The interesting article by Pier Giorgio Gawronski — «Le chiese vuote e l’Umanesimo integrale» (Empty churches and integral humanism - L'Osservatore Romano, 22.2.2021) - raises a couple of considerations that I consider essential for a good debate because, as it does affirm, "the Churches must question themselves more deeply about the causes of their decline."
First, I believe that a clarification is necessary about the "how" Churches should question themselves. The Churches are formed by Pastors but - at least from numerical point of view - above all by the lay faithful.
In the small reality of my parish, with those who are more involved in the community life, I often return to the topic of the people’s decrease at Sunday mass.
I talk with them about it because I am convinced that the problem - because this is "the" problem! - cannot be reserved to "specialists", whether they are priests or bishops, because it concerns all the community. I act like this because I think that the synodal praxis drafted out by theologians must then find an outlet in concrete pastoral action, otherwise it ends short as any academic matter.
Therefore a synodal Church should first involve all the baptized in discussing the Church’s problems, since the Church (it is sad to repeat this) belongs to all the baptized into Christ. Starting with the members of the participating organizations, what else is synodality "from below", if it does not involve primarily the parish communities? Everyone should be asked the question: "Why do you think churches are becoming empty?"
Otherwise, we risk remaining on a pure theory level, ecclesiologically or sociologically.
Then - second and even more important - we must know “how to listen”. Is this an unnecessary clarification? No, it is not. Unfortunately, we pastors often think we already know what our faithful think, or what they do not think.
These two points, I believe, should be well understood; especially now when, at the request of Pope Francis, the Italian Church’s synodal season opening is looming.
Gawronski indicates as a “possible remedy against secularization” the verifying need of the real experience in our communities of the lifeline found in Acts 2, 42-47, the well-known page in which the ecclesial life’s fundamental dimensions are described.
His analysis can be fully shared, especially his remark on the "lack of human relations" between those who meet on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. This lack of relationships generates "cultic assemblies" where the participants’ attitude of mutual extraneousness is mostly and clearly perceived, resulting in an individualistic understanding of faith, which instead is always an of-us-all faith. Therefore, involving the faithful – at least those who will make themselves available - in questioning themselves about “why” the churches are becoming empty, could, I think, be a decisive move to initiate them into co-responsibility and offer a concrete space in which to realize precisely the "human relationships" we were referring to.
It will be a first step towards sharing also all the other dimensions in which the life of the community is expressed. It is possible that at the beginning there would not be many who want to respond to this invitation into co-responsibility, but some will certainly accept and we know that the Spirit’s guidance is independent of the quantitative dimension because, "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (Mt 18:20).
Synodality cannot be reduced to an ecclesial democracy; it is rather a privileged space for the penetration of the Holy Spirit. Nothing prevents us to think that in the not too distant future this dimension of "small groups" could coexist with the parish reality as a whole.
The future of our Churches is of course that of small numbers; we know it. For fifty years, we have been hearing it repeated by sociologists and churchmen. Synodal praxis should have been followed a long time ago. Attention not to weaken the doctrinal element of the faith, so that it remains faithful to the Scriptural datum, to Tradition and to the Magisterium is necessary. Both however should not prevent the preservation of a holy People "remnant" who, in fidelity and perseverance, become a small but authentic sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth. Was this not the case at the beginning of the Church’s life before the edict of Constantine? Did the Christians of the first centuries feel a sense of frustration facing their contemporary forms of religiosity which could boast a greater number of adherents, did they?
Finally, there is one more point on which I would like to draw further attention. I believe that all pastors, with a healthy restlessness, should ask themselves about the initiatives put in place up to now to educate priests, parish priests, and bishops to know how to manage a substantial and not just declared synodality; that is, to know how to decline synodality wisely in the life of the churches they lead.
If pastors - who in their communities not only exercise a leadership ministry but also have a conative function - are not trained in synodal practice, how can the lay faithful feel encouraged and involved in an experience of the Church in which they are not allowed to assume roles of co-responsibility? How else will it be possible to obtain adult Christians, capable of announcing to everyone the joy of being disciples of the Lord Jesus?