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Issue Date:  October 21, 2005

Diverse concerns evident at synod

Final propositions likely to exclude contentious eucharistic issues


Under the best of circumstances, it’s a difficult balancing act to govern a church of 1.1 billion members present in every nook and cranny of the planet. The 21st Synod of Bishops in Rome has underscored just how difficult it can be to find consensus across geographic, cultural and linguistic lines.

The synod, dedicated to the theme of the Eucharist, runs Oct. 2-23. Participants are about 250 bishops elected by national bishops’ conferences around the world; 40 bishops appointed by the pope; and 60 members of religious communities, laity and guests from other Christian bodies.

To date, for example, the most urgent calls for attention to the priest shortage have come not from North America or Europe, where polls suggest that majorities of Catholics have doubts about clerical celibacy, but from the global South, where gaps between pastoral need and available personnel are a daily reality.

Bishops from the South, coming from regions long marked by conflict and underdevelopment, have also been forceful about the intrinsic relationship between the Eucharist and social justice.

Bishop Nestor Ngoy Katahwa of Kolwezi, Congo, gave voice to this perspective Oct. 6.

“Frustrations from injustice and social inequalities, the rancor of living in extreme poverty on rich soil scandalously exploited for the well-being of others, wars bringing destruction and displacement, upheavals of tribal and ethnic hate … are tragedies that cover the Way of the Cross of the people of Congo,” Katahwa said.

Eastern European bishops, on the other hand, have been the most passionate defenders of current norms and traditions on the Eucharist, representing churches that paid in blood over the course of the 20th century for their fidelity to those traditions. Given their cheek-by-jowl relationship with Orthodoxy, the Eastern Europeans have also at times reflected a quasi-Orthodox insistence on reverence and awe.

Similarly, several Eastern Europeans have argued that the Orthodox experience of a married priesthood isn’t necessarily persuasive that it’s the right solution for the Catholic church.

Bishops from Western Europe and North America generally have been the most sensitive to intercommunion with other Christians and the status of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, perhaps reflecting their pastoral experience of mixed marriages and divided communities.

Latin Americans have been less likely to stress ecumenical overtures, in part because their primary experience of other Christian denominations is with the so-called “sects,” aggressively missionary evangelical and Pentecostal movements chipping away at once-homogenous Catholic populations.

Cardinal Claudio Hummes of São Paolo, Brazil, discussed the “sects” Oct. 8, noting that in 1991, 83 percent of Brazilians called themselves Catholic, while today the number is 67 percent.

“How long will Latin America be a Catholic continent?” Hummes asked.

Vatican officials, often dazed by the church’s diversity, have tended to emphasize the importance of centralized norms and authority as a focus for unity, while local bishops have sometimes insisted upon greater autonomy to adapt those norms.

All of these fault lines, and more, have been in evidence in the first two weeks.

By Oct. 23, the synod will have produced two documents: a message to the broader public, and a set of propositions for the eyes of the pope alone. (The distinction is more theoretical than real, since the propositions almost inevitably leak out shortly after the synod concludes).

Unlike secular legislatures, debates in a synod of bishops do not generally build to a climactic vote in which one side prevails. Given the consultative nature of the synod, in addition to a collegial desire to find consensus and a general Roman reluctance to rush into important choices, division on a point almost guarantees that it won’t make it into the final documents, except in the generic sense of needing more study.

In a backhanded acknowledgement of this reality, one Western European cardinal Oct. 12 cautioned bishops with strong views on celibacy or Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics not to go home feeling as if they hadn’t been heard, an indirect way of suggesting that decisive action is improbable.

Hence, the strongest propositions at the end of this synod seem likely to focus on matters about which virtually everyone is agreed: better catechesis about the centrality of the Eucharist; more attention to homilies and reverent celebration of the rites; expanded adoration of the Eucharist outside Mass, especially as a means of underlining the real presence of Christ; the usefulness of local and regional eucharistic congresses; the link between the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Yet whatever compromise language surrounds more contentious matters, the 21st Synod of Bishops has put three issues at the top of the agenda for the new pontificate of Benedict XVI, simply by the volume and intensity of conversation:

  • The priest shortage and mandatory celibacy;
  • The status of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics;
  • Intercommunion, and more generally the ecumenical dimension of the Eucharist.

Even if the pope decides not to revisit church rules on these questions, it’s clear the bishops see a need for creative new solutions to the underlying problems.

Benedict XVI has to date intervened once. On Oct. 6, he spoke for 12 minutes, essentially observing that there is no contradiction between the Eucharist as a sacrifice and the Eucharist as a communal meal.

One synod participant told NCR that he suspects the pope intervened because he wanted to steer conversation away from what he sees as a false opposition.

So far, an invitation by American Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for discussion of Communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians has largely been a dead letter, confirming for some synod participants that this is mainly an American concern.

Other participants expect more discussion as the circuli minores, or small working groups, begin to meet.

Another topic conspicuous by its absence has been the old Mass in Latin. So far, not a single synod father has discussed wider use of the pre-Vatican II rite, even though this has been one of the most contentious liturgical issues in recent years.

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

On the Web
John Allen is filing daily reports of the proceedings of the synod on the Eucharist. All the stories can be read on

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005

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