On Thursday 16 November, the latest in the Helder Camara lecture series was delivered at Newman College by US journalist and Vatican insider Christopher White from the National Catholic Reporter. Having arrived in Australia fresh from covering the Synod of Bishops in Rome, White spoke on the topic ‘Will our faith have children? Reflections on the health and dynamism of global Catholicism after the October 2023 Synod on Synodality’.

White began by acknowledging that he was speaking on a question that, as a journalist, he didn’t particularly want to answer. ‘Answering that question requires [me] to put myself in the story and give you my own personal opinions. As a journalist, I try most of the time to keep myself out of the story. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard when you start making the story about yourself.’

Following Jesus’ example of using parables to illuminate a larger message, White said, his approach would be to show images and share ‘some scenes or some moments from the synod that I hope begin to answer that question and give you a sense of what was happening last month in Rome’.

‘Not only are images useful for telling the story of the synod,’ he said, ‘but in fact, they’re one of the few ways we can tell the story’, given the media blackout, or ‘fast from public words’ that was adopted during the month of the synod to enable delegates to share their thoughts more freely. While the blackout made White’s job as a journalist more challenging, he said, ‘the images that emerged over the course of the month began to tell a story on their own.’

Not only are images useful for telling the story of the synod, but in fact, they’re one of the few ways we can tell the story.
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Journalist Christopher White delivers the Dom Helder Camara Lecture at Newman College.

‘Synod mothers’

The first image he showed was of a group of women, including Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, standing outside the doors of the Vatican office for the Synod on the Amazon in 2019. At that time, Jeppesen-Spuhler, a Swiss lay pastoral worker, had advocated strongly for greater inclusion of women in synodal processes. When Pope Francis announced the next synod, and that it would take place over the course of a couple of years, ‘Helena poured herself into the process,’ White said. ‘And this month, when the Synod of Bishops began in Rome, Jeppesen was no longer standing outside of the doors of the synod office. She was inside the room as one of 54 women who had, for the first time ever, been given the right to vote.’

To begin to answer the question of whether our faith will have children, White said, we could look to the experience of Jeppesen-Spuhler, who told White, ‘the doors of the synod office were open for everybody … This is a symbol for me. Let’s open more doors for women in the Catholic Church’. He also pointed to the prominent role of Sr Nathalie Becquart XMCJ (who in February delivered the previous Helder Camara lecture) in the Synod of Bishops. ‘I’d like to suggest the very presence of these new “synod mothers”, as they were called, is a positive development,’ he said.

Back to the Church’s roots

White also showed an image of some of the more than 450 delegates who during the synod were taken on an ‘informal field trip’ to the catacombs of San Sebastian and San Scalistus near Rome’s Appian Way. The idea, White said, was ‘to take synod participants back to the roots of the Christian faith … [They] were shown miles and miles of underground burial sites for Christians of the early Church. It was an egalitarian system, where Christians of all social and economic backgrounds were buried together.’

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Participants in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops walk on the ancient Via Appia in Rome as they make a pilgrimage to the catacombs and to the Basilica of St Sebastian on 12 October 2023. (Photo: Lola Gomez/CNS.)

At the back of the prayer booklet given to the delegates was a little-known text called the Pact of the Catacombs, signed in 1965 by 41 bishops who had been participating in the Second Vatican Council, including Dom Helder Camara. These bishops had gathered at night at the nearby Catacombs of Domitila, and after celebrating Mass, they had signed a pact committing ‘to be faithful to the spirit of Jesus and the service to the poor, to renounce privileges, personal assets and pompousness, and to promote justice, charity, collegiality and communion with the people of God’. The legacy of this commitment, White suggested, has been particularly important in the global South and can be seen today in Pope Francis’ own dream of ‘a poor Church for the poor’.

The synod delegates’ visit to the catacombs, White said, ‘served as a reminder that if the Church is to be reborn, it must recover those early aims and priorities of a Church that is, in the words of the Catacombs Pact, “more humanly present, more welcoming and open to all”.’

If the Church is to be reborn, it must recover those early aims and priorities of a Church that is, in the words of the Catacombs Pact, ‘more humanly present, more welcoming and open to all’.

Under the palaver tree

Showing a photo of Ghanaian theologian Nora Nonterah, who was one of two African laywomen at the synod, White spoke about how impressed he and many of his colleagues had been with her comments at a press conference in the final days of the synod. ‘I come to the synod with the hopes, the joys, the dreams, the anxieties, the lamentations but also the resilience of African women, people from the continent and, in fact, the entire Church that might not always get to sit at the centre of discourse’, she had said.

Later, when he asked her to expand on this, Nonterah told White about the ancient African custom of ‘palaver’. When there is a dispute, she explained, ‘the members of a family or tribe gather under the palaver tree. The elders are invited so that they can share their ancient wisdom, and the young people are also invited to have equal participation to share new perspectives and ideas. What’s always understood is that however grave or serious the disagreements may be, there are deeper ties that must remain. Everyone gathered is part of one family. And those bonds cannot be severed. And through collective discernment, a greater wisdom emerges.’ As she reflected on this tradition in light of her experience at the synod, White said, ‘Nora’s words were simple and profound. She said, “My village has long practised synodality. Now my Church is finally doing so too.”’

My village has long practised synodality. Now my Church is finally doing so too.
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Nora Kofognotera Nonterah, a theologian from Ghana, speaks during a briefing about the assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican on 25 October 2023. (Photo: Lola Gomez/CNS.)

‘You matter’

In the final days of the synod, White said, a photo of 19-year-old Wyatt Olivas from Wyoming in the United States attracted a lot of attention. The youngest delegate at the synod, Olivas approached Pope Francis during a coffee break to ask him to sign his permission slip to excuse him for missing classes for a month. After receiving the signed permission slip back from the Pope, Olivas ‘gave the Pope something in return. It was a small white business card with two words printed on it: “You matter.”’

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Pope Francis signs a note asking that US synod delegate Wyatt Olivas, an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming and youngest member of the synod assembly, be excused from classes on 25 October 2023. (Photo: Vatican Media/CNS.)

‘He later explained that it was a tradition that he had started in high school to remind people they’re not forgotten, that they matter,’ White said. Olivas later told reporters, ‘I think sometimes you forget the Pope is human too. So I wanted to give him a note simply saying, well, you matter too.’ According to White, Olivas said that ‘despite being the youngest person in the room, he was taken seriously by all the bishops and cardinals that he’d rubbed shoulders with over the past month, and indeed the Pope himself.’ White quoted Olivas, who said it was important in the Church ‘to take the young people seriously. We’re here and we want responsibility.’

White concluded his lecture by quoting Pope Francis’ call, at the final Mass of the synod, for ‘a Church that is a servant of all, a servant of the least of our brothers and sisters, a Church that never demands an attestation of good behaviour, but welcomes, serves, loves and forgives. A Church that opens doors wide as a haven of mercy.’

‘It’s a call for authentic disciples,’ White said. ‘It’s a call for people like Dom Helder Camera and other Christian witnesses in the third millennium. For the likes of Wyatt [Olivas] and so many others, I think that’s a dream of a faith that says to the Church and, in fact, the entire world, “You matter.”

‘And I believe that is a dream of faith of a Church that will attract many generations for years to come.’

That’s a dream of a faith that says to the Church and, in fact, the entire world, ‘You matter.’
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Christopher White responds to questions after delivering the Dom Helder Camara Lecture at Newman College.