Living One’s Baptism to the Full

Dr Elissa Roper, 17 February 2022

Synodality – a new word and a new way of thinking. Although Pope Francis has only recently coined the term, Dr Elissa Roper is already an expert on the topic. Just last year she completed her PhD thesis on the theme, “Synodality and Authenticity: Towards a Contemporary Ecclesiology for the Catholic Church” at the University of Divinity in Melbourne. In her own words, Elissa describes it as exploring the foundations of being Church through the new lens of synodality. That is, how does the Church become more authentic in identity and mission in today’s world, and what language and concepts will help, rather than hinder (Vatican theologians wrote a document called Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church)? In its broader context, synodality returns to the forefront of theology the meaning and value of the sacrament of Baptism. In a synodal Church, we must always be asking: what does it mean that we are baptised as priest, prophet and royal person? (1 Peter 2:9-10)

It follows, Elissa states, that mission and ministry come from these baptismal responsibilities. Vocations (God’s calling) and roles (enabling one to serve the community) become more specific, and allow the baptised to live their lives fully as Catholics. But as Elissa cautions, “the Spirit will take care of the gifts of the community – and we need to listen to that.” We need to recognise the Spirit’s work and respond to how people are called, and to authorise and ritualise their participation. For example, all Christians have a sacramental call to heal, but some live that out as a ministry. This “totally changes how we see ourselves as Catholics.” It breaks down clericalism and broadens models of power, bringing trust and respect of legitimate authorities. Synodality also invites leaders to develop the baptised in their callings – whether it is as liturgists or social prophets.

Out of the ‘triple office’ of priest, prophet and royal person, Elissa finds that the prophetic call is strongest in her. She wasn’t brought up in any religious tradition, and her future husband was the first Catholic that she met. What followed was the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which was “like being thirsty – I couldn’t get enough in.” From a base of “literally nothing”, she soaked up everything about her new faith. Although Elissa’s family did not support her journey, it was like “coming home, finding my place in the world.” So she brings a unique perspective from the outside, and a choice of deep commitment to Christ.

Elissa was baptised in 2001, and has spent 20 years studying theology. On coming into the Church, she was “on fire to give myself completely”. But she wondered what that might look like when the ‘best Catholic life’ was depicted as becoming a priest, brother or sister. Elissa grasped straight away that a vocational call can come within all sorts of lives – no matter one’s marital status or employment. She started studying theology one unit at a time, while working in IT. Over the years, she continued through Bachelor, Graduate Diploma and then started a Masters that upgraded into a PhD. Along the way, she also gave birth to four children, and raised them together with her husband. 

Elissa with her family and supervisor, Dr Sr Kathleen Williams rsm, on Graduation Day

Theology has been a challenging discipline, but Elissa has loved every minute. After beginning with a broad range of subjects, she specialised in biblical and systematic studies. She is an intellectual person, but had to make a big commitment to take her theology to higher degree level. For one thing, people assumed that as a lay woman, she was educating herself as a hobby. Priests remarked about the “fun” and “isn’t it nice that lay people are studying theology?” It has taken a PhD to be taken seriously, Elissa says. Her confirmation panel for the higher research was extremely difficult – they had no understanding of the topic, and took a long time to approve it. Then there was the matter of costs, as she did not know there was an alternative to the enormous fees of a private university. She imagines that her debt will outlive her. Finally, there was an expectation that “things will open up” after the theological qualification. However, the reality is very different, as there remain very few positions in her field. 

Fortunately, Elissa has been employed as the Manager of a Program of Theology started by the Sisters of Mercy for female religious students in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. “Thank God for the Mercies!” Elissa proclaims. She not only runs the program’s administration, but lectures in systematic theology. She is proud to work with the Sisters of Mercy, who are enabling women who have never been able to study at this level to have access to critical theological formation. Elissa has been especially impressed with the Catechists on the Solomon Islands, who give so much commitment to their local parishes, but don’t receive any extra training. The Religious sisters want to change that situation now that they have tasted theology. 

Elissa’s passion for theology comes out of her own experience, and she wants others, likewise, to be fired with the gospel, ask questions, explore and grow in their understanding of the faith. Her research is not abstracted, but comes from a very real journey of various forms of abuse and neglect in the local parish setting. Finding a way through those situations has helped her whole community to grow as a people. Although Elissa acknowledges the call of all the baptised to sacramentally heal, she would like to particularly attribute the healing role in her parish to their Pastoral Associate. Elissa has seen both the damaging effects of clericalism and the hope of a suffering leadership with a different vision of Church.   

Synodality, Elissa believes, opens up many possibilities and pathways. It involves legitimate authority coming out of the community with its blessing. It might lead us to “recognise in a sacramental way the leadership offered by different people,” who may be commissioned or ordained to particular ministries or services within the Church. After all, the Holy Spirit is evoked in such rituals, which authorise gifts for the sake of the Church. Thank you, Elissa, for sharing your prophetic witness as a light for our times. 

[Elissa highly recommends these books for further reading on sacramental leadership: Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (London, UK: SCM Press, 2001). Joseph Martos, Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2015)].

2 thoughts on “Living One’s Baptism to the Full

  1. Thanks for post this on “synodality’…. I am on the margins of the church and Ok with this. Si I really relate to your blog. At the end of your psot you recommend a few good poobs about the synodal church ….Another excellent boook on this that I would recommend would be Forward in the Spirit – The Peoples Synod. p. 1993 by diocese of Victoria Canada … numerous aritcles with some poetry and artwork by all the many diverse delegates and speakers that participated over 5 year process. And a good outline and description of how the synod unfolded using consensus and small group discernment. I and my wife (she was a friend at the time) each participated as delegates.

    Bishop Remi de Roo called the synod in 1987 and mostly just listened> This good bishop died a few weeks ago on Feb. 1st. at age 97…. he had participated at all 4 assemblies of Vatican 2 and was a true prilgim and a prophet. I’ll add a few links to a few articles on his death…. There was an attempt to discredit him after his madatory retirement as Bishop of Victoria 1t age 1999, saying he made “poor investments.” Mostly a big red herring and “payback” by many conservative catholics and businees leaders. Even still, he took full responsibility for any of his shortcomings. Remi was a wonderful person and like Pope Francis, would be the first to say “who am I to judge?”

    Sorry for my in depth reponse and the diversion to Remi…. it is because he truly believed in the synodal church, a church as the People of God, all equal in baptism and ecumenical in outreadh, to other Christians and to People of all faiths, or of no faith, per se (to all people of goodwill, he would say)

    Peace to you in your inspired ongoing misitry…. from Bruce Witzel On Vancouver Island, Briitsh Columbia


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