THE IDEA of a Synod of bishops was conceived during Vatican 11 as a means of extending consolation between the Pope and the bishops.
The Synod was born in 1965 with a motu proprio of Paul VI entitled "Apostolica Sollicitudo", and it cut its first teeth in 1967 when the members bishops assembled to discuss a rather weighty agenda of important items, including the revision of the Code of Canon Law, mixed marriages, liturgy and seminaries. It was the assembly which resulted in the formation of the International Theological Commission.
The nature and format of the Synod has been slowly evolving. It is more consultative than deliberative: its findings are subject to ratification by the Pope.
Paul VI said it was to meet every two years, and he appointed to it a General Secretariat of 15 cardinals and bishops, 12 of whom are elected by the bishops themselves and three appointed by the Pope.
They found that to meet every three years was more practicable, so, after the 1971 Synod on "The Priestly Ministry". The Synod did not convene again until 1974 when it discussed "Evangelisation".
The Permanent Secretary of the Synod is Bishop Jan Schotte, a 57-year-old Belgian who lives in a small apartment near the Vatican's St Anne Gate, and who shops, cooks and cleans for himself.
Some find him shy and quiet, but he is in fact very pleasant, even jolly in manner. He is highly intelligent, fluent in half a dozen languages, and has an enormous capacity for work. He was previously Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. He is close adviser to John Paul 11 who uses him amongst other things as a sort of discrete trouble shooter.
Bishop Schotte has a small staff of seven to assist him, but as the bishops gather for their two weeks assembly a vast team is brought into operation. The Jesuits provide a simultaneous translation service, the Vatican "Administration" provides everything from coffee bar to pencil sharpeners, and for this coming Extraordinary Synod the De La Salle brothers have given the use of their Generalate so that as many of the Synod members as want can reside there for the two weeks, thus maximising their contact time.
This will be the first Extraordinary Synod since the Council. In fact, there have been three sorts of Synod since the Council: the "Ordinary" to which we have become accustomed; the "Special" such as that which met in January 1980 to discuss the Church in Holland and was mainly comprised of the Dutch Bishops; and now this "extraordinary" Synod to mark the 20th, anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II. Participants at each are decided in accordance with the Synod's own special law.
It is said (by those who ought to know) that John Paul II was absolutely astonished by the suggestion that he wanted to "turn the clock back", "reverse" the Council.
His announcement to the Synod in the Basilica of St Paul outside the walls (where Pope John XXIII had first announced the Council itselt) came as a complete surprise, though some of the cardinals sensed that something important was going to be said that day because the staff of the papal household were making polite but repeated telephone calls to ask them to be present in the Basilica.
This method is the Vatican equivalent to a three-line whip in Parliament. What the Pope intended as a happy announcement was not as well received as it might have been: many thought that there would not be enough time to make proper preparation for such a Synod; some presumed that it would be an attack on the Council itself.
Ratzinger and Boff
Cardinal Ratzinger's interview, Report on the Faith. the temporary silencing of Fr Leonardo Boff, OFM, and the announcement of the possibility of permission to celebrate the Tridentine Mass grabbed the headlines, almost to the extent
that all other achievments or this present papacy were lost to sight.
The bishops will arrive for this Extraordinary Synod in the midst of a slogan war in which personalities are pilloried and ideas distorted by caricature.
A rumour has already been spread that the Final Document of the Synod has already been written, and that the actual assembly will be just for show and will be very tightly controlled.
Fr Andrew Greeley's prediction is being born out: "The media image already created for the Extraordinary Synod is that it is designed to rubber stamp efforts by John Paul Il to revoke the second Vatican Council. Despite carefully worded denials, this image persists. Those attending the Synod should be aware — though in all probability they will not be — that the news stories with this paradigm in them are as good as written."
However, the essential preliminaries are already underway. Most Episcopal Conferences have sent in their replies to the Synod questionnaire. These are forwarded to Professor Walter Kasper of Tubingen University. Appointed "Extraordinary Secretary", it is his responsibility to analyse all the replies and compose (in Latin) a summary of them which will be distributed to all the Synod's members.
As well as their written submissions, each of the members will be invited to address the Synod for eight minutes. (Ten minutes each would prolong the formal proceedings by a further two and a half days).
Some members have already prepared their texts; others prefer to wait until they see what begins to emerge.
Presentation to Pope
The first week will be nutlet formal (and even boring) with these eight-minute addresses, but this system does guarantee that the smallest and youngest get as much opportunity to speak as the oldest and the most powerful.
The second week will see more free discussion, at the end of which a number of "propositions" will probably be drawn up to express in summary the mind of the Synod, and these will be presented to the Pope.
In spite of the frustration, the mischief and the misunderstandings currently crowding the air, there is a growing conviction of the need for clear thinking and the emergence of an emphasis from every corner that the Church must go back to the documents of Vatican II and be taught by them.
There is also the expectation that the Holy Spirit will use the human means at his disposal in the Synod Hall, including the formal and informal, the practical and profoundly intellectual, and, it may be hoped, Cardinal O'Fiaich's jokes and Cardinal Hume's Dreams.