Page 2, 4th April 1986

4th April 1986
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Letter from


by Desinond O'Grady

Rome and Brazil on common ground

THE recent meeting of Brazilian bishops in Rome was perhaps the best example of collegiality since the second Vatican Council revived the concept. Moreover, it suggested that the current constitutional confusion in the Church can be resolved positively.

The heads of the 14 commissions of the Brazilian episcopal conference were brought to Rome for a three-day summit, in the Pope's presence, with the heads of 10 offices of the Roman curia. The Pope invited the Brazilian cardinals also.'

It was a revamped version of the ad limina visits in which all bishops report to Rome every five years. But on these visits, bishops see the heads of curial congregation individually. On this occasion, however, all the curial heads together had exchanges with the episcopal conference's representatives. Instead of one individual with another, it was two teams working together.

Was it simply Rome pistolwhipping the bishops? John Paul told the bishops to stop bickering and put into train positive action.

He stressed unity at all costs. One Brazilian participant said the bishops would appreciate clear directives from Rome while Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Secretary of State, promised that greater attention would be paid in future to the Brazilian Church's voice. The best of the meeting will be its consequences in Brazil but the forum-formula seems suited to fusing Rome and local churches.

The forum-formula has such potential many wonder why it has not been tried before. It is favoured by the postconciliar increase in the number of episcopal conferences, and by their enhanced status.

John Paul's pontificiate has produced a profound shake-up in the Church's governing bodies which has contradicted some conciliar expectations.

As a result of the Vatican Council, the synod of bishops was established as an organ of collegiality. Some hoped that the Pope would govern the Church together with the synod.

It looked as if the synod could be the postconciliar governing organ with the Pope less prominent than before, and the cardinals and curia filling minor roles. A pointer in this direction was Paul VI's downgrading the cardinalate by excluding those over 80 from participating in papal elections.

However, John Paul II, impressed by the cardinalate college's performance after the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul

I, gave it a new importance and mollified the over 80 cardinals who had been offended by Paul VI's innovation. John Paul saw the cardinals as a compact group capable of taking decisions and appointed an international, 15 cardinal commission to advise on reforming Vatican finances and the curia.

Did the renovated role of the cardinalate college mean that the synod is to be a mere talking shop? At least the last synod published its conclusions at its closing session instead of merely referring them to the Pope.

If the Synod has been somewhat disappointing as an example of collegiality, the episcopal conferences have made great strides. Their development gave substance to the last synod whose participants were the heads of episcopal conferences.

John Paul has not, as some predicted, left his Vatican palace for an apartment in Rome. On the contrary, he has given the papacy new prominence but, despite first impressions, this may provide the best occasion for the episcopal conference to obtain greater leeway. Episcopal conferences' initiative would cause more concern about threats to unity in Rome if there were not a strong, active Pope.

If, as some forecast, the synod had become the key governing body, tricky problems in local churches would be devolved to it, its permanent staff would be enlarged and, within no time, it would be virtually another curia.

Indeed there is now danger of overlap and confusion of roles. Who is calling the shots: the refurbished cardinalate college, the curia the Pope's traditional collaborators, the synod, or the national episcopal conferences?

Overlap and confusion can be a sign of vitality. In the jostling, the national episcopal conferences are proving vigorous as they are a "grassroots" body. The cardinals are stalled because of the 15-man commission's failure to produce answers on curial reform, and Vatican Finances. The curia is a sleeping giant, and the synod is still in swaddling clothes.

The Brazilian bishops' meeting suggested that the different pieces of the Churchgovernment kaleidoscope are now falling into place. It brought together the Pope, the Brazilian cardinals, representatives of its episcopal conference and heads of the curia in an atmosphere described as "fraternal". Collegiality seems to be acquiring more substance as old customs (the ad limina visit) are renovated by a new awareness.

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