Synod Success: Next Step, Involve the Whole Church

Author: Francesco M. Valiante

Synod Success: Next Step, Involve the Whole Church

Francesco M. Valiante

Exclusive interview with Archbishop Nikola Eterović one month after the Synod of Bishops

It was "a successful Synod", even if more time, reflection and deeper analyses will be needed to confirm it as such. But what has truly stunned the habitually measured Archbishop Nikola Eterović is the opinion of the protagonists of the same 12th Ordinary General Assembly, which took place in the Vatican from 5-26 October.

"The Secretary General is satisfied with the outcome of a Synod when those who take part in it are pleased", he explained. "And it seems to me that just about all of the Synod Fathers went home full of enthusiasm".

This means over 250 people including Cardinals, Bishops, priests and religious, representing 113 Bishops' Conferences on the five continents, 13 Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, 25 Dicasteries of the Roman Curia and several religious institutes — virtually a small Council of the contemporary Church, with a significant presence of both consecrated and lay people as well.

"We do not want to commit the sin of presumption, but it should be remembered that the Synod was born in the context of the Second Vatican Council", Eterović continued. "And one of its tasks is to encourage the application of the important Conciliar decisions to the changing pastoral and social conditions of the particular Churches", he added, with a method that "reflects that of the Council, even in the regulation of its general structure".

In a conversation with the author of this article and with the editor-in-chief of our newspaper, the Croatian Prelate, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops since 2004, sketched an overview of the meeting dedicated to the Word of God. And while he was reviewing the innovations, indications and perspectives, he was already looking ahead to the next stages of the Synodal process: the publication of Benedict XVI's Apostolic Exhortation and the Special Assembly for Africa, scheduled to take place in October 2009.

A month after its conclusion, what is your opinion on the latest Synodal Assembly?

I think that the more time passes, the more visible its positive aspects will be. As the Pope said, it truly was "an event of the Spirit". We all experienced it: in the prayers, in the testimonies, in the reflections, and also in the difficulties linked to the pace and to the massive amount of work we dealt with during these three weeks". Again, paraphrasing a sentence of Benedict XVI, the Synod was an authentic "school of listening". Only by listening is it possible to get an idea of the wealth of the cultures, languages, social circumstances and, especially, of the ecclesial dynamism that characterizes the individual dioceses.

From this plurality of backgrounds a common basis was then reached, on which all the work of the Synod Fathers converged. Thus it worked similarly to how Sacred Scripture does — from the words one must arrive at the Word. Synodality, moreover, is a "constitutive" dimension of the Church, to borrow another of the Pope's effective expressions.

But do you think. that this Synod truly involved the whole Church or has it remained an experience for those working within it?

An answer to this question is already implicit in the Synod Fathers' broad representation. More than 70 percent of them were elected by the Bishops' Conferences or by other collegial bodies. This means that once they returned to their particular Churches, they brought the other Bishops the results of this experience, thereby contributing to the concrete realization of the Synod. Clearly, this entails a long process. It has already begun but must continue. And the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation will be an essential stage.

What is the time frame for its publication?

There is a special preparatory process in which the Ordinary Council of the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops plays a very important role. It consists, one might say, in helping the Pope gather the fruits of the Synod and in formulating them within the Exhortation text. This requires sufficient time; it is necessary to let this great wealth settle and be absorbed, also through contact with the particular Churches. Our first meeting dedicated to the Exhortation is planned for 20 January next year. With that meeting the real practical work will begin. It is difficult to foresee the timing; let's say that it usually takes a year, partly because the text of the Exhortation must be translated into the various languages.

Is there a risk that the novelty and liveliness of the ideas that stemmed from the work might fade?

I don't think so, because in practice the Word of God is an eternal theme: the Church has lived on the Word for 2,000 years. It should also be considered that a great many Bishops have decided to dedicate a year or even an entire pastoral quinquennium to this very theme. Thus it is a subject that will be uppermost in the thought of each of the particular Churches in these coming months. The Pope himself will continue to keep it alive; we can consider as an example his Catecheses on St. Paul at the General Audiences. Moreover, we want to depart from this sort of unwritten law of the mass media, according to which, to be up-to-date, an event must be kept "on the front page" every day. I believe it will be necessary to Lind the proper balance between the demand for prompt updates and the need for deeper reflection on the Synod themes.

Concerning this aspect, do you feel that this Synod had some difficulty in getting coverage in the mass media, especially the non-Catholic media?

Paradoxically, this could actually he considered a positive feature, in the sense that Synods often only make news because of disputes or presumed "scandals" that are artfully dragged up every time certain subjects are discussed. Evidently this time inspiration was lacking, given the authentically ecclesial atmosphere that characterized the work.

Yet there appears to be some difficulty, especially in announcing the real theme of the Assembly: "Word of God". This has generally been translated as "Bible", even if in reality it was a far broader subject.

One of the Propositiones presented to Benedict XVI spoke precisely of the "analogical" meaning of the Word of God. The Pope himself underlined its "polyphonic" dimension. In fact, the Word par excellence is Jesus Christ and the media certainly did not grasp this aspect fully. However, we can say that the information was positive and punctual, thanks to which many were able to keep up with the more important aspects of the Assembly — for example, the Pope's Discourses, which were always rich and stimulating. I am not thinking only of the Homilies of the Masses that marked the weeks of the Synod but also of his direct contribution to the discussion. For example, his meditation on the actuality of the. Word of God at this time of economic and financial crisis — spoken extemporaneously at the beginning of the first working day — impressed many and also resonated widely in the media.

Do you think that this connection between the Word of God and society's current situation made evident by Benedict XVI was not always taken into consideration in the Synod Fathers' interventions?

To tell the truth, this impression does not reflect the riches of the Synod fully. It is enough to look at the content of some of the Propositiones: where, for example, reconciliation is mentioned and the commitment to building a just and peaceful world. The rediscovery of the Word of God is an appeal to the Church to become a place of reconciliation. This has important pastoral consequences because it is the duty of believers to bring reconciliation into the modern world that is riddled with conflicts and tensions. And Christ, the Word of God, is the one who really reconciles us with other people and with all of Creation. These topics were reflected on at the Synod. In reading the Propositiones attentively one becomes aware of their fundamental richness, which mirrors — if only partially — the full vivacity of the Synod debate.

What is the relationship between the content of the Final Message and the Propositiones?

With their Message, the Synod Fathers wished to communicate to the whole People of Cod the atmosphere and principal themes of the. Synod's reflection. It was published in various languages and seems to us to have. been well received. Many Fathers assured us that the first catechesis on the Synod in the individual Churches will be dedicated precisely to the Message. Instead, the Propositiones— published with the Pope's consent as usual — serve as the guidelines to reach consensus in the Assembly. They were all approved with a clear majority — more than two thirds of the Fathers — or even unanimously. And they will constitute the frame of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.

One of the most debated topics during the Synod interventions was the homily. This was also the case during the Synod on the Eucharist in 2005. Have the difficulties and problems noted been resolved or accentuated in the past three years?

The homily is a very sensitive topic. I think that on the part of all — priests and faithful — an attitude of listening and openness is essential. The aim of the homily, as a communication of the Church's teaching, is to strengthen the faith, to call everyone to conversion and to prepare them for the actuation of the Paschal Mystery in everyday life. Obviously, the first person to feel challenged is the preacher himself. Consequently, no effort should be spared to guarantee the proper training, starting with the seminaries. Precious instruments exist with a view to this goal. The Synod, for example, placed great stress on the frequent reading of the Word of God and the Lectio divina. Then we are also expecting a directory on homilies; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation for the Clergy are currently working on it.

What does it address?

It is an aid requested by the Synod of 2005 on the Eucharist and relaunched in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis. It will he an important help in dealing with the essential aspects of the Catholic faith during the triennial liturgical cycle. Obviously it will not contain ready-made homilies but rather ideas for them. Various experts are compiling it and I believe it is to be published before the end of 2009. The publication of the Eucharistic Compendium is also imminent — it should be ready in the coming months — another of the fruits of the Synod celebrated three years ago.

Among the subjects which. aroused the most interest was also biblical exegesis, on which Benedict XVI gave an explanatory talk. How was this received by the Synod Fathers?

I consider very important the Pope's proposal on the need to overcome the dualism or even opposition between the two methods of reading and understanding Scripture — and it will be even more so in the future: the historical-critical method and the theological method. This unity of method is very important for exegetical studies. It might seem a subject for experts but it is actually fundamental to the life of the Church and to her mission. Benedict XVI's indication was fully accepted by the Synod Fathers, although its effective realization will need time.

This Assembly will be remembered for two new guests: for the first time in the history of the. Synod of Bishops a Rabbi and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople took the floor. And here too, certain journalistic polemics seemed to succeed in diverting attention from the true meaning of these two interventions.

For this very reason I shall reaffirm the religious value of their presence. The Rabbi's presence was an important sign of the openness of the Catholic Church to our "elder Brothers". It was in this spirit. that we welcomed him. And his testimony fitted into our reflection on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Cardinal Vanhoye skilfully intervened on this subject, presenting anew the Commission dedicated to "The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible". The Cardinal's intervention was to prove most useful at the beginning of the Synod's reflection because it helped to place it in the great living tradition of the Church which is founded on the Old Testament in which we also recognize the roots of the Jewish People. Thus the Rabbi's presence emphasized the common aspects, but also offered an opportunity to repropose a Christian interpretation of the Scriptures. As regards the Ecumenical Patriarch, I would say that the prayers in the Sistine Chapel together with the Synod Fathers should he considered a most important event, which Benedict XVI emphasized with eloquence, explicitly asserting before the Patriarch: "At that moment we truly lived 'the Synod'".

In this sense, do you consider that the Patriarch's presence helped to evaluate better the dimension of the synodality that is characteristic of the whole Church but undoubtedly perceived more clearly by the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches?

Of course, the Eastern world is very sensitive to the dimension of synodality. Nor, moreover, do we lack this sensibility. Obviously, our differences are centred on the question of the Primacy. We have the privilege of having a Primate who exercises his ministry both personally and collegially. In this sense the. Synod of Bishops is a help to the Pope, because it encourages this collegial — one might say properly "synodal" — dimension of the Primacy. All of the Catholic Bishops, of both the Latin and Oriental traditions, stand in need of this centre of unity and charity that is represented by the Bishop of Rome. However, I must say that the Orthodox have also shown great openness to the need to have a reference point with regard to the Primacy; although there is as yet no consensus on the way it. should he put into practice.

Can the Synod on the Word open up new perspectives in this direction?

Patriarch Bartholomew's discourse, and also the presence of the fraternal delegates, confirmed that an important exchange of gifts with our brethren of the Orthodox Church is underway. We are already united with them even if our union is not yet complete. Many were struck by Benedict XVI's words during the encounter in the Sistine Chapel with the Ecumenical Patriarch: "If we have common Fathers, how is it possible for us not to be brothers?"

Of course, not all of the Orthodox Churches proceed at the same ecumenical pace. Synodality also somewhat involves having patience with those who arc a bit behind. Moreover, I found the appreciation expressed by the Fraternal Delegates who took part in the work very significant, although some of them may have had an excessively "top-down" and hierarchical idea of the Catholic Church. And it is good that instead they saw how we actually work at a Synod. We have nothing to hide, especially on Sacred Scripture which was previously a cause of division. But now, rediscovered with objectivity and serenity, it has become a common denominator that brings us closer.

Also to other religions?

I think that the Synod had and will have important resonance within the Jewish world and with Islam. I said that the Rabbi's presence was very important and I would like to recall that

Synod Fathers concerned dialogue with the Muslims, of whom we ask collaboration, but also reciprocity and respect for freedom of conscience and of religion. They are making considerable steps forward in this regard — only think of the first seminar of the Catholic Muslim thrum that took place in Rome just a few days before the end of the Synod — although we would like them to move faster.

In comparison with the Orthodox and especially with the Protestants, Catholics are famed for their scant knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures. From your privileged position of observation, what is the state of the biblical health of the average Catholic?

Thanks be to God it is not so critical. Those who arc practicing save us, those who go to Communion every Sunday and on the days of precept. It is exactly there, in the liturgy, that they acquire familiarity with the Word of God. Rather, our lack is in the personal and family relationship with the Bible. This is also an indispensable need if we are to be able to account for our faith to others. However, over and above the confessional aspect, a cultural requirement remains — because the Bible is the code of Western civilization.

This is your second Synod as Secretary General and it is Joseph Ratzinger's second as Pontiff What are the similarities, differences and developments between the two Synods, in 2005 on the Eucharist and in 2008 on the Word of God?

I think first of all that it is a grace to have taken part in these Synods on two great themes of our faith. The link between them is obvious and is contained in the liturgy. We started from the banquet of the Bread broken and we have arrived at the banquet of the Word. It is a single act of worship. The theme of this year's Synod is the natural completion of the Synod three years ago.

Did the Pope choose this theme?

Yes, after we had consulted Bishops across the world, as is the usual practice. When a Synod ends, the Secretary General writes to all of the Bishops' Conferences, to the Synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches, to the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, to the Union of Superiors General, and asks them to point. out three themes that could be the subject of the next Assembly. In this case, the majority of the suggestions concerned the Word of God. By following this practice, we have already begun consultation on the theme of the next Synod of Bishops.

At the last Synod significant innovations were introduced: the work was concentrated in three weeks, the length of the interventions was reduced and the time for open discussion in the hall extended. Are all of these innovations positive?

Certainly. I think that they have given fresh dynamism to the Synod. Just as there should be, because an institution at the service of collegiality and episcopal communion must be continually renewed. Besides the new Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, approved in 2006, reflects this desire to adjust the legal norms to the constantly developing realties.

With regard to the open discussion in particular, do you think that the Synod Fathers made the most of this opportunity?

The moment of free discussion had a twofold aspect. In certain cases there were very successful discussions on the theme for example that on the reception of Sacramentum caritatis, or that of the final message. At others, instead, the confrontation was as it were, "freewheeling". We thought it would serve a useful purpose to leave the Synod Fathers a certain amount of leeway, without imposing any academic or specialized discussion. It seems to me that at this Synod we Bishops profited more from the free discussion than we did three years ago. In any case it is an innovation and as such should be subject to monitoring. In the future the President Delegates may well intervene more incisively, moderating and guiding the interventions. Personally, I believe that it is generally better to allow freedom of expression, because this is a huffier incentive even for the most hesitant to speak. And I consider the results so far very positive.

Finally, can it be said that the Synod is a successful institution?

Yes. Obviously it is always open to the possibility of improvement. In itself it is already an exceptional event, for the fact that the Catholic Church, so large and widespread throughout the world, is able through her Pastors to meet and exchange opinions in the Pope's presence. In this regard, I roust emphasize the general appreciation of Benedict XVI's willingness to listen and to have a personal dialogue with every one of the Bishops. Each one was able to encounter and greet the Pontiff.

Was the Pope present more at the Synod in 2005 or at this Synod?

I think his presence was equal at both. Whenever he was able, he always willingly took part in the meetings. He prayed with the Synod Fathers, he followed the interventions, even underlining texts and making notes. He himself confessed that he had found participating in the Synod a moving experience. And if he, who is a great Synod Father, said so — and he was present at almost all the assemblies celebrated so far — one may believe him.

Are any innovations or amendments planned for the next Synod?

We are open to every proposal. The Synod Fathers themselves have made various suggestions, although sometimes their requests are diametrically opposed. For example, some have noted that the first. part, dedicated to the interventions — this time there were at least 223 — was heavy going. Others, instead, found it very enriching and interesting. I would say that at this moment we must concentrate on perfecting the innovations already introduced, also because the upcoming Special Assembly for Africa is now at the door.

At what point are the preparations?

They are already at a good stage. The theme for reflection will be: "The Church in Africa at the service of reconciliation, justice and peace. 'You are the salt of the earth... You are the light of the world' (Mt 5:13, 14)".

The Pope has established that it will he celebrated from 4 to 25 October 2009 and has announced that he will go to Cameroon next March to present the Instrumentum Laboris to the presidents of the African Bishops' Conferences. There are 36 presidents representing 56 African countries. We are preparing this document with the Special Council for Africa of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, which is already meeting tomorrow, 27 November. In short, one certainly cannot say that there is not enough work.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 December 2008, page 11

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