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Grassroots ‘shadow synod’ among alternatives to bishops’ meeting


When the approximately 245 bishops who make up the Sept. 30-Oct. 27 Synod of Bishops meet, they will hear the voice of the laity both inside the synod and out.

During synod sessions, the laity will be represented by 23 lay “auditors” handpicked by John Paul II.

These auditors, however, tend to be carefully screened so that certain points of view, even some widely held among lay Catholics, go unspoken.

But if dissident ideas are kept out of the Paul VI Synod Hall, they’re likely to be audible in the immediate neighborhood. Progressive Catholic groups are planning news conferences, a shadow synod and even a bit of street theater in order to present their issues in Rome during the four weeks the synod will meet.

This session of the synod, the 20th since the institution was created after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), is dedicated to the role of the bishop. The synod’s purpose is to advise the pope on topics of concern.

By far the most ambitious grassroots undertaking is the “Synod of the People of God,” sponsored by a loose coalition of dozens of reform groups and movements, primarily European but with participation from every continent.

Termed by organizers a “shadow synod,” the event will take place in Rome Oct. 4-7. It will be held at the Theological University of the Waldensian Church near Piazza Cavour, a 10 minute-walk from the Vatican.

Approximately 30 delegates representing the six continents are expected to attend, with others following the proceedings on a Web site (www.shadow-synod.net).

The goal is to sort through input on the role of the bishop collected through the Web site and from various organizations, and then to produce a set of recommendations to the bishops at the synod. Individuals may provide input by answering a series of questions about the role of the bishop on the Web site.

The shadow synod will open with a news conference Oct. 4, and conclude with another session with the media. Organizers are also considering various options for presenting their conclusions to the bishops.

The shadow synod will feature prayer services in tandem with base communities associated with the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

At the extraordinary consistory of cardinals in Rome May 21-24, organizers for the shadow synod presented a seven-point set of recommendations. They included:

  • More liberty for local churches;
  • More involvement of bishops in governing the universal church;
  • Expanding the authority of bishops’ conferences;
  • Local election of bishops;
  • Reform of the Roman curia and strengthening the Synod of Bishops;
  • Restoration of the requirement for a two-thirds vote in the election of a pope;
  • More freedom for theologians.

It is likely that these points will also figure prominently in the recommendations of the shadow synod.

All sessions of the shadow synod will be open to the public. “The bishops’ synod will be closed, but we have to be different,” organizer Christian Weisner of Germany told NCR.

Organizers said Sept. 11 that at least eight delegates from the United States will attend.

Advocates of women’s ordination, meanwhile, are taking a more nontraditional approach to grabbing attention during the synod. Rome-based activist Julia Hillebrand, who helps to coordinate activities for Women’s Ordination Worldwide, told NCR that she hopes to avoid “big politics,” concentrating instead on a festive approach.

To that end, she said possible activities include a discussion night at a women’s bookstore in the popular Roman neighborhood of Trastevere, or deploying a team of street clowns, jugglers and mimes in order to gather crowds to whom literature on women’s ordination could be distributed.

Finally, the issue of sexual abuse of religious women in Africa and elsewhere, first reported in March by the National Catholic Reporter, is to be raised in a news conference organized by the pro-reproductive rights group Catholics for a Free Choice Oct. 15. The group has been leading a “Call for Accountability” campaign in response to the revelations, demanding that church leaders take steps to protect the human rights of religious women.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001