FROM A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
THE Synod of almost 200 bishops and priests, described by Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht as "an ecumenical council in miniature", was due to open its month-long meeting in Rome today on a note of optimism. Representing 95 episcopal conferences in all corners of the world, the Synod members will compare notes on how the ideas put forward at Vatican II are succeeding or failing in practice.
It has been stated by Vatican sources that the Synod will be merely consultative—it even exists at the will of the Pope —but informed observers say that Pope Paul is likely to feel his way as the Synod progresses.
For instance, the questions of priestly celibacy and birth control are excluded from the agenda, but it is believed that the will of the bishops will prevail in having these issues discussed freely in the light of their experience in the pastoral field throughout the world.
Since the publication of the reports of the Papal cornmission on birth control and of the Pope's encyclical on priestly celibacy, there has been widespread and mixed Catholic reaction to both. It is thought unlikely that the Synod will confine itself to "safer" and less burning problems of today.
Agenda items are: Canon Law, training of seminarians and seminary professors, the liturgy, contemporary theology and atheism, and mixed marriages. The secretarygeneral of the Synod, Bishop Ladislaus Rubin, referring to the "theological ferment" of contemporary theology following the Council, stated that there was a grave need to reconcile authority and dialogue between the different levels within the Church.
Representing Britain at the Synod will be Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham, and Bishop Thompson of Motherwell. Before leaving for Rome. the Cardinal and Archbishop Dwyer met the other members of the Hierarchy of England and Wales behind closed doors at Westminster on Tuesday.
It was expected that at this meeting, among other things, they would discuss a resolution sent recently to the Hierarchy by a conference of 70 priests and laity at Spode House, criticising "the almost total secrecy" that has surrounded the Synod. The result, says the conference resolution, is that there is a "widespread lack of interest" in the Synod, and "it is difficult to see how the conclusions of the Synod can be an authentic expression of the mind of the Church. This danger will be somewhat mitigated," the bishops were told, "if the proceedings of the Synod are fully and openly reported."
Under present arrangements, say reliable sources, the English language Press at the Synod will be briefed by Fr. Edward Heston who was widely praised for the way he carried out this task at the Council. But this time it is believed that Fr. Heston may receive his information of the proceedings only at second hand.
The Synod was first proposed by Cardinal Alfrink at the Vatican Council, and announced by the Pope when he opened the final session in September, 1965 "to be composed of bishops chosen for the greater part by episcopal conferences."
The actual composition now includes 135 representatives from episcopal conferences, 13 Cardinal heads of curial congregations, 13 Eastern Rite prelates, 10 superiors of religious orders and 24 other members nominated by the Pope.
In spite of his likely operation, Pope Paul is expected to attend the opening and closing ceremonies and those marking the Year of Faith.
Messages of goodwill poured into the Vatican on Tuesday congratulating the Pope on his 70th birthday.
In a brief speech to crowds in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, he said that recent days had been "for us and for the world full of hope for peaceful settlement of the conflict in South East Asia.
"Instead, they have given the sorrowful prospect of new armaments and new battles. One could say humanity is incapable of saving itself. Where is goodwill? Where is peace?" Without actually mentioning the Soviet Union, he deplored the Russian decision, announced last weekend, to send massive arms aid to North Vietnam.
The Pope showed no trace of tiring in Iis 10-minute appearance. His voice was firm and clear, without the weakening apparent toward the end of the 17-minute audience the day before. when he received more than 3,000 Croatian Catholics. led by Cardinal Seper, Archbishop of Zagreb.
It was the largest group of Yugoslav Catholics to visit the Vatican since the last war.