Page 4, 22nd November 1985

22nd November 1985
Page 4
Page 4, 22nd November 1985 — Putting the Synod in perspective

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Putting the Synod in perspective

The Extraordinary Synod wi I be covered for the Catholic Herald by a special team of writers in Rome for the occasion. These include the lion Gerard Noel, editorial director, Dr Gary MacEoin, expert on American Affairs, Fr Martin Tierney of the Catholic Communications Institute In Dublin and Desmond O'Grady, our Rome correspondent.

TI{ E EXTRAORDINARY Synod of Bishops will begin in Rome on Monday, November 25, and will last for only two weeks.

This relatively short meeting has attracted an unusual amount of comment and speculation since it was first announced by Pope John Paul 11 on January 25 this year.

Within the Catholic Church some seem to fear that the Synod may be used to point the Church in a new direction and may signal a kind of retreat from the principles and attitudes of the second Vatican Council. Some, on the other hand, see the Synod as providing an opportunity to identify and correct what they see as the mistakes and abuses of the past 20 years. Most, however, will accept the Synod gratefully as an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the Council and its consequences. '

There can be little doubt, however, that the attention of the media has added considerably to whatever misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations may surround the Synod. 1 hope that this will go some way towards creating a more balanced picture.

The Synod

The Synod of Bishops of the Catholic Church bears little or no resemblance to the Synod of the Church of England. It is a relatively new structure, having been set up by Pope Paul VI on September 15, 1965. Its terms of 'reference are set out in the new Code of Canon Law, canons 342-348.

The Synod is a group of bishops selected from different parts of the world who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Pope and the bishops of the world. These bishops, by the advice they are asked to tender, assist the Pope in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world. (canon 342).

The function of the Synod is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations. It is not its function — and this is important — to settle matters or to draw up decrees, unless the Pope in certain cases gives it deliberative power. Its function, therefore, is only consultative. It is most important to be clear on this.

Again, it is important to realise that the Synod of Bishops is directly under the authority of the Pope, who convenes its assembly, ratifies the election of its members and designates and appoints other members, determines the agenda, presides over the Synod and brings it to its conclusion. (canon 344).

The Synod then, is not to be seen as a kind of constitutional "check or balance" to the authority of the Pope; it is one means by which the bishops of the world are given an opportunity to collaborate with the Holy Father for the good of the whole Church.

The Extraordinary Synod summoned earlier this year by Pope John Paul II will mark the 20th anniversary of the closing of the second Vatican Council.

To it will come the presidents of bishops conferences throughout the world (some 105), the heads of the departments of the Curia, and a group — up to 150/o of membership — appointed by the Pope. The delegated Chairmen will be Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, Cardinal Malula of Kinshasa, and Cardinal

Willebrands, formerly of Utrecht and President of the Secretariat for Christian Unity in the Vatican.

The Relator — proponent of the main themes of the Synod — will be Cardinal Danneels of Malines-Brussels. He will have the assistance of .a well-known theologian as Special Secretary, Professor Walter Kasper of the Faculty of Theology of Tuebingen.

Councils of the Church

I should, perhaps, say something about the general councils of the Church — and especially about the second Vatican Council — to which frequent reference is made but about whose teachings there remain some misunderstandings.

An ecumenical council — to give it its proper title — is an assembly of the college of bishops with the Pope and under his presidency. A council has supreme authority over the Church in matters pertaining to faith, morals, worship and doctrine. Collectively the bishops with the Pope represent the whole Church. They do this not as democratic representatives of the faithful in a kind of Church parliament, but as successors of the Apostles with divinely given authority, care and responsibility for the whole Church.

Councils have played a highly significant role in the history of the Church by witnessing to, and defining truths of God's revelation, by shaping forms of worship and discipline and by promoting measures for the ever-necessary reform and renewal of Catholic life. In general, they have represented attempts by the Church to mobilise itself in times of crisis for self-preservation, selfpurification and growth.

The first Vatican Council never completed its work — it was interrupted and adjourned at the outbreak of war in 1870. It defined papal primacy and infallibility and the relationship between faith and reason.

The second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII and met in four sessions in St Peter's Basilica. It formulated and promulgated 16 documents — all of which reflect the basic pastoral orientation of the Council towards renewal and reform in the Church.

The documents with the most visible effects so far were those on the nature of the Church, on its role in the modern world, on liturgy, ecumenism, the renewal of the religious life, the life and ministry of priests and the role of the laity, both in the world and in the Church. Unlike previous Councils, the second Vatican Council did not set out to condemn heresies or to settle disputed doctrines. It preferred, in the phrase of Pope John XXIII, "the medicine of mercy". It devoted itself to deepening the Chureh's awareness of its inner nature, its history, its teaching, its worship, to re-establishing the unity of all Christians and to establishing a dialogue with the secular world.

As the Council itself taught: "The joy and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ" (Gaudium et Spes /). Selfknowledge and a renewed sense of mission, these were the preoccupations of the Church in the second Vatican Council.

Extraordinary Synod

I he Synod has been called to be a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the closing of that Council. The new Secretary General of the Synod, Archbishop Schottc, in a recent press conference in Rome, described the three objectives of the Assembly as, first, to celebrate and relive the extraordinary spirit of the Council; secondly, to verify what has been done to implement the Council and, thirdly, to promote the future deep awareness of the Council and the application of its principles to present and future problems, Archbishop Schotte also pointed out a much neglected dimension of the Synod's work; following the Council, the Synod must not neglect ecumenism, nor the progress made in work for Christian unity in the past twenty years. For that reason, a special point has been made of inviting to the Synod ten observer-delegates from major Christian Churches. As the Archbishop pointed out, the restoration of Christian unity was one of the principal concerns of the Council and remains, in his words, "one of the enduring pillars of the Church's activity".

To look again at the second Vatican Council and to assess its implementation presents the bishops at the Synod with a massive programme. It is unrealistic to think it could be completed in any comprehensive way within these 12 working days (50/60 hours). It is even less likely that there is a further agenda, a hidden one, to throw into reverse the process of renewal initiated by the Council.

The themes to be considered later this month are important but, because of the shortness of time, the Synod cannot review the Council and the implementation of its teaching in detail and depth. I am bound, therefore, to say that the Synod, in my view, will not fulfil those much-publicised expectations which, from the start, have been unrealistic. What may well happen, however, is that the Synod may start a process of further reflection about the Council and cause all of us in our own countries to take stock of where we are and what has been done to implement the Council.

It is, then, most important for all commentators and reporters to remember that the Synod is first and foremost an event to celebrate an anniversary; that the Synod is a consultative and not a deliberative body; that it has been summoned without sufficient time for consultation in any depth, or for a full and balanced analysis of the present situation, and that not much time has been set aside for an adequate discussion in Rome on very many aspects of the Church's life. Perhaps here can be found the seeds of possible misunderstanding and confusion during the Synod itself and in the reporting of it. So I would suggest that you be realistic in your expectations and somewhat cautious in your comments.

Response to Consultation

I want now to say a word about the published response of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales to the request from Rome for consultation on the themes of the Synod. Our response has been interpreted by some commentators as a confrontation with Rome, as offering a coded message of revolt.

This does a disservice to the Bishops of England and Wales and to the Church.

It is important to remember that the bishops did not volunteer their comments; they were asked for their views. And I would very much wish to underline that when one is asked to state one's opinion, one ought to do so as humbly, clearly and truthfully as one can. When decisions are taken by higher authority, one accepts that decision.

All too often today people will cling to their position, come what may. That is not how things should be in the Church. If opinions are honestly expressed in the process of consultation, that is no reason to talk in terms of conflict, revolt, split. Committed. pastors can have different opinions on how best to secure the same result.

The contribution of the Bishops of England and Wales to the Synod will not be confined to the document already submitted to the Synod Secretariat in July. There are other ways in which the bishops can contribute to the Synod. Our views can and will be expressed through speeches, written submissions and in the group discussions.

That contribution need not necessarily have an immediate impact and may not make for controversial reporting, but it will undoubtedly have an effect on the discussions.

The Central Issue

The key debate in the Synod and the principal question for the Church in England and Wales today concerns the nature of the Church and its role for mission and evangelisation; in other words what is the inner reality of the Church, how does it see itself and in the light of that, organise itself? And how, does it relate to other Christian Churches, to other world religions, to non-believers and to the complex structures of the secular world?

It is not surprising that these questions emerged as the key issues of the second Vatican Council and are the key questions in ecumenism today. They help to explain some of the polarisation which exists with the Catholic community today.

Certainly one of the underlying sources of tension within the Catholic Church today is to be found precisely in the different concepts which exist among Catholics of what the Church is and its role.

Some have retained a position which has not moved beyond the first Vatican Council, and which sees the Church almost exclusively in structural, institutional terms. In nontechnical terms, they tend to envisage the Church as a pyramid with the Pope at its apex. They have not given enough weight to the work of the second Vatican Council.

They have failed to recognise the essential truth that the second Vatican Council does not contradict the first, but complements it. The primacy and infallibility of the Pope, defined at the first, are not contradicted but developed at the second Council by that fuller consideration of the role and ministry of the bishop, which recalled ancient truths.

The second Vatican Council lays emphasis, then, on the collegiality of bishops, on their role as vicars of Christ, successors of the apostles, on the true nature of the diocese as the Church of God in each locality, and on the dignity and calling of each of the baptised.

These truths, and others, round out and balance the truths emphasised by the first Vatican Council. Part of our task in the past 20 years has been to try to find ways of expressing these complementary truths of the first and second Vatican Councils in structures and attitudes that do justice to them all. Inevitably we have failures as well as successes to look back on. But some have never accepted that the effort had to be made.

Some have also failed to see how the Church relates to the modern world. Many in the past saw nothing but threat and danger in the world. The Church stood apart from the world and tended to oppose, reject and condemn. The second Vatican Council taught that the Church must be open to the world, its aspirations and struggles and seek to provide it with a soul and a conscience.

You can see it for yourself in the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).

It is my personal hope that Catholics in this country, in light of this Synod, will go back to the sources and will reflect together on the documents and on the nature of the Church (Lumen Gent/urn) and on the Church in the modern world (Gaudium el Spes). There is so much still to do to put the Council into effective practice. But first, we have to come to a common mind.

The Holy Spirit

It is somewhat important, I think, that the Synod be not presented as a moment simply of crisis or conflict. There is a very real sense in which the life and work of the Church can only be seen through the eyes of faith.

Catholics believe that Christ promised to be with his Church until the end of time — and all the time. We believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Council and will not desert us at the Synod. Nor, may I add, has lie been idle throughout the twenty years since the Council ended. The issues today are not necessarily those of the 1960s. The Synod will be an opportunity to look, however briefly, at today's questions in the light of the Council.

The Issues

It is not possible on an occasion like this to do more than sketch the outlines of the present situation in the Church and to indicate briefly how the Church looks at itself and its mission to the world. This may be a help to understand some of the issues likely to be raised in the Synod.

20 years after the end of the Council, you are likely to hear a good deal about the concept of a pilgrim Church. As 1 have said frequently in the past, the image the Church has of itself nowadays is no longer that of Solomon's Temple, massively fortified, set foursquare against the secular world, rich in beauty and furnishings.

It is rather the image of Abraham's tent because the whole Church — like the patriarch of God — is on the move through history and is making a pilgrimage of faith, searching for God and His Kingdom in all the happenings of history.

You are also likely to hear the Church referred to — in Latin and Greek terms — as "communio" or "koinonia". These do not give us a definition of Church but a description: it includes "communion" and "community"; it includes "fellowship" but it is something more. It means that the Church is a gathering together in faith and commitment to Christ of the many who recognise the gift of God's Spirit given to themselves and others. They consequently recognise their need for each other and give their support to each other. Only here in this mutual and vital exchange can we fulfil the will of God. In this description of the Church, true unity and diversity exist at every level under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, It is important to grasp that understanding of Church. It explains so much.

There are several areas in the Church's self-understanding which are likely to be issues at the Synod.


The Synod could well be seen as an attempt to put into practice those words of the Council: "The Church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal" (I,G 8).

For this, continuous reformation is called for. This is not the same as saying that the Church is sinful. It means rather that faults can be admitted candidly while recognising the immense treasure of good in the Church.


The first Vatican Council recognised the primacy of the Pope. The second Vatican Council complemented this teaching by putting it into the context of collegiality, the recognition of the true relationship between Pope and bishop.

In its Constitution on the Church (nos 22 and 23), the Council explained that "the order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in their role as teachers and pastors and in it the apostolic college is perpetuated. Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the universal Church" (22).

The Constitution goes on to say: "The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity, both of the bishops and the whole company of the faithful. The individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches, which are constituted after the model of the universal Church; it is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists. And for that reason precisely, each bishop represents his own Church, whereas all, together with the Pope, represent the whole Church in a bond of peace, love and unity" (23).

If you keep hold of that teaching, you can understand much of what has already been said about how the Church sees itself, what the role of bishops is as "legates" and "vicars of Christ", how they are in communion with each other and with the Supreme Pastor and what is the spirit and purpose of the Synod. It is obvious that in the brief space of twenty years we have not yet perfected structures and methods to express this renewed understanding the Church has of itself.


There is a clear link between this Extraordinary Synod and the next assembly in 1987, which will deal with the role and vocation of the laity in the Church. Much will be 'heard in this Synod, I am sure, about the significance of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist as the rites of Christian initiation and about how they open up for us a richer and deeper understanding of the vocation of each individual Christian.

Each has an active and responsible part to play within the Church and a particular responsibility towards secular society, its structures and its way of life.

The Word of God and Public Worship

A consequence of the second Vatican Council has been a renewed emphasis in the Catholic Church on the Sacred Scriptures.

In the past 20 years Catholics generally have learned more about the Bible, have increasingly made the Scriptures an inspiration for their prayer and reflection. More can and should be done. We need to achieve a better balance between the law and the Gospel, between the Word of God and the Sacraments. All are essential for healthy spirituality.

Essential, too, at this time is a balanced assessment of public worship in the life of the Church. Touching, as it does, the most intimate and sacred aspects of faith and devotion, the liturgy must express reverence, awe, and a sense of divine mystery. And yet it must speak to the heart of the individual worshipper and to the Christian community, and arise out of their needs and experience.

Dialogue and Service

1 want to conclude this lengthy briefing with a word about how the Church approaches its mission to the world in these years after the Council. No doubt the Synod will want to reflect on two aspects of that mission: on the Church in dialogue with the world and on the Church in the service of the peoples of our time.

The future

This may be of some use to you in setting the Extraordinary Synod in perspective and in some sort of context.

It is not likely to prove a dramatic or conclusive meeting; things don't usually happen that way. But it will have its effect. It is important to see how the second Vatican Council is slowly permeating the life and attitudes of the Catholic Church and consequently affecting the religious climate of our age.

The very fact that the Synod is held, the reflections it gives rise to are bound to stimulate the whole Catholic Church to see how better it can assimilate the Council, enrich its selfunderstanding and develop its mission.

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