Global Council Network

Catholic reform groups gather in Rome

The ‘Council 50’ meeting that took place in Rome from 20-22nd November 2015 aimed ‘to relight the flame of the Second Vatican Council’ and was timed to mark 50 years since it closed. After two years of planning, 100 delegates from Catholic reform movements around the world came together and worked on a combined declaration addressing key areas of focus for reform in the Church.

by Miriam Duignan for RENEW

The weekend in Rome in the sprawling La Salle monastery and conference centre felt like an autumn retreat for Catholic reformers. A three-day summit of discussions, presentations, workshops and prayer--not to mention the important rituals of dining and drinking together! The assembled group consisted of lay people, women religious and priests ranging in age from students in their twenties, to the 88-year-old Giovanni Franzoni, who was present during the Second Vatican Council. I was struck by the enthusiasm, energy and determination of the group who, despite language barriers as well as cultural and generational differences, debated key aspects of Church reform. Though some topics were harder to agree on than others, this was a remarkably harmonious gathering with moments of joy and struggle. Ultimately, it united a group of people who are dedicated to doing what often feels like an impossible task – calling on the Roman Catholic Church to reform itself.

Getting Council 50 off the ground often felt like staging a UN event: our planning meetings involved multiple groups and nationalities working together. It happened quite frequently that five languages were being spoken around the table at once – not for the faint hearted! ‘Council 50’ was founded by the European Network Church on the Move, together with the International Movement We Are Church (IMWAC) whose many engaged and enthusiastic members were joined by other international reform groups to help organize, fundraise and network. The event received many messages of solidarity from noted theologians, including Leonardo Boff and Hans Küng. The whole project was ably led by Francois Becker from France, a retired physics professor, now 80, whose idea of a relaxing retirement is to rally reform minded Catholics into forming a global movement!

The most striking aspect of the event was the diversity of people who came to Rome from so many countries, including Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Togo, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, the United States, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. To make it as universal as possible, the event was multi-lingual with professional interpreters speaking via personal headsets and an impressive Liturgy that was translated into four languages by the organizing committee.

The choice of Dr Nontando Hadebe as the keynote speaker was inspired. Her excellent presentation was full of challenging insights and positive ideas for change. A theologian from Zimbabwe, Dr. Hadebe introduced the idea of God as an interconnected reality, reflected in the interconnectedness of people all over the world throughout history, including between the laity and hierarchy. She reflected on how church leaders had remained silent on topics such as HIV infections and the kidnapping of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram. Dr. Hadebe pointed out that this is a sign of fear of addressing the need to change attitudes towards women. She also expressed the need for an ‘encyclical of the kitchen, living room and neighbourhood’ rather than the Church ‘only focusing on the bedroom’.

Later on, speakers from five continents described their common efforts to create structural and spiritual reforms for a more decentralised Catholic Church and demonstrated how much we all have in common, despite our different social and cultural backgrounds. The panel included some well-known names such as Jamie Manson from the National Catholic Reporter and Christian Weisner, the spokesperson for IMWAC.

The aim of the Council 50 gathering was to bring the ‘People of God’ together from around the world to share how they are “being Church,” in their political, sociological, historical, and cultural contexts. Other aims included raising up the work of base communities and, most importantly, to produce a Declaration informed by the weekend’s dialogues. And it worked!  A group statement was drafted based on workshop discussions held during the event. Included in the Declaration are calls for a greater focus on social and economic justice, environmental action and a preferential option for the poor. As well as an appeal for reforms in the areas of sexuality and family, ministries and gender equality and governance and dialogue within the Church.

The Catholic reform movement is often dismissed as an American and European concern. We are accused of imposing a western, secular idea of democracy and inclusion onto a Catholic tradition that cannot change. And yet, in Rome, we had 100 people from every corner of the world debate and agree on some controversial topics. Those from the global South enthusiastically embraced and often led the call for an end to discrimination and exclusion—an overarching area of concern across all categories of discussion and nationalities.  One of the most powerful statements within the Declaration is a pledge to: ‘Help to make known the experiences of those whose voices often go unheard, and those whom the Church finds hardest to hear, such as women, LGBTQI people, and divorced and remarried people. And to share the experiences of marginalized and rejected people with fellow members of the Church, so that they may gain in understanding and compassion’.

The ‘Council 50 Charter’ was finalised and given to Pope Francis, via an intermediary, during the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council (December 8th, 2015). The delegates of this unprecedented gathering of worldwide reform movements agreed to on-going networking and to hold subsequent conventions - in 2018 in Latin America and in 2021 in South Africa.