The Pope and Synod: Hangmen of the Great Commission
By Kevin Wells
I will not follow this new synodal listening blueprint, and I will not oblige Pope Francis' reproach of Catholic proselytization. I will listen to God. And I will hold fast to Christ's words of the Great Commission.
While I buckled into my window seat before departing Mexico City, the passenger beside me was conducting business from her phone. A new marketing strategy, at a cost in the upper hundreds of thousands of dollars, was being chewed over. The 40-year-old female I would be rubbing elbows with for the next three hours, I quickly learned, would be the one responsible for steering the venture.
Before ending the call, I heard her share (how snoopy of me!) that she’d spent the prior three days partying with tens of thousands of Oaxacans for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or Allhallowtide. The three-day festival, an intensely celebrated amalgamation of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, features parading skeletons, Virgin of Guadalupe statues, ghost-attracting flower bouquets, tiered altars, and the aroma of sweet breads baked for the dead. Overnight candlelit graveyard pilgrimages are taken to pray for the souls of ancestors and loved ones. In its purest form, the 72-hour Day of the Dead, whose origins can be traced back three thousand years, is largely about laughing in the face of death. O death, where is your sting?
But of course, since it is 2022, there was a fusion of fall-down tequila-drunkenness on side streets, carousing crowds squeezed into squares, runaway commercialization, decadence, and voodoo—with which my seatmate began to regale me. Out came the cell phone where she unveiled for me a behemoth photo montage of the merrymaking.
The previous night, she told me, she’d spent hundreds of dollars on a six-course meal with her sister and two friends. Eight Day of the Dead-themed drinks were poured for her and her coterie. For proof, she showed me some of the exotic drink photos. I told her she looked no worse for the wear. “I took a special potion after I woke up this morning,” she said. “It got me back up to speed.”
My seatmate and I made for a delightful pairing because I was in the mood to listen, and she was in the mood to talk.
The airplane was still on the tarmac when a seat-back television screen from the row in front of us was tuned to an American news channel whose hosts were discussing Donald Trump’s campaign visit to Pennsylvania. Five minutes later, I felt like I was the one with the hangover.
My new friend lifted into a rapierlike pummeling of the scoundrel. “I warn you,” she told me in a confidential tone, “I’m a bleeding-heart liberal and I speak my mind; and I’m a huge [liberal Democratic Georgia Senate candidate] Stacey Abrams backer.” Her razor-edged soliloquy centered on the “misogyny” and “racism” of the ex-president. As she droned on, em, delivered her impressions, the plane was still taxiing.
Three hours to go.
When our plane began its climb past the clouds, the conversation turned to her work. I found myself instantly admiring her doggedness, ingenuity, and shrewd mind as she walked me through how she steered a certain piece of “full-body immersive technology exercise equipment” (famous now in America) from the ground up. This woman was not only business-savvy but had equal measures of humor, zeal, and charm. I found her to be the ideal seatmate.
Then talk turned to her very recent divorce of the man “she still loved” but who wasn’t “driven enough.” She explained that her ex was now dating one of her friends, which suited her fine because “she only wanted the best for him.” She, in turn, was also currently involved with a divorced man she loved, who has three children. “I never wanted children,” she told me. “And voilà, now three overnight!”
Later this winter, she told me, she and her boyfriend would be traveling together to Portugal. One word rang in my head. Fatima.
It was my turn to speak.
First, though, I granted myself a buffer, asking her to share with me her Portugal itinerary. As she spoke, I prayed. Come Holy Spirit, come…Come Holy Spirit, come…Give me words for this woman. Give me the words from Heaven. Let my words lead her to You.
When she paused, I said, “I want you to go to Fatima.”
She responded with glee: “I keep reading that Fatima is a must-stop. Do you think we should go?”
One might say the starting gate had opened.
Most of the next three hours were spent sharing with her the Gospel, often interrupted with her objections, personal beliefs, and frequent wonderment. When I told her of what unfolded after Our Lady opened up the earth to allow the young shepherds Francisco, Lucia, and Jacinta a vision of Hell, she asked, courteously, “But doesn’t God make Heaven big enough for all of us?”
“He does,” I answered. “But He’s created Hell big enough for those who don’t love Him. It is for those who live outside His will. It is for sinners who rarely, if ever, think about Him. Hell is for those who choose it, for those who live only for themselves.” So I wouldn’t come off as a killjoy, I told her of Fatima’s Miracle of the Sun and explained that God occasionally chooses to gift us with miracles—as He did for 80,000 individuals in Fatima—to reveal His might and love for us and to show us His majesty and desire for us to join Him in His kingdom.
Eternal realities—her opinions and my scriptural awareness and explanations—were hashed out for a large portion of the next hour.
When I told her I was a Catholic who wrote and spoke about Catholic things, she asked if I had come to Mexico to partake in the Day of the Dead festivities. I told her no; that I had spent the previous week with three thousand teenagers in the hard-luck city of Chalco, where a kingdom of resurrection called Girlstown pulled Lazaruses from the tomb and brought them back to life. I told her it was there that the Sisters of Mary, the religious order that mothers them back to health, has set up shop for 30 years.
I shared with her some of the stories of devastation I knew—of a girl named Zayra, who was chased an hour up a mountain by a human trafficker. I told her of the many girls beaten up by monstrous men, who violated them in unspeakable ways. I told her about Antoninia, who saw her father get shot dead in the street. “All of these girls,” I said, “are saved and raised from the dead by these Sisters of Mary. They have chosen to die to themselves to remove these poor girls’ wounds—so they might finally know what it is to live.” Tears began to well in my seatmate’s eyes.
I told her it was Jesus Himself who was the actual rescuer of these girls, the very poorest of the poor of Mexico. He was the one responsible for leading them into this joy-filled valley of resurrection. These same girls, I told her, have become some of the most successful young ladies in the land that once bullied them. I told her I had spent the previous day with a once-poor graduate, Jennifer, who was now the lead architect helping to build a large new construction project at Girlstown. I said the young lady was just like her; she was driven, filled with joy, and wise to the ways of the world.
Why do I share this airplane story from last weekend?
Because more and more, the Catholic Church has encouraged annihilation of this form of proselytization. The ongoing Synod on Synodality, it seems, is another cog in the wheel of the Church’s industrialization of the crushing of Catholic evangelization—where malformed or Christ-blind individuals are left to dangle; left to graze in a pagan world without being inconvenienced with proclamation of the blazing furnace of the Gospel.
In 2020, Pope Francis seemed to reproach Christ’s “Great Commission” while addressing the students of Rome’s Pilo Albertelli classical secondary school: “Never, never bring the gospel by proselytizing,” he said. “If someone says they are a disciple of Jesus and comes to you with proselytism, they are not a disciple of Jesus. In front of an unbeliever, the last thing I have to do is try to convince him. Never. The last thing I have to do is speak.” Pope Francis later said that only when the unbeliever sees the goodness of your testimony is it correct to speak.
I have always been skeptical of the famous Catholic quote, falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” I have heard it said that some of the kindest people in the world are atheists and agnostics—and it is true! By their smiles, courtesy, and good nature they often seem to be proclaiming the Gospel of the God they do not know. But it is not preaching they do—it is being nice. They gamble with their souls.
As Rome’s Synod on Synodality pushes forward, a greater number of faithful Catholics are pulling back the curtains. There, within the soft cocoon of synodal watchwords, these members of the faithful see an ugly incoherence, like a green worm squirming in the apple in their hand. Many today wonder what this new “listening Church” aims to be; the Church that wants to “remove barriers” and “accompany the marginalized”—where “listening to the Spirit” has gained a foothold on seemingly the entire worldwide Catholic Church.
How about, for a moment, we turn the Synod the other way around.
I listened for quite some time to this woman (whom I liked) and judged that she was lost. I heard the hatred in her voice when she spoke (Trump is fine to dislike; but this was nuclear hatred). I listened to her explain to me her broken-hearted and wrong-headed reason for filing for divorce. I heard her tell me she was able to quickly rebound with a second relationship. I listened to why she didn’t want children. She said she wasn’t practicing any faith. She showed me the photos of her deceased pet dogs she placed on a makeshift altar for the Day of the Dead.
I’ve listened—and listened some more—as synodal leaders have repeatedly requested I/we/the Church do over the past year. If a synodal skywriter was able to travel the world’s skies, I imagine the message he would most want to puff out would be: “We must become a listening Church.”
But the more I listened to this woman, it seemed it was no longer a body beside me but a soul. So I quit listening. And it was to that Christ-barren soul that I began to share the Gospel and the Truth of the Catholic Faith. Synod writers say I must remove barriers—so I did. I removed her incoherence of eternal realities and her thoughts on the burden of having children. Then I waited on the Holy Spirit. There was nothing blocking me—there was no barrier—when I spoke to her soul.
I will not follow this new synodal listening blueprint, and I will not oblige Pope Francis’ reproach of Catholic proselytization. I will listen to God. And I will hold fast to Christ’s words of the Great Commission.
In Atlanta, as my new friend awaited her sister and two friends to head to customs, she showed me from her cell phone that she had ordered my Catholic books on Amazon.
Moral of this story: Ignore the synodal way and make a few bucks!
NOTE: Sisters of Mary World Villages for Children (WVC) is a non-profit organization that financially supports the Sisters of Mary as they help children break free from a life of poverty and lead them to Christ. WVC provides food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses, Catholic education, and vocational training to more than 21,000 children in Boystowns and Girlstowns in six different countries around the world. To donate to World Villages for Children, please go to www.worldvillages.org/donate/.
KEVIN WELLS is a former Major League Baseball writer, Catholic speaker, and author of Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius Press). His best-selling book The Priests We Need to Save the Church was published by Sophia Institute Press in 2019.
(This is a reprint of an article that appeared in Crisis Magazine on November 10, 2022)