Bishop O'Connell reads the decree for the Diocesan Synod during the opening Mass on Oct. 17 in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
Bishop O'Connell reads the decree for the Diocesan Synod during the opening Mass on Oct. 17 in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.

St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton

There is a saying often attributed to the early 20th century Irish writer and poet James Joyce (1882-1936) that explains “Catholic means ‘here comes everybody’.”  I find that quote very insightful, beautiful really.  The word “Catholic,” drawn from its Greek roots, is translated “universal.”  We Catholics are a universal Church: universal in extent and scope; universal in faith; universal in embrace. 

“Here comes everybody:” Saints and sinners.  Spiritual and religious.  Convinced and still searching. Practicing and fallen away.  Clergy and laity. Consecrated and intentional. Married and divorced. Family members and single.  Young and old.  Rich and poor. Powerful and lowly. Talkative and quiet. Famous and infamous.  Working and unemployed.  Educated and not. Healthy and sick, perhaps disabled.  Comfortable and homeless.  Friends and friendless. All races and national origins. All points of view and perspectives. 

It’s a big Church, although we may not always recognize or accept that. 

Because of our baptism in Christ, we are his sisters and brothers; because of our baptism in Christ, we are sisters and brothers to one another.  Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed at his Last Supper, “may they all be one (John 17:21).” Catholic means ‘here comes everybody.”  In this world, through this life we are “journeying together.” 

And on this journey, as the English philosopher and theologian G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) once wrote, “The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.”  We Catholics are both travelers and tourists on the journey.  As we begin this Synod in the Diocese of Trenton, in this 140th year of our existence, my dear Catholics, the Church asks all of us – everybody – what have you “come to see?”

Synods, again from a Greek root meaning “common road or path” – are not new to the Catholic Church; they have been a regular part of Church life throughout our history.

On April 24 of this year, Pope Francis announced the 16th Ordinary Synod of Bishops, a two-year period of reflection on the nature and goals of the Catholic Church in the third millennium. It will have three distinct yet connected phases: a diocesan phase, a continental or national phase and a phase for the universal Church. 

That approach is new and different from past synods insofar as the current synod will reach out to embrace the participation of all Catholics, “everybody” at every level in the Church. It is, in that respect, an unprecedented undertaking.  Its theme is: “On the Church’s Synodal Path: Communion, Participation, Mission.” 

The emphasis of this synod is not simply upon an “event” but, rather, upon a continuing “process” that is called “synodality” – perhaps new to our vocabulary – all Catholics, in the Holy Father’s words, “walking the same road together,” a journey that leads to “communion, participation, and mission.” “Here comes everybody.” Here comes the Diocese of Trenton!

It is a beautiful coincidence that we celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” on the 140th anniversary milestone of our Diocese on this same day when we join the Church’s dioceses throughout the world to embark upon a synodal “common path.” 

As we celebrate our history in New Jersey, this coincidence reminds me of the words of the British writer and lay theologian C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), “there are far, far better things ahead than we leave behind.”

That does not mean that we forget the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, the people, and events of the past but, rather, that it does not end there.  We take hold of the present moment, and look to the future as a Church, the People of God, as a Diocese, as parishes, as Catholics “journeying together.”  There is, as the French Dominican theologian Yves Congar (1904-1995) once explained “no need to create another Church but to create a different Church, an “ecclesia semper reformanda, semper purificanda,” a Church always reforming and purifying itself to this very moment and beyond.  That was a theme of the 16th century Council of Trent (1545-1563) responding to the Protestant reformation, the purpose of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) responding to the modern world, and the intention of Pope Francis responding to the Church in the present moment.

In his homily opening the world-wide Synod last Sunday, the Holy Father asked us to use this synod as a time for “encounter,” for opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit in prayer, Eucharistic adoration, in hope and charity, “journeying together” with one another.  For “listening” not judging, for opening our hearts and minds to God and to one another in the midst of the challenges we find in the world around us. And there is no shortage of those.  For “discerning” what the Holy Spirit is saying to us today. 

These are the synodal paths to “communion” and unity in our faith together; to “participation” and getting involved deeply in our faith together; to “mission" and evangelizing, sharing the Gospel in love together. Love is the ultimate Christian answer to all of life’s questions.

Again, as G.K. Chesterton has written, “to love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable.  Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”  A powerful, transforming thought for our “journeying together.”

That is our “common path.”  That is our synodal journey together.  The monk and author Thomas Merton (1915-1968) once reflected, “Each individual Christian and each new age of the Church has to make this rediscovery, this return to the source of Christian life.”

It begins with God’s Word and the Word made Flesh. It continues with the graces of Baptism and the Sacraments.  It is made real and effective with learning and knowing the truths of our faith and living it in service. It is not about debates.  It gives space for dialogue.

In your parish and workplace, in your family and community, my beloved sisters and brothers, during this anniversary year, during this Diocesan Synod, rediscover your faith.  Return to your faith.  Listen to one another’s stories.  Dry one another’s tears.  Support one another’s faith in the truth. Listen to one another. Inspire one another’s hope. Love one another as Christ has loved you. 

The humble, little saint laboring among the poor on the streets of Calcutta offers us this invitation: “yesterday is gone; tomorrow has not yet come; we have only today. Let us begin.”