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Defensive note struck at opening of synod

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

ROME -- As Roman spectaculars go, it was no big deal. But for the throngs of tourists in St. Peter’s Square and the journalists and other privileged ones inside the basilica, it was an impressive sight.

Concelebrating with Pope John Paul II in the opening two-hour ceremony of the Synod for America Nov. 16 were 296 synodal fathers and collaborators: 41 cardinals, 81 archbishops, 98 bishops, 76 priests.

All were dressed in the liturgically determined attire for the most solemn occasions, gold vestments that shone in the brilliant Roman sun as their wearers marched solemnly into the basilica, flashes of red and purple, 220 miters bobbing.

The pope, his voice still strained from a cold that forced him to cancel one appearance a few days before, read a homily that included no surprises. The objective of the synod, he said, is “to revive the awareness of the commitment to go beyond frontiers and communicate to all the other peoples the faith which came to us 500 years ago.”

If the pope’s comments were unsurprising, they were fitting for a gathering that has been heavily orchestrated by the Roman bureaucracy and seems to have little chance of tackling anything but the preplanned agenda.

In apparent disregard of often expressed views of African-Americans and Indo-Americans, the pope praised “the admirable feat of Christopher Columbus” and the work of the colonizers of this “great American continent.”

The discussions started the following morning with a tone-setting call from the extremely conservative cardinal archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Eugênio de Araújo Sales, one of the three synod presidents named by the pope. He sounded like one of Pope John XXIII’s prophets of doom.

“The philosophical and theological relativism that is characteristic of our time is the basic problem. ... Disobedience in the church reveals a loss of mystique, a weakening of faith and a false way of behaving that is extremely opposed to love and to Christ’s example.

“In a disturbing number of priests and of men and women, religious obedience is being subordinated to personal reasoning and the pressures of public opinion. ... We need a Christian philosophy and a new and vigorous application of the principles of fundamental theology.”

In addition, the great central truths of the faith are obscured by “an inversion of values” that gives primacy to social and sociopolitical activities.

Sales’ ferverino (as the Romans call an ecclesiastical warmer-upper) was followed by two long reports, one on the preparations for the synod delivered by its secretary general, Cardinal Jan P. Schotte, the other on the purposes of the synod by the cardinal archbishop of Guadalajara, Mexico, Juan Sandoval Iñiguez: “above all a call to the unity and solidarity of the peoples of America.”

Professor Guillermo Leon Escobar Herran, described as a collaborator of the synod’s secretary general, then presented a tendentious and defensive 5,000-word survey of the history of the evangelization of the continent.

In the English colonies, for example, the evangelizers -- presumably Catholic -- had to contend with the challenge of the “Calvinists,” from which resulted “martyrs beyond numbering.” Later on, as we come to the 19th century, we are told that Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and the First Vatican Council helped the churches of America “to reaffirm their love for the pope and their sense of being part of a common church.” Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI and “the renewing thought of John Paul II” were all duly credited with giving “new dynamisms to the tasks of evangelization.” without so much as a mention either of John XXIII or of the Second Vatican Council.

After these preliminaries, the interventions began. Each synod member can speak on any aspect of the agenda, speakers being called in the order in which they sign up to talk. This procedure is confusing, because the discussion wanders back and forth on totally unrelated issues without reaching conclusions on any of them. Each speaker is limited to eight minutes. If he ignores the warning bell, the sound is gradually turned down so that he is soon talking to a silent microphone.

The interventions, 13 the first day, 19 the second, were not as negative as the Sales ferverino.

Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh deplored the new climate of secularism and individualism. But young people still hunger for God, he said, and we should focus more on them in our catechesis.

The metropolitan archbishop of Pittsburgh for the Byzantines, Judson Michael Procyk, was one of the few who invoked Vatican II several times. He called on the churches of America to recognize that the universal church “must learn to breathe again with two lungs.”

The theology, spirituality, liturgy and life of the Eastern church, he said, “is necessary for an understanding of the role of Christianity and is essential in any renewal of the Catholic church.”

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee said that we are now living in a global culture that calls for the churches of America to see themselves as part of a bigger whole. The church should work to ensure that this global culture includes Christian values: the dignity of each human being; the central role of the family; the rightful role of woman in society and in the church; the option for the poor; opportunities for work and the rights of workers; education and human development; ecological concerns; religious freedom; and just and incorrupt governments solicitous of the common good. But the church itself should promote and cultivate these values in its own life if it wants to be a credible witness to the world, Weakland said.

More typical of the mood was the contribution of Bishop Cipriano Calderón Polo, vice-president of the curial Council for Latin America. Having quoted a text of Pope John Paul on which to base his argument (as did most of the speakers), he called urgently for action to deal with “the aggressiveness and expansion of the sects” and prayed that the synod would bring about “a widescale renewal of the church” and be “an evangelizing event, preparing the church of the continent to enter the third millennium of Christianity.”

At a conference in Mexico City earlier this month, Giulio Girardi, an important Italian theologian with many years of pastoral work in Argentina and neighboring countries, expressed the hope that the synodal fathers would repeat what the Second Vatican Council fathers did in the first days of the council, namely, reject the agenda prepared by the Roman curia and start from scratch.

This did not happen, and in the present context it couldn’t happen. John XXIII in 1962 had made it quite clear that he wanted the bishops to assume and exercise their responsibility. To encourage the widest possible discussion, he did not attend the council meetings, whereas John Paul II sits in all the time and shows his displeasure openly on his face whenever something is proposed that he doesn’t like.

Few of the bishops, even if totally free, would want to challenge him. Only 142 of the 233 voting members were elected, and many of these were named by the present pope. The probability of major surprises at this synod is consequently minimal.

National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997