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Synodal approach can help heal societal struggles, Cardinal Gregory says at Catholic University talk

Linking themes of his tenure as archbishop of Washington with the goals of the recent Synod on Synodality at the Vatican, Cardinal Wilton Gregory told an audience at The Catholic University of America Dec. 6 that society “tolerates and too often excuses public displays of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism and violence against immigrants, families and the poor.”

Cardinal Gregory recently returned from the first portion of the general assembly of the synod, to which he was a delegate appointed by Pope Francis. His remarks for the Presidential Speaker Series at the university described not only intolerance and marginalization in society but how those problems arise among different groups within the Catholic Church as they approach the Synod. Some distort Pope Francis’ vision of a synodal Church, he said, “and instead are substituting their idea of the Church. Some want to use synodality as a way to advocate extensive rewriting of our Catholic doctrine to bring the Church into the future; while others want to use synodality to fossilize Catholic beliefs so that the Church remains the Church that they envision from past years.”

Still others, the cardinal said, “want to use synodality to solidify current pastoral practices – open to only a select few – who believe that they alone know the true Christ.” He said the competing views of synodality “leads to a culture of isolation, which can lead to a lack of charity and the frustration of the work of evangelization.”

Peter Kilpatrick, the president of Catholic University, opened the conversation with the cardinal, who serves as the university’s chancellor. His talk was titled, “Celebrating Diversity: A Conversation with Cardinal Gregory.” After being appointed by Pope Francis as the archbishop of Washington in 2019, Cardinal Gregory was elevated by the pope to the College of Cardinals the next year, becoming the first African American cardinal.

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory smiles during his Dec. 6 talk at The Catholic University of America. His talk, titled  “Celebrating Diversity: A Conversation with Cardinal Gregory,” was part of the university’s Presidential Speaker Series. (Photo by Patrick Ryan/The Catholic University of America)

In his talk, Cardinal Gregory pointed to various programs and practices that can remind people of their interconnectedness and help lead people back to a sense of respect for others. For example, he explained, the Catholic Civil Dialogue Initiative in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington “hosts conversations on a range of topics connected to Catholic social teaching, where we specifically pause and attentively listen to one another. We stop our busy schedules to acknowledge the importance of showing up and then giving our full attention to what you choose to share.”

The dialogues, he said, “allow young people to speak openly about their values while also honoring the variety of their viewpoints.” Cardinal Gregory said the dialogues can be complex conversations, “but building up a faith community is not an easy task. Hosting these civil dialogues is forming community where everyone knows they are a part and where trust is being developed or restored.”

Catholic teaching is built into the dialogue materials, he explained. “But the first intention of our civil dialogues (as with all catechesis) is to share the love of God and to foster a sense of inclusion of all in the Church. These are the same goals shared by the synod process. Good catechesis has opportunities for listening, processing and responding.”

In the photos above and below, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory speaks on Dec. 6 at The Catholic University of America. His talk was titled “Celebrating Diversity: A Conversation with Cardinal Gregory.” As the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Gregory serves as the university’s chancellor, and his talk was part of CUA’s Presidential Speaker Series. He was joined by Peter Kilpatrick, Catholic University’s president. (Photos by Patrick Ryan/The Catholic University of America)

The diverse voices and experiences of the synod participants makes civil dialogue more challenging, the cardinal noted, “but it also makes it more sensible and profoundly beautiful.”

Just as healthy interpersonal relationships are rooted in respect and the ability offer “grace and space,” so it is with relationships in the Church, he said. Rather than shouting down or trying to intimidate others or solve issues, “we instead focus on active, sincere listening to build the trust we need to move ahead together in hope and holiness,” Cardinal Gregory said.

That is why the Synod on Synodality will take several years “to establish a successful way to dialogue together,” the cardinal said.

In the photos above and below, audience members at The Catholic University of America participate in Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory’s talk there on Dec. 6. His talk, titled “Celebrating Diversity: A Conversation with Cardinal Gregory,” was part of the university’s Presidential Speaker Series. (Photos by Patrick Ryan/The Catholic University of America)

In a question-and-answer session after his prepared remarks, Cardinal Gregory gave a lengthy explanation of the Church’s history with the Tridentine Latin Mass and recent efforts by Pope Francis to limit its use. He noted that 200 years after the 16th century Council of Trent, which also brought a significantly different liturgy, the previous Mass was still being celebrated in defiance of the change to the Roman Missal. 

In the current situation, the Tridentine Latin Mass was phased out after the Second Vatican Council by the Novus Ordo liturgy, which is celebrated in the vernacular, the language spoken by the people. However, aficionados of the Latin liturgy have continued to hold onto the pre-Vatican II rite, despite several popes’ efforts to bring the entire Church worldwide into the new rite.

“Tradition dies a slow death,” the cardinal said, adding, “The Holy Father is trying to complete what (Pope) Paul VI began.”