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French Bishops, Integral Ecology and A Synodal Church

Twice a year the French bishops gather in the shrine of Lourdes for their general assembly. In total there are around 120 prelates, an additional half dozen staff members of the general secretary, a few national directors of the episcopal conference services and some representatives of the conference of male and female religious congregations. This means that there are usually, in a Congress-style auditorium, more than one hundred ordained men, wearing black or grey, with an average age of over sixty, alongside only three or four women and not many more lay men.

The general assembly of last November, however, was a shock. A positive and hope-filled shock. During the first two days of the assembly, the auditorium was full with three hundred people: women and men, priests, bishops and lay people, old, middle-age and young, and even two babies, who could not be separated too long from their nourishing mothers, made their presence known by some charming babbling… All of a sudden the assembly became multicolored in the literal sense of the clothing and in the figurative sense of the diversity of those attending. What happened? It was something to do with integral ecology and a synodal church. It was something which is worth paying attention to, and connected to the theological teachings of Pope Francis. As the director of one of the national services of the Conference of Bishops, I had the opportunity to participate in this event in Lourdes last November, and I share here my observations on events, as well as their potentially theological meaning.

When the French bishops elected their new presidential team (one president and two vice- presidents) in April 2019, they made the choice of a clear renewal in terms of age. The three newly-elected bishops are under 60 whereas the previous team had an average age of 70 at the time of finishing their mandate. There was a desire for something new, especially in the way some collegial work could be conducted during the assemblies. Quickly, this new team suggested and then implemented two projects to be tested at the following assembly. First, there was the idea of choosing  a theme to be worked on over several years and several assemblies in order to enter into a more effective collegial discernment and a common listening to the Holy Spirit. In considering what could be a central issue in the French context, an issue that will remembered in 50 or 100 years as a crucial challenge for early 21st century France, they opted for the theme of integral ecology and, more precisely, the much-needed ecological transition that France, the Church, the world, everyone and every institution need to engage in. The second project, strongly connected to this first one, was the idea of radically changing the format of the assembly during the first two days, so that other members of the Church could be involved with the bishops in a synodal journey for the work on integral ecology. Each bishop was asked to come to Lourdes with two people from his diocese. He was asked to invite whoever he thought would be a good bearer of the dynamism initiated in Lourdes when returning to their diocese, not necessarily specialists of ecology. As a result, the bishops’ guests were very diverse.

The first morning, the newly formed assembly, packed into an auditorium that could barely accommodate them, listened to six witnesses who challenged them by telling what the changes required to their lives by an ecological conversion meant for them concretely. Some were believers, others not. Some were ecological activists (one even spoke of “collapsology”), another was a senior civil servant, another an executive in a big multinational company. All were rather young. For the bishops and their guests, it was an experience of listening together and letting this listening cause some changes in their understanding of the issue. In the afternoon, some smaller gatherings with a highly participative methodology allowed participants to have debates and discussions. At night, a vigil prayer with references to Laudato si’, brought everyone together in another type of collective experience: a spiritual journey in ecological conversion. The following day was dedicated to the contributions of two professional theologians giving their own readings of what they had heard the previous day. And finally, time was allotted for each bishop to discuss with his two guests and begin to envisage new orientations and actions to be enacted in their diocese.

It is too early to make a full evaluation of this Lourdes 2019 experience. Many challenges are still ahead to transform a one-off trial experience into a renewed and permanent way of proceeding that bears fruit for the ongoing reform of the Church. We only know that in the next assembly in April, one day and a half will be once more dedicated to ecological conversion, addressing the more specific issue of agriculture. Again, bishops will be accompanied by some guests. It is too early for a real evaluation and there is no intention to pretend that this is “the” solution for reforming the Church in France or elsewhere. Nonetheless, as Pope Francis often stresses, it is necessary to “initiate processes” rather than “possess spaces” (Evangelii gaudium 223). In Lourdes, November 2019, a process was initiated and only later will it be possible to see what it has produced and to recognize in it some work of the Spirit. However, it is already possible to make a few theological remarks.

Integral Ecology. In Laudato si’ (LS) Pope Francis calls for an “ecological conversion” (LS 217) and “a cultural revolution” (LS 114) which requires “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49). For the Church, as for all Christians, this a duty of faith, a matter of letting “the encounter with Christ become evident” (LS 217). There is no doubt that engaging in ecological conversion is a central part of the Church’s mission today. But since everything is connected, it is not about merely adding a new area of concern for the Church. To really care for our common home and to face the challenges of the ecological crisis requires an integral approach. Integral ecology, as proposed by Francis in chapter 4 of Laudato si’, deals with environment, but also economy, social issues, culture, daily life, health, self-identity and relation to one’s body. This means that if an institution addresses the challenge of integral ecology, necessarily the institution itself will change. So it is no surprise that today, in order to initiate a process of reform in the church, – a reform which the abuse crisis reveals as so necessary – integral ecology is a promising starting point.

Listening. Speaking of the synodal nature of the Church on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, Pope Francis highlighted that “a synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7)” (Address of Pope Francis, Oct 17th 2015, no2). Of course, in a synodal Church, we will have to find the proper way to deliberate, to make decisions, and to implement them in a way that involves the entirety of the people of God. But the synodal journey – the journeying together as the very word synod means – starts with listening together. In this regard, something happened in Lourdes when a sense communion in listening developed in the diversity of the people present, a diversity reflecting not only various status within the Church, but also different spiritualties, theologies, or ecclesiologies. For this, it was necessary to dare to welcome ‘outside’ speakers, to give the floor to non-Catholics and non-believers.

Joy. Joy has been a very clear and distinct outcome of the two days in Lourdes. Many were sceptics upon arrival, some remained sceptics when leaving, but even those sceptics recognized that it had been a moment full of joy, the joy of experiencing being a Church together. The simplicity of the joy of many of the bishops’ guests – the joy of being there – proved contagious to the bishops themselves. “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of those who encounter Jesus… With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (Evangelii gaudium 1). In setting the tone of his programmatic exhortation and the tone of his pontificate, Pope Francis reminded us that authentic joy is always a sign of the work of the Spirit. This is why the surprise and shock of last November in Lourdes is full of hope.