all his resources and the resources of his Little Company to form them in holistic seminary formation. This is the legacy to which the Vincentian community dedicated itself worldwide from the time of St. Vincent until today.
Second, if the lay people, especially the women, were a neglected sector of the church in our times despite the 50 years plus of Vatican II ecclesiology, so it was during Vincent’s time. The Confraternities of Charity, parish lay organizations to help the poor established after the missions, were the first of Vincentian responses to poverty, even before the religious groups that Vincent founded, the Congregation of the Missions and Daughters of Charity.
Where the members were women, they called themselves “Ladies of Charity”. To the Ladies of Charity organized at Hotel-Dieu, Vincent spoke this critical review of church history:
“For the last 800 years or so, women have no public employment in the Church. Formerly, there were some called deaconesses… But about Charlemagne’s time, your gender has been deprived of such ministry, and ever since, it had none. And now…”
The rest is history. Vincent’s intuition led him beyond his male chauvinist culture to be able to recognize the role of women in the church.
Of course, Vincent was very much a man of his time. His ecclesiology was the hierarchical Tridentine church, as his conferences would show. But there are “cracks in the parchment curtain”, as they say.
Beyond the dominant hierarchical institutional model, we see Vincent’s intuition of a “church of communion”, of a synodal church, to use again that famous word.
He said once in a conference: “It has never been heard, even of animals, that one member did not share the pain of another; that one member of one’s body could be bruised, broken, and crushed, and the other member did not feel it. No, that is impossible. All the members are sympathetically bound together that the pain of one is the pain of the other.”
These exact words can be easily transferred to the texts of Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti. The message is identical: the mark of our humanity — and for St. Vincent, even of beasts — is solely found in our solidarity with those in pain and suffering.
This is Vincent’s vision of communion in synodality.
Happy feast day to all.
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.