Open-Heart Surgery for the Church

Author: Jean-Marie Guenois


by Jean-Marie Guenois

The Pope's divisions," as Stalin might have called them, assembled in Rome during the month of October. How many soldiers does the Pope have in those divisions? "More than one million," comes today's reply from the 3,000 religious institutes for women, and 500 for men, who speak with a single voice.

Or perhaps it is too easy to say that these disparate groups speak with one voice. There are lines of division, even among the soldiers of God's kingdom. Some think that the kingdom must be accomplished here and now, through the struggle against injustice against the poor people of the earth. Others fix their eyes on heaven, persuaded consecrated life can only be understood in this "vertical" dimension.

Adding a bit of spice to the discussion, religious sisters believe that their brothers, both priests and religious, have not adequately shared the power of decision-making within the Church. And as if that complaint did not produce enough complications, lay people today are themselves participating in new forms of consecrated life. The bishops, shepherds of the faith, are not sure how to guide these new sheep, the products of new communities.

Since his arrival on the chair of Peter, John Paul II has realized that "we must address the question of religious life," as many people have told him in private conversations at the Vatican. After 15 years of his pontificate, and 100 trips around the world, he decided once and for all to bring the world of religious life to Rome for a synod on "Consecrated Life and its Mission in the Church and the World." As leader of the sessions (and a good student), he has not missed a single working session--something that cannot be said for all of the 348 participants.

The workings of a synod

A synod is the ecclesiastical equivalent of a national assembly. After several years of consultations, 200 bishops gather in Rome from all over the world, chosen by their brother bishops to represent their episcopal conferences in the discussion of the designated topic. There are also 100 observers-"auditors," according to the Vatican terminology. And of course they are pined by the officials of the Roman Curia.

The discussions take place in one of the least inspiring rooms at the Vatican. The Synod Hall follows the style of the 1960s, not the flamboyant lines of the Sistine Chapel. The synodal fathers sit in huge black chairs, matching the color of their black cassocks. They form a semicircle around the Pope, whose white cassock lends some color to the scene. The entire scene is reminiscent of a courtroom, or perhaps a university classroom.

Here the bishops' goal is discussion- for a month, an enormous quantity of discussion. At first the general assembly hears perhaps 30 interventions every day, meeting in two sessions. Each member has a period of nine minutes to say whatever he has in mind. This verbal torrent continues for two weeks. The bishops, nuns, and monks in turn come forward to the microphones, like so many parliamentary deputies. The discussion can pass swiftly from old folk tales to profound theological insights, or perhaps a discussion of saintly life. Every sort of attitude and outlook can be heard, from the bishops representing the savannas of Africa or the urban centers of North America.

There follows a full week of "small circles," during which the synod members work in limited groups. Broken up into groups that speak a common language, they sort through the chaos of the first two weeks, trying to discern the leading themes of the discussion, the main problems to be addressed, the major propositions to be adopted.

The final week is marked by an intense struggle against the clock. In general meetings- first among the language groups, then with the entire assembly-the synod fathers produce a "final declaration." Often that document requires an agonizing editing session, through Thursday night and into Friday morning, before the product is read to the full plenary session on Friday, and the inevitable press conference brings the synod to a close.

In the end, a list of "propositions"- ideas for concrete action-is presented to the pope. (That list is not made public.) Peter's successor receives these propositions and uses them as the basis for an apostolic exhortation on the theme that has been discussed during the month of the synod.

On this occasion, in October 1994, the synodal discussion of consecrated life is like open-heart surgery for the Church. As one bishop remarked, the world of the religious is like "a state within the state" of the Church. There is no shortage of delicate problems.

Differences of perspective

The first problem, without doubt, is the question of "identity" in religious life. Does religious life mean that one should be consecrated heart and soul to God, or that one should be a social activist, free of all constraints?

Bishop Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Columbia said it is time to make a clear decision. He denounced, in turn, the "false prophecy, and often the hypocrisy," the "parallel magisterium" developing among religious, the fact that it is "exceptional" to maintain fidelity to Rome, and the involvement of religious in social work "whose sanctity remains to be seen."

The reporter general of the synod, Cardinal Basil Hume of England, also posed the question in a very official form at the opening of the synod's work "What is to be done when consecrated people take public positions contrary to those of the bishops and the pope? What is to be done when the centers of formation, or publications, or charitable activities are in opposition to the magisterium?"

Even before the synod opened, the Italian cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini sketched out the causes of the crisis in religious life: "an insufficient insistence on prayer in the process of formation...speaking a great deal about poverty while living in enviable, even irresponsible, economic security...the failure to practice obedience...the absence of distinctive religious dress...individual bank accounts and credit cards...the abandonment of the cloister...a labor-union mentality."

In response, or at least in contrast, the Philippine bishop Orlando Quevedo offered a defense of "the radical option for the poor" which many religious choose. They "abandon the security and regularity of institutional religious life to immerse themselves in the life of the poor," he explained. As he saw it-and he is far from being alone in his beliefs- these religious are experimenting with "a more democratic form of leadership." Their vows betoken "a prophetic strength, both social and religious, which says No to the exploitation of humans and to economic deprivation." Unfortunately, Bishop Quevedo continued, these religious "are thought of as activists" and sometimes regarded as "ideologically suspect."

Efforts to bridge the chasm

In clear and radical contrast to Bishop Quevedo's suggestions, Archbishop Janis Pujats of Latvia recommended to his peers that they should summarily expel the "black sheep" from their seminaries.

In an effort at synthesizing these views, the Polish bishop Tadeusz Goclowski suggested this formula: "The preferential option for the poor is not a true expression of consecrated life if it is not, at the same time, a clear religious witness." His brother from Nicaragua, Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata Guevara, tried to separate the wheat from the chaff, saying: "Where the option for the poor is taken without evangelical discernment, a form of political ideology takes root among the religious, who lose a sense of their own proper identity and their function within the Church." And the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, concluded: "Really, the ultimate cause is the loss of faith and love for Christ."

The Czech priest, Father Peter Duka, who shared a prison cell with Vaclav Havel years ago, and now serves as vice president for the European council of religious superiors, added, "In essence, for religious life it is not a question of 'myself and the Church,' but 'myself with the Church."' Father Duka evidently had very little sympathy for the proposition raised by the bishops of Thailand, who suggested the possibility of "temporary religious vows" which would be binding for a period of perhaps five years, and renewable. The Thai bishops suggested that this approach could prove attractive to young people who "fear a more lengthy commitment."

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in her own inimitable fashion, told the assembly that her Missionaries of Charity "spend five hours in prayer each day, with one hour of adoration. We put a transparent veil over the tabernacle so that we never forget that we must, by our actions, let Christ shine through."

Women as cardinals?

From the outset the meticulous Archbishop Jan Schotte, who handles the organization of the synod, had made it clear that the synod "would not discuss the question of women priests." That message was clearly heard. But it did not inhibit a Jesuit bishop from Congo, Ernest Kombo, from proposing "lay female cardinals." That proposition enjoyed a great success with the media, but not with the synod.

Later, a different concern was raised. Women represent 72.5 percent of the world's religious. Without wishing for a feminist revolution within the Church, they do want to play a greater role in the decision-making process. The stakes, according to Archbishop John Aloysius Ward, are immense; "the future of consecrated life within the Church depends on the response the Church will give to religious women."

But there are some limitations on that response. Cardinal Hume, as reporter general, observed on the first day, "What is to be done concerning a certain attitude of reluctance to participation in Eucharist because it is presided over by men?" Cardinal John O'Connor assured the synod that this was a matter of "isolated cases," and he was unaware of any such cases in his own New York archdiocese. Still he admitted that such cases have "given rise to a tenacious rumor in the United States."

From France, Sister Stephanie-Marie Boullanger, vice president of the International Union of Superiors General, gave this report: "Too often women are measured against a male image. This image is imposed from outside, and does not reflect those qualities which, while they may not be exclusively feminine, are qualities in which women are stronger." As a result, she said, "women's voices are not heard."

On that theme, Archbishop Michel-Marie-Bernard Calvet from New Caledonia observed that women have formed their own new roles in the Church, beginning long before this synod. "The women's congregations in particular never cease to play an essential role in the transformation of small, rigid, insular societies, working in their own right to promote the status of women and the development of society in general."

Nevertheless, said Archbishop Maurice Couture of Quebec, it is necessary "to eliminate those structures in our Church, such as in ecclesial language, which are indicative of unequal treatment of men and women in religious life." He made it clear that "the Canadian bishops support the International Union of Superior Generals...when they recommend that competent women should be included in the process of reflection and decision-making, both at the diocesan level and in the Roman Curia."

Finally Sister Chiara Stoppa, the superior of a convent of contemplative nuns recently established within the walls of the Vatican at the Pope's behest, touched the synod with her simplicity, saying that "the contemplative life requires giving oneself totally to God." As she put it, "The cloistered life has a special and unique apostolic significance. It expresses the mystery of the Church, the bride, as she responds to the love of Christ, the bridegroom."

Still, no one dared to oppose the suggestion that religious women should have the opportunity to participate more fully in Church decisions. This was a clear trend-to avoid provoking direct confrontation with militant feminism.

Final themes

Two other issues, apart from the nature of religious life and the role of women, have dominated the synodal discussions. The first is a technical matter, involving the relationships between the Church hierarchy and the religious congregations. Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda of Rome's Gregorian University felt obliged to point out that these relationships "must be governed by charity." His compunction in making that point illustrates how, in these matters, there are often conflicts. Bishop Martin Luluga of Uganda described an inherent contradiction that causes some of that tension. Under canon law, he pointed out, the bishop is obliged to respect the internal authority of the congregations, while the same canon affirms that the bishop has overall jurisdiction for the pastoral activity within his diocese. "So what happens," asked Bishop Louis Ncamiso Ndlovu of Swaziland, "in the dioceses where the religious outnumber the diocesan clergy?"

This conundrum prompted a good deal of discussion, but another theme which was close to the heart of Pope John Paul was not often mentioned in the synod discussions. That was the question of "new forms of consecrated life," arising from new movements within the Church, which explore the frontier between traditional religious life and the role of the laity. Bishop Peter U-Il Kang raised a plea: "The continual appearance of new forms of consecrated life can only cause confusion. We must develop this theme more intensively."

For his part Pope John Paul--particularly in his catechesis delivered to the pilgrims who gather for his general audience every Wednesday-has begun speaking of the "new forms of consecrated life" begun by "pioneering spirits before the Council." As the Pope sees it, these initiatives are "a real consolation," covering "all the fields of Christian activity within our society." He cautioned against taking a superficial approach to the new movements, because the Church "needs them as much as she needs the traditional forms of religious life."

Was that message heard within the synod-a synod which was convened to discuss "consecrated life," but which in fact concentrated on "religious life?" Apparently not Questioned at a press conference on October 6, the day after the Pope made his public comments on "new forms of consecrated life," the synod fathers responded that they "had not been informed about the Pope's remarks."

This article appeared in the November 1994 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061.