‘No Topic Off the Table’

Back in the March 30th issue of The Cape Breton Spectator, I wrote about the two-year process leading to the 2023 Synod of Bishops, called by Pope Francis in 2021, which asked Catholics across the world to join in “discerning and listening together to the voice of The Holy Spirit” so as to “walk together and journey to a new way of being church in the 21st century.” (Or, in today’s lingo, to take a “deep dive” into Catholicism in today’s world and “unpack” its status.) This is the first time the laity, who have always been told that they “are the church,” will have a say as to what long-overdue changes would facilitate that journey.

Synod 2021-2013 logo

Parishioners of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Parish in Sydney answered the Pope’s call: about 40 of them came together for two-hour sessions on successive Sunday afternoons from February to May. The sessions were also streamed on Facebook where they attracted, on average, 730 viewers. I would say such a response indicated a real interest in and desire to see major changes in the Catholic Church—changes similar to, but way beyond those that resulted from Vatican ll (which, as we are all aware, have yet to be fully accepted by many Catholics).

Having read a copy of a report on these discussions, I was impressed with the depth of the parishioners of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys’ examination of the hurts and betrayals felt by many Catholics over the past decades. They offered suggestions for winning back those Catholics who’ve abandoned the church over the years and I felt a sense of validation that these included one I have frequently made, the ordination of women. (Although I must admit, the idea that those participating in the pre-synod discussions should depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance caused me to wonder where, exactly, the Spirit has been hiding all these years.)

The sessions included two presentations. One, moderated by Fr. Nick Meist, was called Perspectives On Synodality: Local, Global and Ecumenical; while the other, “Francis: Is A Schism on the Horizon,” was moderated by Dr. Michael Higgins. The Rev. Bill Burke, pastor of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, in his summary of the sessions, noted that parishioners were “invited to share their personal experiences of church and to forthrightly identify issues that need to be addressed” and they “did so—honestly, wisely and respectfully.”


From the beginning, those involved in the sessions were assured that “no topic was off the table,” and there should be “a desire to truly hear the voices of those who have disagreements with the Catholic Church,” including “marginalized groups” such as divorced Catholics who may not receive communion; members of the LGBTQ25+ community, whose lifestyle has long been treated in a “rude, judgmental and homophobic” manner; and those involved in “mixed marriages” who “are not welcome to participate in intercommunion sharing/welcoming” (which I think refers to non-Catholics who can’t receive communion and therefore decide not to attend Mass).

Much easier to understand was another topic up for discussion: that of denying women the right to be ordained deacons or priests in the Catholic Church, coupled with “the general attitude toward women in a male-dominated church.”

Other topics “on-the table” included clerical sexual abuse and the protection of guilty clergy; the horrors of Residential Schools that were predominately run by the Catholic Church, and the years of cover-up until the graves of children “who never came home” were uncovered and the truth of what Indigenous communities across Canada had been saying for years finally captured the headlines.

Class of Mi’kmaq girls at the Shubenacadie Residential School, Nova Scotia, 1929 /

Class of Mi’kmaq girls at the Shubenacadie Residential School, Nova Scotia, 1929. (Library and Archives Canada, PA-185530)

Parishioners expressed “the desire to see the church move beyond the internal, closed and individualistic nature of the church community to a more inclusive and community action approach” by offering grieving families or individuals the opportunity to eulogize a loved one during a funeral mass or service (something that many empathetic clergy already permit). There was also a call to allow General Absolution as a means of gaining forgiveness and reconciliation outside the confessional box that always seemed clothed in mystery and that, once again, underlined that only a priest could perform the magic of forgiving sin.

“Wounds” suffered by the laity were up for discussion and included those inflicted by “rude, arrogant and destructive” clergy or those that resulted from the closure of parishes in the diocese, as well as the arrival of clergy from various countries that resulted in “language and cultural sensitivities,” and “the narrative that the traditional identity of women was encapsulated in a subservient, submissive role of ‘helper to men.'”

The need to change the Church’s stance on homosexuality was a hot topic. According to the Catechism, anyone identifying as homosexual is still considered to be “intrinsically disordered,” so “under no circumstances can homosexual acts be approved” and such people are “expected to live celibate lives.” (It’s a bit of “Do as I say, not as I do,” situation, given the examples of clergy abandoning their own vows of celibacy.)  The fact is that at least one Cardinal (Germany’s Reinhard Marx) has suggested “loosening” the vow of celibacy for clergy who would prefer to marry. (I have always thought that if that became a reality, the right to divorce would immediately follow but again, that’s just me.)

Steps to be taken in an effort to make the Catholic Church more open, more accessible and progressive include changing the way seminarians are prepared for priesthood from a “pseudo-monastic model” to one where they are “embedded in local parishes and appropriate ministries while attending university level theological studies;” ordaining women and married men; opening the permanent deaconate to women; adopting language “that is more reflective of gender equality;” and instituting “wider and more transparent consultation for the selection of bishops.”

It was also suggested that the “principles of Synodality” be supported, promoted and integrated “into the organizational structures of the current church on a parish, deanery, diocesan level” (for example, by having parish council chairs become part of the local deanery meetings or lay representatives on the Council of Priests), and these are just a few of the 17 changes called for by those involved in the parish project.


I found myself in agreement with most of the topics suggested for discussion and most of the recommended actions, but I do have a few observations to offer. Calling out the lack of a “mature, modern and informed approach to human sexuality within the church culture” seemed at odds with the call for “respect, appreciation and love of the Catholic faith and traditions and the fear that, in our efforts to attract more followers back to the church, we may diminish what our Catholic faith espouses, i.e. what the church says about human sexuality/objectification of sexuality.”

I would suggest that the church’s stance on sexuality resulted in its being “hoist on its own petard” when the abuse scandal involving innocent children was fully exposed, despite years of cover-up. The ongoing fallout from those crimes along with the sad saga of the Residential Schools will be the church’s unforgivable legacy.

St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Church, Sydney, NS

St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Church, Sydney, NS (Source: Facebook)

And the “wound” represented by the “[f]inancial burdens and reassignment of parish funds and assets to pay for sexual abuse by priests” is one with which I have a problem. Granted, the Vatican should have been responsible for such compensation, but given diocesan bishops and local pastors solved their abuse  “problems” by shipping the abusers off to other parishes, surely there is also some diocesan and parish responsibility?

That said, one could only be impressed by the manner in which those who participated in the pre-synodal discussions approached their monumental task, shining light on decades of problems long endured by the laity. Presenting these concerns and hopes, gathered from around the Catholic world, to the men in the highest positions at the Vatican will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Rest assured, however, that many of those who occupy the seats of the mighty will not be open to change. Pope Francis has already been the victim of Cardinals and Bishops who prefer the status quo and resist any suggestion that Catholicism is in need of an overhaul.

I hope the honesty and sincerity with which the St. Marguerite Bourgeoys parishioners have presented their opinions and suggestions, the hours they put into producing such a comprehensive and revealing summary of their faith and their desire for change, will be appreciated by their fellow parishioners. Promoting the “positive goodness about the Catholic faith” might become an easier proposition if many—or all—their suggested changes become reality.




Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.