Signs of the Times

Synod Roundup

Calling the Synod of Bishops that met in October almost a new beginning for the church, Pope John Paul II urged bishops to promote church teaching courageously and work for church unity. During a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the closing of the synod on Oct. 27, the pope praised the climate of communion he said characterized the monthlong bishops’ meeting and said the church’s strength is her communion; her weakness is division and internal strife.

Nearly 250 bishops from more than 110 countries attended the synod, which focused on the bishop’s role in the church. After four weeks of speech-giving and small-group discussions, they issued a message to the world and handed a confidential list of 67 proposals to the pope. The bishops’ message said the credibility of their ministry depends largely on how effectively they reach out to the poor, the suffering and the alienated. It touched on the main topics of the synod: the bishop as a figure of holiness, as a weaver of unity at every level of the church and as a voice of hope in a world marked by violence and injustice.


The five-page message said bishops could not close their eyes to the collective tragedies of the world. Besides condemning terrorism as completely unjustifiable, the message said a drastic moral change is needed to address the fact that 1.2 billion people in the world live on less than $1 a day. It said the modern bishop should not only be holy, but should practice Gospel poverty in imitation of Christ. We should be poor in the face of our brothers and sisters, marked by a style of life which draws people to Jesus the Lord, it said. When it is necessary, he should not hesitate to raise his voice for those who have no voice, so that their rights will be recognized and respected.

In describing the figure of the bishop, the message said he should be open to everyone and engage in dialogue with those who do not share the faith. But he must also warn his people against false teachings and oppose every slogan and argument that claims to reduce the cross of Christ to nothing.

The message touched briefly on the issue of communion and collegiality, without entering into the synod’s debate over specific steps to increase cooperation between the universal church and particular churches. It encouraged bishops to promote priestly vocations. It thanked lay people and religious for their contributions and said skilled theologians were essential for the church to explain the faith in a new and accessible language.

As he has done in previous synods, the 81-year-old pope attended all of the meeting’s group sessions, telling pilgrims later that he was relishing the climate of communion that characterized [the gatherings] and listening with great interest to the reflections proposed. He said the Second Vatican Council had dedicated great attention to the bishop and his church role, but this teaching needed to be further deepened and appropriately adjusted to the evolving of the times and situations.

The pope’s observation about unity at the synod was echoed by other participants, including two prominent cardinals. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Italy, said the gathering marked a high point in church unity, despite some disagreement over the relationship between the local and universal church. Dozens of participants had asked that local churches and bishops’ conferences be given more decision-making authority on practical and pastoral issues. In addition, seven Eastern Catholic patriarchs at the synod gave the pope a document primarily asking him to bring church law into conformity with traditional Eastern autonomy.

Probably in the history of the church there has never been a moment like this, in which the churchalthough spread out across the world, in many languages and culturesfelt so united and gave such an example of communion, Cardinal Martini told reporters on Oct. 22. The cardinal said the consensus of the synod was that the tools of collegialityincluding synods, bishops’ conferences, ad limina visits by bishops to Rome and their regular relations with Vatican agenciesshould be perfected in a way that increases mutual understanding and the possibility of variety in unity.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, said the synod produced no surprises and few new ideas. The synod’s primary result, according to the cardinal, was a newfound unity in announcing Christ to the world. He said the gathering wisely avoided over-focusing on issues like bishops’ conferences and the relationship between bishops and the Roman Curia.

Nonetheless, two U.S. participants said the synod raised the profile of bishops’ conferences and advocated decentralization of decision making on certain pastoral issues. There was a lot of agreement that the rights of bishops’ conferences should be more recognized, said Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference. There was also a very strong feeling, even among some of the [Roman] Curia cardinals, that there should be more frequent meetings with the presidents of conferences.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore said he thought the synod would lead to a heightened sense of collaboration between bishops’ conferences and Vatican agencies. Both U.S. prelates also said they were sure the synodal process would come in for improvements, following many calls for better methodology, greater efficiency and better use of time.

The pope was expected eventually to issue a document on the bishop’s ministry and issues raised at the synod, in part using the list of proposals drafted by participants. In his closing homily, the pope warned bishops to be aware of modern challenges to Christian faith posed by a mentality based on human criteria that sometimes relativizes God’s law and plan. He said that, as a teacher of the faith, the bishop should promote all that is good and positive in the flock entrusted to him, support and guide those who are weak in the faith, and intervene to unmask falsehoods and combat abuses. Above all, he must have the courage to proclaim and defend sound doctrine, even when this entails sufferings

Ministry Presents Main Obstacle, Say Catholics, Protestants

Differing views of ordained ministry present the main obstacle to ecumenical progress between Catholics and Protestants, even following a breakthrough doctrinal accord in 1999, participants in a conference in Rome said. Sponsored by the Benedictine St. Anselm University and the Waldensian theological school in Rome, the conference, from Oct. 29 to 31, focused on how the sacraments are understood by Catholics and Protestants. Attended by scholars from around the world, the conference coincided with the two-year anniversary of the signing of a joint declaration by Catholic and Lutheran leaders on the doctrine of justification, the theological understanding of how people are saved.

Pope, Arafat Meet in Vatican, Hope tor Return to Dialogue

Two days after Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat met with Pope John Paul II to brief him on the most recent wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence. His Holiness, in expressing his condolences for the numerous victims of the unending spiral of violence, renewed his appeal that everyone abandon their weapons and return to negotiations, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said after the meeting on Oct. 30. The spokesman said Arafat came to the Vatican to inform the pope about the worrying situation in the Palestinian territories with particular reference to the recent tragic events in which even Christian holy places were involved.

After the Israeli military withdrew from Bethlehem on Oct. 29, the three-square-block area near the entrance to the city looked more like Beirut than the star of the Palestinian millennial celebrations two years ago. The Paradise Hotel, where Israeli soldiers had set up camp against the Palestinian gunmen, was a burned-out, shattered shell. Stores had been bulldozed; light poles knocked over by tanks lay askew; and several cars riddled with bullets lined the streets. After more than a week of Israeli-Palestinian gun battles, Bethlehem’s mayor, Hanna Nasser, assessed the damage to his town as reaching $17 million. Bethlehem University said it would need $500,000 in repairs.

European Church Committee Urges Global Governance

A top-level European church committee has urged a system of global governance to alleviate worldwide poverty and instability. Global governance is the key to ensure the positive impacts of globalization are enhanced and its potentially negative effects diminished, said a report for the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union. In the future world of globalization, mankind will need to accept new values in order to alleviate the plight of the poor, the statement said. It also called for a world environmental organization to supervise international efforts to preserve natural resources and the global climate. The report was released on Oct. 24.

Vatican Approves Eucharistic Sharing of Chaldeans, Assyrians

Recognizing the validity of the eucharistic prayer used most often by the Assyrian Church of the East, the Vatican said Chaldean Catholics and Assyrians can receive Communion at each other’s liturgies when a priest of their own church is not available. The principal issue for the Catholic Church in agreeing to this request, said the Vatican, related to the question of the validity of the Eucharist celebrated with the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, an ancient eucharistic prayer, which from time immemorial...has been used without a recitation of the institution narrative, a repetition of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, This is my body and This is my blood.

The decision is extremely important, said Robert Taft, S.J., a liturgist at the Oriental Institute in Rome. It says the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of a eucharistic prayer which does not have the words of institution, abandoning a ritualistic insistence which began in the Middle Ages and showing enormous openness to the ancient traditions of another church.

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