Boston College is set to host a conference this weekend that will mark the largest gathering of Catholic leadership on a university campus in American history.
According to Rev. Mark S. Massa, S.J., director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, the focus of the two-day conference is the concept of synodality, or the idea that decision-making in the Catholic Church should be decentralized to the local level.
“This whole movement of synodality and this movement of open dialogue under Pope Francis is incredibly new,” said David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture. “And it’s changing things, and that’s exciting. And I don’t think the reality of that has penetrated the U.S. church the way it has elsewhere, so I hope that this conference helps get that across.”
The event, called “The Way Forward: Pope Francis, Vatican II, and Synodality,” begins Friday morning in Gasson Hall and is co-sponsored by BC, Fordham University, and Loyola University Chicago. The list of conference attendees includes five cardinals, six archbishops, 21 bishops, and 40 theologians from across the country, according to Massa.
“This is the largest group of such bishops and theologians ever to appear at Boston College,” said Massa, who is also the former dean of the BC School of Theology and Ministry. “This will foreground Boston College as a place where the American Catholic Church makes its most important decisions.”
Massa said the conference will focus primarily on showing bishops how to best utilize synodality—which calls for the creation of ‘synods,’ or local councils of laypeople and clergy—in their dioceses.
“And this whole idea of synodality, which is a hard-to-pronounce Greek-based word, is just really about having a church that listens, as well as teaches,” Gibson said.
According to Michael P. Murphy, director of Loyola’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, Catholic universities should be where the church does its thinking, as once famously said by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. of the University of Notre Dame.
“Historically, the church is the oldest intellectually conscious institution of all time,” Murphy said. “The church will continue, but we want to be of service, so there’s something historical happening here in this moment.”
Friday’s gathering is the second installment of the now-annual series of meetings that began in Chicago in late March of 2022. Last year’s event, which had about 70 attendees, centered around how U.S. church leaders could better support Pope Francis.
“The Second Vatican Council really called for more expansive dialogue,” Murphy said. “And Pope Francis as pope is saying, ‘Hey, we need to do this better.’ So he’s calling for the state of synodality—which is ‘walking together’—and so our job is to get together, to walk together, to talk about how that might look.”
The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was a meeting of Roman Catholic religious leaders at St. Peter’s Basilica between 1962 and 1965.
The gathering, which was led by Pope John XXIII, is credited for laying the foundation of the Catholic Church for the 21st century. But more conservative members of the church still criticize Vatican II and its legacy, frustrated by its alleged relaxing of the Catholic faith.
“There’s been … in the United States especially, so much opposition to Pope Francis,” Gibson said. “Which is really not opposition to him but I think opposition to the Second Vatican Council, which brought the church into the modern world in so many ways, and that was 60 years ago.”
Massa hopes this conference can minimize this ongoing conflict between conservative and liberal members of the church.
“There’s big division in the church, and so what we’re trying to do is overcome this political rift between the left and the right,” Massa said. “We’re trying to have conversations on the ground where the words conservative and liberal will never appear.”
The conference will also place otherwise divided groups of Catholics—whether they be conservative or liberal, theologians or bishops—into conversation with one another, Massa said.
According to Massa, the organizers of the conference intentionally sought a group of presenters that would accurately represent a diverse array of perspectives.
“We’re going to have a position where people of color and women are foregrounded and privileged as sort of like major speakers, but also [on] the panels,” Massa said. “We’ve done our best to mix panels made up of different genders, different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds.”
Murphy said he is excited to see this “all-star” cast of speakers, including Rev. Daniel E. Flores, S.T.D., of Brownsville, Texas, and Jaisy Joseph, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.
“I’m excited about playing a role in this,” Murphy said. “That we’re actually part of the solution to whatever kind of is impeding us from being closer to each other.”
Gibson also emphasized how having moderated discussions at the conference helps facilitate respectful and thoughtful dialogue among participants.
“And to be able to do something positive, you know, as corny as it sounds, really feels good,” Gibson said. “It’s nice to be able to feel like you’re moving things ahead and in a good way, for not just the church but hopefully the wider society.”
Massa said he hopes the conference will help diminish the barriers that often separate different groups within the church—particularly theologians and bishops.
“My sense is that Catholic theologians are wary of bishops and bishops are very wary of Catholic theologians,” he said. “And so if we can lower that wariness, and sort of show the ways in which fruitful and important conversations can take place over the fences that normally divide us, that’d be very good. And that’s precisely what Pope Francis wants.”
Correction (3/8/23, 5:14 p.m.): This article has been corrected to state that the name of the event is “The Way Forward: Pope Francis, Vatican II, and Synodality.”