OPEN-HEART SURGERY FOR THE CHURCH
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.