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Issue Date:  October 28, 2005

Pastoral issues at forefront of synod

Bishops focus on priest shortage, status of divorced Catholics


While no recommendations for major changes seem likely to emerge from the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, the gathering is nevertheless noteworthy for placing the shortage of priests and the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics squarely on the church’s pastoral agenda.

The Synod of Bishops closed Oct. 23 in Rome. NCR’s daily coverage of the three-week event is available on

The synod was to produce two documents: a message to the church and the world, and a set of propositions or recommendations for action to go to the pope. Because the synod is an advisory body, it is up to the pope to decide what to do with its conclusions.

This was the 21st Synod of Bishops since Paul VI created the institution in 1965.

In their message, approved Oct. 21, the roughly 270 bishops at the synod squarely faced both the priest shortage, and the situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics barred from receiving the Eucharist.

“The lack of priests to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist worries us a great deal, and invites us to pray and more actively promote priestly vocations,” the message said. “We are worried because the absence of the priest always renders impossible the celebration of the Mass, the Day of the Lord.”

While the bishops rejected a change to the discipline of celibacy in the Western church as a solution, during synod discussions they floated several other approaches: greater efforts at fostering vocations in families and parishes; a “redistribution” of priests from areas such as India and Africa that are generating large numbers of new priests; and an examination of the impact of secularization on the capacity of modern men and women to make lifelong commitments.

In the past, the Vatican has sometimes attempted to play down the priest shortage, suggesting that it is a regional phenomenon that is gradually improving, but that tone was largely replaced at the synod with a frank acknowledgement of the pastoral challenges it creates.

On the divorced and remarried, the bishops tried to strike a balance between compassion and upholding the church’s teaching on marriage.

“Some divorced and remarried people accept the sacrifice of not being able to receive sacramental Communion and they offer themselves to God. Others are not able to understand this restriction, and live with great internal frustration. We reaffirm that, while we do not share choices they have made, nobody wishes to exclude them from the life of the church,” the message said.

“We want to tell you again how close we are to you in our prayer and in our pastoral concern,” the bishops said. “Your suffering is also our suffering. Together, let us ask the Lord to help us faithfully obey his commandment.”

Despite the fact that the rite of Mass in use prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which some traditionalist Catholics regard as more authentic, has been a deeply contentious issue concerning the Eucharist over the last 40 years, neither the message nor the propositions contain any language on the subject.

The lack of any reference to the old Mass, or to Catholics attached to it, amounts to a personal setback for Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, president of a Vatican commission to promote reconciliation with traditionalist Catholics, who had proposed in floor debate Oct. 15 that the final message contain a gesture of outreach to that group.

With the election of Benedict XVI, who has at times been critical of post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, some observers believed the movement for wider return to the old Mass would receive a boost. Those hopes were further buoyed on Aug. 29, when Benedict XVI received Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the breakaway Society of St. Pius X, founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a champion of the old Mass.

In their message, however, the bishops say simply that Vatican II “provided the necessary basis for a progressive and adequate liturgical reform.”

Though the bishops were still debating their propositions to be submitted to Pope Benedict XVI as NCR went to press, early drafts suggest that the bishops will largely reaffirm existing church discipline on most contentious points: clerical celibacy, the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics, and intercommunion with Protestants.

While the final propositions define the idea of married priests as “not a path to follow,” some participants said the mood of the synod was not quite that absolute, especially with regard to specific cases such as parts of the developing world in which isolated communities rarely see priests.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta told NCR Oct. 19 that the synod’s general conclusion on celibacy “does not prevent a bishop or bishops’ conference facing a specific set of circumstances from coming to the Holy Father and saying, ‘This is our situation, can we take a look at it?’ ”

On the vexed question of Communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians, the bishops appear set to issue a strong warning to politicians to consider their “grave responsibility” in responding to “iniquitous” laws.

At the same time, the proposition calls on bishops in enforcing this point to “exercise the virtue of prudence, taking into account the concrete local situation.” That language leaves the question of denying Communion up to the local bishop, the same stance adopted by the American bishops.

In general, the bishops called Catholics to a renewed appreciation of their Eucharistic faith, and for greater efforts at evangelization and catechesis to pass their faith on to new generations.

The bishops emphasized the link between the Eucharist and concern for situations of social injustice.

“We have recalled and denounced the situations of injustice and extreme poverty that are in evidence everywhere, but especially in Latin America, in Africa and in Asia,” the final message said. “All this suffering cries out to God, and challenges the conscience of humankind.”

The bishops also called for adherence to liturgical rules issued by church authorities.

“We are convinced that respect for the sacred character of the liturgy is transmitted by means of fidelity to liturgical norms and to legitimate authority,” the final message said.

In contrast with past practice, both the final message and the propositions for the pope were to be released at the close of the synod. In the past, the propositions have been styled as confidential recommendations to the pope, although news agencies generally obtained and published them shortly after the event’s close.

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

National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2005

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