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Role of synod: to listen, to learn, not to decide

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“The synod is a discussion group,” Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati told journalists at the Vatican press office November 29. He was summing up the work of some 300 synodal fathers and collaborators who during the previous two weeks had made 254 “interventions,” or speeches -- eight minutes each for synod members, six for experts and other lesser luminaries. The Synod of Bishops for America convened Nov. 16 to run to Dec. 12.

“Few bishops can resist the invitation to speak for eight minutes,” said Pilarczyk. “Each brings the problems and experiences of his own diocese, trying to add something to the overall issue of the Synod for America. It is not an efficient way to do business, but we are not here to do business. We are here to listen, to learn and at the end to produce a series of propositions for the pope, recommendations he may use or not at his discretion.”

The press has been given summaries of the 254 interventions, all made in the pope’s presence. Each speaker had previously handed in his summary along with the full text, both in writing and on a diskette. As part of the Vatican’s obsession with secrecy, the full texts are unavailable to journalists, so the quotations that follow are from these official summaries.

Are the speakers telling the pope what they think? “They are afraid,” says Pepe Alvarez Icaza of Mexico City, who with his wife Luzma represented the Christian family in Vatican Council II. “They know from previous synods that the pope follows every word, scowling when he hears anything he doesn’t like.”

“They are afraid,” says Paulist Fr. Kenneth McGuire, an anthropologist who is studying the dynamics of the synod.

“They are afraid,” echoes Holy Cross Fr. Robert Pelton who is here with a team of six lay women and men in search of creative ideas for promoting Christian base communities in the United States. Team members are church employees who coordinate base communities in parishes from Maryland to Texas.

In response to charges that the synod fathers are afraid of the pope, Fr. Paul Minnihan, of San Jose, Calif., says “Not so.” Minnihan, a doctoral student at the University of Louvain, is working on a dissertation on the synod. He admits that synod language can often be enigmatic because of curial conventions. “They are telling the pope what their problems are.”

“Are you sure?” I challenged him. “Many bishops anguish at the shortage of priests, and I’m told they want approval of married priests and women priests. Where is that in the interventions?”

“It’s there,” said Minnihan, pointing to the intervention of Bishop Angélico Såndalo Bernardino, auxiliary of São Paulo, Brazil. The number of priests in Brazil, this bishop said, has grown from 5,000 to 8,000 in 20 years. But the situation is still desperate, an average of one parish priest for 20,000 Catholics. They are “overloaded, under stress, lack time to take care of their physical and spiritual health.” They survive only because there are 75 pastoral agents for each priest. “How can we solve these problems?” the bishop asks. “How can the synod help provide a creative solution to the problem of ordained ministers and their collaborators?”

If this is a call for women priests, it is so cautious as to confirm Alvarez Icaza’s insistence that the bishops are afraid to anger the pope.

Bishop Gerald Wiesner, Prince George, Canada, was even more cautious when he expressed the need “to address the matter of women in the church” and called for “a just and balanced collaboration” of women in leadership roles.

One bishop did speak openly about another touchy issue. Bishop Néstor Herrera Heredia of Machala, Ecuador, said that there are situations in which marriages break up that do not involve a denial of the love of Christ, nor of matrimonial indissolubility and fidelity. The roots of such situations lie rather in economic, social and cultural causes that precipitate free union, divorce and new unions because of the necessity to subsist and to maintain and educate the children. Many such couples participate actively in the liturgy. Cannot there be a way to allow them to receive the Bread of Life in the Eucharist?

Poor Herrera was quickly shot down by no less a watchdog of truth than Archbishop Jorge Medina Estévez, pro-prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

“Our life should be like a sacrifice, living, holy and agreeable to God,” Medina said. ... “It is illogical to seek to participate in the eucharistic communion while one’s concrete life expresses a rejection of the law of God, as is clear in situations of concubinage and adultery.”

About half of the interventions were homilies. It’s risky, as Pilarczyk said, to invite a bishop to speak. “With my whole heart I thank the Holy Father for having called us together for this Synod of America, our America,” one prelate said. “My intervention is to stress the importance of the formation of our priests. ... The priest must be holy, wise and sound. ... A monthly retreat and an annual obligatory retreat. Frequent confession. ...”

Some homilies, of course, are worth listening to. Since the Eucharist is a key instrument of solidarity, said Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, every eucharistic celebration should include a petition insisting on our Christian obligation to work for justice. And an empty chair should be located prominently to remind us of the vast numbers of hungry people in our world.

The other half of the interventions formulated problems and suggested possible solutions. Many seemed to be groping for a new paradigm, a church in which the role of the laity in evangelization would be much greater.

We must convert the parish, said Archbishop José Ruiz Navas of Ecuador, “into a community of small communities and movements. In this way, the pastor becomes a stimulater of the lay leaders and a catechist of the catechists, so that all those baptized -- adults and children -- can become living and responsible members.”

Bishop Francisco Robles Ortega, Toluca, Mexico, explored a similar idea: personal parishes for people of similar interests in big cities. Teams of lay people would run these parishes under the direction of a priest.

The search for a new paradigm returned constantly to the need to enlist ever greater numbers of the laity in tasks that in recent centuries have been the exclusive preserve of the clergy. It takes less reading between the lines than in Minnihan’s search for requests for women priests to see here a response to, and rejection of, the recent curial instruction to limit the laity to worldly matters and leave the sacred to the clergy (NCR, Dec. 5).

In a typical intervention on this issue, Archbishop Marcello Pinto Carvalheira of Paraiba, Brazil, said that lay people are given “a missionary commitment” by baptism. For a population of 150 million, Brazil has 15,000 priests and 890,000 lay associates.

“Today, more than ever, the priority task of the New Evangelization belongs to the entire people of God. The action of the laity is necessary here, and in many situations it is decisive,” he said.

Many speakers stressed the urgency of inculturation of the gospel in the indigenous cultures of the Americas. The most outspoken was Harry Lafond, head of the Muskeg Lake tribe of Saskatchewan, who was given six minutes as an expert. The gospel came to the First Peoples linked to unconscious European imperialism, he said. Natives lost much in terms of languages, culture and family lives, as well as their own spiritual traditions. A new partnership in a new millennium “must be charted on the gospel of Jesus Christ and be marked by mutual education, open dialogue and a mutual solidarity of justice. It must also take some religious risk, especially in terms of marrying native spirituality with Christianity and in terms of church organization and rites -- dialogue about the place of the elders, the ordination of elders, and the place of native ceremonies and rites within the church.”

From the other end of the continent came a similar call to remember that “we have a root that they cannot kill, from which a new sprig will always shoot.” The speaker was Bishop Toribio Ticona Porco of Corocoro, Bolivia, an Aymara indigenous -- as he said -- “by blood and by my pastoral work.”

Relativizing the New Evangelization, he insisted on the spiritual values of a culture “founded on the living rock of the Andes” that understands that “God is the catechist of the world who reaches all the children he has created, children he cannot forget and to whom he teaches his catechism even when they live in a distant land never reached by any missionary. This God catechizes in mysterious ways with the alphabet of the stars, the beauty of creation and the discoveries we humans make.”

What can the synod do for us? he asked. It can further the beginning of inculturation. It can denounce the past and continued stealing of our land and destruction of our cultures.

The rapid expansion of what the preparatory documents called “sects” was repeatedly deplored. Several speakers warned against applying the term to all non-Catholic Christian churches and movements. Only a few asked to what extent is the growth of these new religious groups due to the Catholic church’s failure to match their zeal as well as their success in responding to the material and spiritual needs of migrants emotionally lost in city slums.

The litany of suggestions was endless. Create new hemispheric structures. Don’t create any new structures. Send missionaries north to accompany the flow of migrants. Stop selling arms to Latin America. Do something about the debt. But what? Nobody seemed hopeful of any real action on what the Latin Americans call the eternal debt. Repeated denunciations of public corruption (which indeed is serious) were seen by some as a way to avoid putting the blame for massive poverty where it primarily belongs, namely, unjust social structures, what Medellín had called structures of sin.

It would be premature to pass judgment at this point on the value for the church and for the Americas of the synod. The discussions in the working groups for the coming days may produce consensus on important issues. After that, it remains to be seen what use the pope will make of the recommendations of the bishops.

One thing is clear. This pope is determined to keep control. He has succeeded in giving the collegiality proclaimed by the Vatican Council the narrowest possible interpretation. Although there is nothing in the rules of procedure to this effect, no general congregation comes to order until the pope arrives, an innovation -- quite different from the practice of Pope Paul VI. The priest, who briefs the English language press explains this innovation as arising from the respect of the bishops for the Holy Father.

Pope John Paul II is a man of incredible determination and will power. In addition to presiding at the synod, he engages in a whirlwind round of public and private audiences, visits to events outside the Vatican and formal liturgies in St. Peter’s. He has to be supported while he is putting on the liturgical vestments. His face is drawn and haggard. His words are often slurred as he recites or sings the prayers. His left hand shakes incessantly. But he struggles on. He remains always in charge.

In the wings are many speculating about a succession, a succession for which they may still have to wait a long time.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 1997