A Contribution of Madonna House to Synodality

The present article was occasioned by reading Adam DeVille’s recent book, Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power (Angelico Press) (NIH). He sees one of the root causes of the sexual abuse scandal among the clergy as the lack of power-sharing in the governance of the Church’s practical affairs. He outlines various ways this deficiency is manifested in the structures of the Church. For the purposes of this article I emphasize one — the lack of shared decision-making at all levels of the Church. What must change is moving from mere consultative structures to legislating ones. In practical matters (not dogmatic), clergy and laity must have an equal voice and vote.

DeVille’s thesis is that the clergy have proved themselves widely irresponsible in this autocratic system, and it must absolutely change. We must go from consultative systems to deliberative systems, especially involving many more of the laity. The clergy must not have the absolutely final word about the practicalities of the Church. Decisions about finances, constructions, life-styles, and even clergy changes, must be decided by laity and clergy together. He gives the theological and ecclesiological reasons for such changes, and shows how this shared decision-making will make everyone more accountable and less able to hide abuses. He shows that such changes are not entirely new but can be found in the Christian tradition.

One of the primary sources DeVille frequently cites is the 2018 study of the International Theological Commission, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (SLMC). “Synodality” was a new word for me, so I studied this document. My purpose here is to present how Madonna House — the community I belong to, founded by Catherine Doherty — at our highest levels of governance, practices synodality, and that our experience might be helpful when and if the structures that DeVille argues for replace the present “excessive clericalism which keeps lay people away from decision-making.” 104, NIH

“Synodality” comes from two Greek terms meaning, “being on the way together.” The following passage from SLMC is a good summary of the Commission’s theme: “Synodality means that the whole Church is a subject and that everyone in the Church is a subject. The faithful are suvodoi [Greek] companions on the journey. They are called to play an active role inasmuch as they share in the one priesthood of Christ, and are meant to receive the various charisms given by the Holy Spirit in view of the common good. Synodal life reveals a Church consisting of free and different subjects, united in communion, which is dynamically shown to be a single communitarian subject built on Christ.” (55)

In a variety of ways, this document, and countless Church documents in connection with synodality, speak about “everyone,” “all the faithful,” and so on. The major question DeVille poses is: “Does being a subject and having an active role mean participating in making decisions on a par with the clergy in the present structures of the Church?” The basic answer is no: being a subject in the Church, presently, does not mean making decisions on a par with the clergy. If I understand DeVille correctly, this is what must change. There is no theological reason why the hierarchical principle that “the clergy must make the final decisions” must apply in all the practical matters of the Church.

As well, in the SLMC, and in many Church documents, very often the word “consult” occurs: the bishop has a college of Consultors (8); in the diocesan Council of Priests, “the Bishop is, in fact, called to listen to the priests, to consult them. . .” (81); in parish councils there is “lay participation in consultation.” (84). Perhaps many people reading this article have served on various committees or councils in the Church—as I have—all of which are only consultative: the final decisions are not the result of voting in a democratic fashion. DeVille’s point is that the Church is the most autocratic institution in the world. However, there is no theological reason why, in practical matters, we cannot adopt the democratic procedures of society where lay people, especially in committees, should have a deliberative vote. I was especially pleased to see that SLMC proposes that the Church can learn something about synodality from the new ecclesial communities.

“There also needs to be a decisive promotion of the principle of con-essentiality between hierarchical gifts and charismatic gifts in the Church on the basis of the teaching of Vatican II. This entails involving communities of consecrated women or men, the movements and new ecclesial communities. All of these, many of which have come into being spurred on by charisms given by the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the Church’s life and mission, can offer significant experiences of synodal approaches in the life of communion and of the dynamics of communal discernment at the centre of their lives. . .” (74)

And again: “The entire People of God is challenged by its fundamentally synodal calling.” (71). “In this perspective, the participation of the lay faithful becomes essential. They are the immense majority of the People of God and there is much to be learned from their participation in the various forms of the life and mission of ecclesial communities. Consulting them is thus indispensable for initiating processes of discernment in the framework of synodal structures.” (73)

Madonna House is one of the earliest of the new ecclesial communities (1934). Through the inspiration of our foundress, Catherine Doherty, the community has been given a “synodal structure” that might be instructive and helpful for developing synodal structures throughout the Church. The purpose of this article is to offer something of the “dynamics of communal discernment” that is at the center of our Madonna House way of life, our synodal process in making major decisions in the community, although we don’t use this synodal terminology. (I note that the following reflections are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the ideas of all the members of Madonna House.)

The Trinity

It is significant that when SMLC gives the theological basis of synodality (43), it appropriately first turns to the great mystery of the Trinity. The Vatican II document On the Church states: “The universal Church is seen to be a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Trinitate plebs adunata) (2-4). She is called and qualified as the People of God to set out on her mission “to God, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.” (51) In this way, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, the Church shares in the life of communion of the Blessed Trinity, which is destined to embrace the whole of humanity. (13-15) In the gift and commitment of communion can be found the source, the form, and the scope of synodality, inasmuch as it expresses the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the People of God in the responsible and ordered participation of all its members in discerning and putting into practice ways of fulfilling its mission.”

SMLC also quotes from the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 8:”It is possible to go deeper into the theology of synodality on the basis of the doctrine of the sensus fidei of the People of God and the sacramental collegiality of the episcopate in hierarchical communion with the Bishop of Rome. The dynamic of synodality thus joins the communitarian aspect which includes the whole People of God, the collegial dimension that is part of the exercise of episcopal ministry, and the primatial ministry of the Bishop of Rome. This correlation promotes that singularis conspiratio between the faithful and their Pastors which is an icon of the eternal conspiratio that is lived within the Trinity. The Church thus “constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfilment in her.” 64

DeVille is a sub-deacon of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church and thus is sensitive to the Trintarian dimension of synodality: “The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a Trinity of persons who are equal in majesty, with none having a monopoly of power over the other. Church structures at all levels should be icons of the Trinity, and current canons for the structures of parishes and dioceses alike are not Trinitarian.” 62, NIH

And speaking about the parish situation: “No longer will priests control parishes entirely on their own. What is proposed is not a ‘takeover’ by the laics but a new model in which priest and people hold each other accountable. This model of the ‘one’ and the ‘many’ is deeply trinitarian at heart, and is the only icon, the only image, the only model for ecclesial governance at all levels that makes theological sense.’” 18, NIH

Catherine emphasized that all human relationships have their model in the Trinitarian life. The Ultimate Mystery is a Trinity of Persons. We have come forth from the Trinity and we shall return to this intimacy. We are walking the Way that is Christ, back into the heart of the Father, and it is the Holy Spirit who shows us that Jesus is the Way, and helps us understand his words. Catherine taught: “In order to form a community of love, man must make contact with the Trinity first. Then and only then can he make a community with his fellowmen.” (The Gospel Without Compromise, 55). And again: “The Triune God bade us to love. Yes, from the Trinity springs everything that exists, including our hearts that reflect, or rather should reflect, theirs.” (Strannik, 39)

Our Trinitarian Directorate

That all human relationship should be modeled on the Trinity was not simply a theory for Catherine. She incarnated it in what is a unique approach to governance in Catholic communities.

The community of Madonna House consists of laymen, laywomen, and priests. (At one time we had a retired Archbishop who has gone to the Lord. He also was under the authority of the Directorate described here and exercised no authority.) Catherine gave our community a Trinitarian synodal authority structure: There is no one person with final authority “at the top.” Each group has an elected head, thus giving our community decision-making a practical Trintarian form — clergy, laywoman, and layman.

She wrote in our Constitution or Way of Life: “The governing authorities of Madonna House are the Directors General. There is a Director General of women, a Director General of laymen, and a Director General of clergy. The three, like the most Holy Trinity, must be of one mind, one heart, and one spirit, each consulting the other on all questions of any importance pertaining to the Apostolate (the flock) of which they are the servants. No major decision of any kind is made by one Director alone.”

By and large (with perhaps a few exceptions), final major decisions, in the present synodal approach in the church, are made by the clergy. DeVille says that “such a unilateral monopoly by one clerical person is, theologically analyzed, monotheism of the most pejorative sort, ruled by one ‘god.’” 61-62, NIH In a most practical way, Catherine modeled her synodal structure on the nature of the Trinity. Here are some of the characteristics of such a directorate according to her: their communication must be constant; they must consult one another constantly; there must be a bond of infinite charity based on constant prayer; responsibility rests on all three; they must listen to and share with the community. (Madonna House Constitution)

This is the theory. I have asked several former Directors to share something of their actual experience of how they worked together in this Trinitarian form of authority. I asked them to respond to some of these questions at their choice: How did you go about deciding a major issue for the community? What was the spirituality at work in this form of decision-making? How did you work out disagreements? What was the significance of having a clerical-lay composition of such a directorate? What was the significance of a male/female discernment?

What follows are a few comments, from past Director Generals (DGs), who have discerned together on major decisions for our Apostolate in the spirit of synodality, or, as we say here, in the spirit of sobornost.

Before coming to their reflections, I should emphasize that sobornost is not a strange or another word for democracy. Democracy is a human deliberative effort to come to some kind of acceptable decision. Sobornost is a profound work of the Holy Spirit, inspiring everyone with the Spirit’s own answer. A relevant Scriptural text is Acts 15: 28, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”; or, in another translation, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.” Sobornost is the gift of the same teaching of the Holy Spirit to all. Synodality should be a sharing in this gift of sobornost.

The following comments have grown out of many years of the practice of sobornost in decision-making; they may prove helpful for the practice of synodality for others.

The first comment is from Fr. David May who met twice a week for twelve years with the other two DGs.

It seems to me that it is not possible to live out this calling [of being a DG] unless one believes that Christ really does live in us. First, I needed to believe that was true of myself in my capacity as DG; for it would be impossible to recognize him in the other two if I had no clue of discerning his reality in myself. I was listening for, preparing to bow before, the presence of Christ in Mark and Susanne. What were some of the signs of this presence?

  1. A proposal reached through trial, suffering, and prayer. This process became a recognizable sign of Christ’s grace.
  2. There would also be at times a reluctance to set forth something because of the suffering it would likely require. A willingness to share in the burden of that suffering I took as a sign of Christ’s compassion.
  3. Since we live by sobornost, reluctance by the others to follow through or even disagreement were a sign that one is not infallible, or at least that the Lord’s mysterious timetables were saying to wait a while yet.
  4. On the other hand, agreement from the others was often there right away, even instantly, and the same thought had sometimes already occurred to the others who were waiting for the appropriate DG to see it himself. This was a very powerful confirmation from the Lord.
  5. As the years passed, I noticed something further in all this. I kind of “knew” what Mark and Susanne “looked like” or “sounded like” when Christ was speaking in them. Recognizing Christ in the other two became quicker, more sure, for which I was immensely grateful.

In summary, the only way I could speak of a functioning Trinitarian reality amongst the three of us was by referring constantly to Christ’s presence in the others and in myself.

I asked Susanne Stubbs, also a former DG, “What did the feminine participation add to the discernment process?” She replied:

To be truthful, this question stymies me. Why? First of all, I seldom consciously think about acting as a female person. It comes too naturally to me! However, in making serious discernments with the other DGs, I was not aware of my “feminine participation.” Perhaps Mark or Fr. David could give you a more objective answer to your question, though I doubt that I could tell you how their participation was masculine.

In general, I think that the working of the Spirit and the working toward sobornost in our way of life has little to do with gender. While human factors might exist re women’s and men’s way of thinking, on the deepest level I believe the DGs tried to listen to the same Holy Spirit, who is neither male nor female.

I asked Mark Schlingerman, a former DG, “How would you describe the spirituality of the three DGs decision-making?” He replied:

Here is one way I experienced it.

It is like the parable of the seed growing by itself (Mk. 4:26-29). The seed is seen as a question of a serious nature, arising from the life in Christ lived within the Madonna House family. One way or another the question is brought to the attention of the DGs. The continual work of the three DGs is to receive and grow in the gift of friendship, in the spirit of the Trinity. This growing friendship in faith and trust is the fertile ground in which the seed is planted. “Night and day the seed is growing”; how, the DGs do not know. When the appropriate time arrives, the “crop” is ready. Often the decision regarding the question arrived naturally, almost spontaneously. The decision can be a surprise and will be in the nature of a sobornost. In effect, the DGs share the experience of being overtaken by the Holy Spirit.

Such is one aspect of my experience of discerning and deciding as one of the DGs.

This has been our major form of governance since Catherine died (1985). There were three teams during this period. Only they can testify to the blood, sweat, and tears that have been involved in implementing this form of guidance. So far it “has worked,” and the community has never had any doubt that this is to be the governing procedure for our future.

Could not people in a parish elect a layman, a woman, and a clergy, and make decisions in the spirit of our Directorate as described above? In a diocese, could not a diocesan synod similarly elect a team of laity and clergy — maybe more than three — who would together make final decisions? At the provincial level, could not a similar team be elected? The experience and spirituality of the Madonna House Directorate described here might be of help to such teams.

Fr. Robert Wild About Fr. Robert Wild

Robert Wild was ordained a priest in Buffalo in 1967, and joined the Madonna House community founded by Catherine Doherty in 1971. He has lived a partly solitary life involved in prayer, spiritual direction, and editing many of Catherine’s books. He has also written a trilogy on her spirituality. He serves at the community’s clergy retreat center and is the postulator for Catherine’s cause.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fr Robert,
    Thank you for these insights into the Trinitarian way of forming community. I, like you, was ordained in 1967. Serving as a priest was my calling, still is. I, with great regret, left the public service as an ordained priest, primarily because of the lack of community. Decisions were made by the one in charge. Community decisions were not possible. I was reprimanded more than once for suggesting that lay people needed to be involved in major decisions. I experienced this as an unjust way of serving. Even more repulsive was the privilege that wearing the collar gave me. I remember to this day going into a restaurant and ordering dinner when I went to pay, someone had already paid for my dinner. So I stopped wearing the collar when I went out in the public. As a layperson, I have been in the position of experiencing the unjust actions of a bishop, who later became involved in a scandal. At the time, I did nothing about the injustice. This was another example of a lack of accountability. I failed the community in my silence. If we take seriously what you describe as modelling community on the relationships of Trinity, we will come to be a community that gives witness to the WAY that Jesus taught.