The synod of world bishops gathers in Rome this weekend. The topic — priestly formation — has been much discussed in these pages, but Peter Stanford examines precisely how the four week meeting develops
THE ceremony surrounding a synod in Rome is such that it can mistakenly create the impression of an occasion which rubber-stamps the prevailing papal position or at least the Vatican viewpoint. Pictures are beamed out around the world of the Pontiff opening events with 170 of the world's bishops in tow and then closing the show a month later.
In between not a great deal is heard. The Pope sits in on some of the sessions; there is perhaps the odd intervention from a contentious bishop; the curia is seemingly in a flurry of activity.
Nothing could be further from the truth, seasoned synod goers would contend. The outward image is most misleading.
While bishops usually preface their departure to Rome for synods — which tend to and take place every two years and are followed 12 to 18 months later by a papal document on the subject discussed—with pleas not to expect an overnight change in the way things are done in the church, they do in theory have the capacity to turn the world as we know it upside down. The synods are a visible expression of the collegiality of the world's bishops, acting together to address issues of the day. In theory the contraints on them are few.
The subject of the synod — this time round it is to be priestly formation — is in fact the Pope's choice, but one made after careful consultation With the permanent synod secretariat that is based in the Vatican, and the Council of the Synod, elected by delegates to the Roman gathering from their midst to keep a watching brief in the two years between meetings.
Once the topic has been decided — and they usually try to maintain some link with the issues discussed at the previous synod — the lineamenta is sent out to bishops' conferences around the world. This is a consultation document, a series of suggestions as to the kind of questions that may be discussed at the synod. The bishops' conferences then take their own soundings and three or four months later send back their recommendations.
Once these worldwide views have been collated by the synod secretariat the Instrumentum laboris is drawn up. This is not a draft scheme for the synod as is sometimes suggested but simply a collection of the themes that have emerged from the bishops' conferences. Once the synod itself meets it ceases to all practical purpose to have any importance for the bishop delegates can raise any issues they choose. In fact, of course, their views and those of the bishops' conferences they represent, are already a part of the lnstrumentum, and hence their addresses are likely to develop points raised in it.
At the end of September the bishops start congregating in Rome. For this synod Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool and Bishop John Brewer of Lancaster will represent England and Wales, Bishop Vincent Logan of Dunkeld from Scotland and Bishops Cahal Daly of Down and Connor and Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin from Ireland. (The size of individual bishops' conference delegations is deteremined by their numbers. Conferences of less than 25 diocesan bishops get one representative, up to 50 two, 50 to 100 three, and over 100 four. Thus the largest Catholic nations, among them Brazil and USA, will have four delegates.) Some of the delegates will take a team of advisers with them. The English and Welsh bishops will be accompanied by Mgr Vincent Nichols, generalsecretary of the bishops' conference, Fr Philip Carroll, assistant general secretary, Fr Peter Verity, the press officer and Mgr Joseph Alston, an expert in Latin (for reasons which will become apparent).
The opening mass, celebrated by the Pope, prefaces the Monday start. Proceedings proper begin with reports from the previous synod, and then move on to around ten days of speeches from all the delegates. There are three presidents for this stage — Cardinal Antonio Innocenti, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Christian Tumi from the Cameroons, and Cardinal Simon Pimenta of Bombay. They take it in turns to chair the sessions while Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, the Primate of Brazil, and a former curial official, acts as relator or secretary.
Pope John Paul attends many of these sessions, but does not speak. At this stage the delegates themselves are still not
clear as to what is going to emerge. The different speeches over 10 days bring together a picture which in half a dozen or so principal but broad themes will then be carried forward into the language groups. In effect the general debate has then determined the agenda which will be hammered out in the language groups.
Delegates chose in advance which group they want to go into. There are three English groups, three French, three Spanish/Portuguese, one German, one Italian and one Latin. In the larger groups the delegates are then divided alphabetically to prevent any one of them becoming, say, a European or an African or a Latin American ghetto. Each group has about 20 members, although the Latin section tends to be in single figures as that language declines in importance and each elects a chairman and secretary.
The themes from the general debate are then discussed in detail, and as a result at the start of the third week of the synod the secretaries of each group report back to the whole assembly. After that the language groups reform for one more day to draw up their report, in the light of the feelings of other groups, into a set of propositions, usually around six.
The recommendations are presented to the whole assembly, and overnight printed in a book which is then given to each delegate to take away and study. It is in Latin — hence the need for a Latin expert — and each delegate, after considering the propositions, can answer, in writing, yes, no, or suggest an amendment along with his reasons for so doing.
The group secretaries then get together and debate which amendments to accept. Their decision is translated into a second book, again in Latin, which lists the propositions and asks for a simple yes or no answer. Where amendments have been rejected the reasons for so doing are made plain.
These final decisions are announced to all the delegates and handed to the Pope at the end of the synod. He will work on them in the following 12 to 18 months in consultation with the synod council which is elected by delegates before they depart, and finally an apostolic letter on the topic debated will emerge.
To satisfy the world's curiosity as to what has happened during the synod, a three to four page text is usually agreed by the delegates to be released to the press at the end of the gathering.