By Bishop Michael Warfel
On August 4, 2020, I announced that the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings would be holding a diocesan synod. I noted that a synod is an official canonical process that would provide parishioners and their pastors throughout the Diocese an opportunity to advise me in my role as bishop. Given that I am nearing the end of my tenure as Ordinary of the Diocese, I want to have a plan in place for whoever will be my successor. I am now over 72 years old. A bishop must tender his resignation from office at the age of 75. I believe the structure of a diocesan synod will provide a way to establish direction for the Diocese in my remaining years as bishop and provide for a smoother transition for whoever will eventually become my successor.
A vision is crucial for any organization. Sadly, due to a combination of lawsuits, Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Reorganization and now COVID-19, attempts to implement the Pastoral Plan 2016-2021 that was drafted five years ago were frustrated. That Pastoral Plan concludes in 2021. With the conclusion of the Chapter 11 and now the distribution of a series of newly developed vaccines, it is my sincere hope that life will return to some level of normalcy by the coming summer. I envision parishes will once again be able to practice faith with renewed vigor. A synod will provide a way to plan for a return to “normal.”
Meeting last summer with a small steering group, I agreed to the theme of “The Domestic Church in Eastern Montana.” The term “Domestic Church” refers to the smallest body of gathered faithful which is the household. The term dates back to the first century AD. The Greek word for it is ecclesiola and refers to “little church.” The early Church understood that the home was meant to be a holy place and was the fertile ground for discipleship, sanctification, and holiness. As faith is lived well within a family context, it has a ripple effect that can lead to change in the surrounding society. As this was true in the first century it remains true in the twenty-first century. It doesn’t mean that there were no ongoing challenges facing the early church any more than our family situations are free from struggles and discord. However, the family household is the most likely context in which deep relationships that reflect the nature of God can happen.
One of the first diocesan synods following the Second Vatican Council was held in Krakow, Poland. Serving as an archbishop in communist Poland, Pope St. John Paul II (then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla) called a diocesan synod in order to implement the teachings of Council in his archdiocese. His focus was on the family and how faith should be lived in that context. Unlike any previous council which focused on doctrine in response to heretical beliefs, Pope St. John XXIII called the Council to proclaim Christian faith in a way that it could be “updated” (not changed) for a modern world and so that people of faith would strive to apply it more deeply in the home. His fervent hope was that members of the church would realize that being Catholic was more than about going to church. It was about them knowing that they were church.
But why exactly is focus on the family so important? Because it is the location in which reflection of who God is may happen best! The first chapter of the Book of Genesis offers us a poetic story of creation. The intent is not to provide a scientific construct of how all things came in to being, but to affirm that God is the origin of all things. In the first account of creation (there are two), the pinnacle of creation is the man and the woman. Unlike all other beings in creation, only men and women are created in God’s own image and after God’s likeness. The assertion that all people are created in God’s image and likeness is not a new truth of faith to any of us. We have likely heard it many times. That it is familiar to us, possibly too familiar, affects our appreciation of this truth. Its wonder often escapes us as well as undermines the implication of how it should impact our lives. If we are created in God’s image and likeness, then our deepest identity surfaces when we reflect God’s own identity.
The key doctrine of Christianity is the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It may seem to be a heady doctrine that does not create lots of warm feelings within us, but it is a key conviction of Christian faith. We express our belief in the Trinity in many ways, for example, as we make the sign of the cross and we bless ourselves with holy water or bless food prior to saying grace before a meal. We use these actions, and others like them, in prayer and worship. They are expressions of belief. They remind us, not only who God is, but in whose image and likeness we have been created.
Much theology has been written about the Holy Trinity over the centuries and it is hardly the purpose of this article to provide an in-depth presentation on it. A brief (very brief) explanation, however, may be helpful in pointing to how we are to live. The Holy Trinity must be viewed in terms of relationships. The eternal Father loves the Son perfectly and the Son, God’s Word, returns the love of the Father perfectly. Their intense and perfect exchange of love is the Spirit interacting between them. God is perfect right relationship. If we are created in God’s image and likeness, then relationship must somehow and in some way be a part of our lives. Being true to the way God made us (we might think of ourselves as being hardwired in this way) must reflect the internal dynamic of relationship. It is the very nature of God. Being in relationship is also our own very nature.
Sadly, the man and the woman in the Genesis account broke relationship. They were created in a state of holiness, destined to be divinized (as later theologians would term it). Divinization means that we participate fully in the life of the Trinity as we become a part, i.e., members of the Body of Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. We never become equal to Christ or divine, but we become truly one with Him and thus share in the life and relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sadly, the Original Sin of the man and woman frustrated God’s plan. Their Sin broke the relationship God intended for humankind to experience with God, with ourselves, with our neighbor and with all of creation. Fortunately, God is greater than the worst of our sins. God sent His Son to overcome the Sin and provide the way to restore God’s original purposes for us and all people. And God’s purpose is for people to be in communion with God, ourselves, with others and all of creation. The life we have been given provides an opportunity to learn how to be in relationship as a reflection of having been created in God’s image and likeness. Pope Francis in a newly released book (Let Us Dream) expressed it this way: We are born, beloved of our Creator, God of love, into a world that has lived long before us. We belong to God and to one another, and we are part of creation. And from this understanding, grasped by the heart, must flow our love for each other, a love not earned or bought because all we are and have is unearned gift” (Let Us Dream, pg. 13).
Many archdioceses and dioceses have convoked diocesan synods over the past fifty plus years since the close of the Second Vatican Council. These synods have provided a means for local churches to address specific concerns in their respective (arch)dioceses. Given my hope that life will return to a level of normalcy, it is an important time to plan.†