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Issue Date:  October 14, 2005

Synod begins with candid talk from bishops


Priestly celibacy, Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, intercommunion with other Christians, and the question of what to do about pro-choice Catholic politicians are a few of the sticky issues that have been the subject of frank discussions in unusually public fashion during the first few days of the 21st Synod of Bishops, which runs Oct. 2-23 and is dedicated to the theme of the Eucharist.

The first week of a synod is generally devoted to dozens of speeches on a wide variety of topics, in the hope that gradually key themes will emerge as the focus of later discussion.

While it’s too soon to know if a majority at the synod support a change in direction on any of these questions, the very fact of the debate suggests that Pope Benedict’s changes to synod rules designed to promote open discussion have had at least some effect.

Other topics that have surfaced include the link between the Eucharist and work for social justice, ecumenism, catechesis, inculturation, the connection between the Eucharist and penance, the theology of the real presence of Christ, the Eucharist as a sacrifice, the Eucharist and environmentalism, and the proper celebration of liturgical rites.

Aside from grand theological debates, some bishops have made practical suggestions, such as returning to the custom of the early church of using real bread for the Eucharist rather than unleavened hosts. (Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron of Papua New Guinea reported that some of his people actually believe priests lie when they call people to “eat and drink,” because they administer flat, tasteless bread and just a sip of wine). Bishop Javier Echevarría, the prelate of Opus Dei, suggested discontinuing the distribution of Communion at large events if it can’t be done reverently, and limiting concelebration.

In the end, it is up to Pope Benedict to decide what, if anything, to do with the advice he receives from the synod.

The synod, created in 1965 by Pope Paul VI as a way of soliciting advice from the world’s bishops about matters of universal concern, brings together some 250 bishops selected both by bishops’ conferences and the pope, along with roughly 100 other invited participants and observers.

The priest shortage came up early and often over the synod’s first week, with some participants appearing to suggest a reconsideration of the celibacy requirement, and others defending it.

Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, Italy, the relator (meaning roughly “moderator”) for the synod, started the celibacy discussion in his 52-page Relatio ante disceptationem, a synthesis of comments from around the world sent in prior to the synod.

Without identifying which bishops supported the measure, Scola reported that some synod participants had “put forward the request to ordain married faithful of proven faith and virtue, the so-called viri probati.’ ”

Scola himself expressed reservations about a change in the celibacy requirement, but drew a quick response from Bishop Luis Antonio G. Tagle of Imus, Philippines. “In the absence of the priest, there is no Eucharist. We should face squarely the issue of the shortage of priests,” he said.

Cardinal Adrianus Simonis of Holland said Oct. 6 that in his view, “structural changes such as, for example, the admission of married men to the priesthood, do not seem a solution.”

Another previously taboo topic raised in the synod is the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

“Our church would be enriched if we were able to invite dedicated Catholics, currently excluded from the Eucharist, to return to the Lord’s Table,” said the archbishop of Wellington in New Zealand, John Atcherley Dew. “There are those whose marriages ended in sadness; they have never abandoned the church, but are currently excluded from the Eucharist.”

To date, three bishops from the developing world have stressed the link between the Eucharist and ecology.

“We also hope that the bread that is converted into the body of the Lord and the wine which is converted into his blood may be fruit of a fertile, pure and uncontaminated land,” said Bishop Gabriel Peñate Rodríguez, apostolic vicar of Izabal in Guatemala.

Echoes of the wrenching American debate during the 2004 elections over denying Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians were heard in an Oct. 4 intervention by Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the former archbishop of San Francisco. Levada noted how difficult this issue had been for the American bishops, and asked for discussion within the synod.

To date, two cardinals have seconded Levada’s call for discussion, but one synod source told NCR Oct. 6 that many participants regarded it primarily as an “American question.”

In recent years, debates over the Eucharist have often turned on a clash between liberals, who tend to emphasize the “horizontal” dimension of the Mass as a community meal that leads to action on behalf of justice, and conservatives who focus on the Mass as a sacrifice that makes Christ really present in the elements of bread and wine.

Those tendencies have been reflected in synod discussion. During the open discussion on the evening of Oct. 5, for example, Cardinal George Pell of Australia voiced concern that talk about “various presences” of Christ, such as in the community, in scripture and in the individual believer can blur the centrality of the real presence in the Eucharist.

“We are not pantheists,” he warned the synod.

Benedict XVI has been present for most, though not all, of the synod sessions, and so far has not intervened in the debates.

Prior to the opening of the synod, Benedict changed the rules to allow for one hour of open discussion each evening, in response to repeated frustrations voiced by bishops over the years (including then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) that the synod didn’t allow for enough real exchange.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 14, 2005

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