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BY Jim Cosgrove
THE LINEAMENTA, or preparatory paper, for the upcoming Synod for the Americas has elicited an unprecedented response from the Latin American prelates, but the agenda for their historic November gathering in Rome with the North American bishops is still up in the air.
On a recent visit to Rio de Janeiro to address a summer course for bishops, Cardinal Jan Pieter Schotte, the Vatican's Secretary General of the Synod for the Bishops, faced a barrage of questions by curious bishops about the first-ever Synod for the Americas.
Leaders of this year's Rio course included, among others, Dominican Father Georges Cottier, the Pope's in-house theologian and Archbishop Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who served as president of the drafting committee of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
But Cardinal Schotte's conference on the Synod for the Americas sparked the liveliest dialogue. During his talk, the Belgian cardinal said that “the Special Assembly for America is expected to be a key event, not only for the region, but for the whole Church.”
According to the cardinal, the bishops'conferences of the Americas are expected to set a record in the response to the lineamenta. “normally, a great number of bishops'conferences respond to the questions made in the lineamenta,” said Cardinal Schotte, “but the ideal would be to have responses from all episcopates.”
The prelate made his point by citing episcopate response percentages to lineamentas from past synods. The synod on evangelization in 1974 drew a response of 75 percent of the world episcopate; on catechesis (1977), 67 percent; on the family (1980), 50 percent; on penance and reconciliation (1983), 43 percent; on the laity (1987), 60 percent; on priest-ly formation (1990), 64 percent; the special assembly for Europe (1991), 83 percent; the special assembly for Africa (1994), 94 percent; on consecrated life (1994), 68 percent; the special assembly for Lebanon (1995), 83 percent.
Cardinal Schotte said he expected the response for the Special Assembly for America to be the highest ever. By the April cut-off date, Rome expects to have input from at least 95 percent of the American episcopates.
Regional gatherings are nothing new for the bishops of South and Central America. Latin America has been the setting of four general bishops,’conferences,’ meetings, each one leading to the draft of final documents with significant pastoral impact. So why the need for an Americas,’synod?
Cardinal Schotte answered the question at the Rio gathering, first by praising the accomplishments of the bishops,’ collaborative efforts in the region.But, he said, between these experiences and the Special Assembly for America there ,“s a qualitative difference.”
“The former Latin American or Pan American meetings have been addressed to confront problems of the local Churches,” Cardinal Schotte explained, while the Synod of America “has as its objective the exchange of information in search of common pastoral solutions referred to the Universal, which is Church…. It can be said that the synod as an instrument of episcopal collegiality inferior in degree only to an ecumenical council, has universality as its peculiarity.”
In a meeting with Catholic journalists following the Rio course, another key question was addressed to Cardinal Schotte: How did the Pope choose the themes for the Synod for the Americas?
“Let me first correct one thing,” said the cardinal. “The Holy Father based his judgment and his decision on the consultation that we have done with all the bishops' conferences. The results were then examined by the members of my council who come from all different Churches in the Americas, so it's not a decision by the Holy Father to impose a certain theme.”
He then explained that the Pope used the same four criteria he always uses to choose the theme for a synod:
✓ “The first criterion is that it has to be pastoral, because a synod is not a theological conference.
✓ Secondly, it has to be urgent, it must represent a felt need at this moment in the history of the Church.”
✓ The third criterion, according to the cardinal “is sometimes difficult to explain or to understand, but even a synod for a particular continent must treat a theme from the perspective of the universal Church. We don't need a synod to solve a local problem, we don't need a synod of bishops to solve a problem of South America, we don't need a synod of bishops to solve a problem of the United States. There are others structures for that. But the synod of bishops is always the expression of the whole college of bishops, even if the majority of the participants belong to the episcopate of a particular area.”
✓ The fourth criterion, he concluded, is that the synod must reflect the direction in which the Holy Father seeks to guide the universal Church.
Cardinal Schotte believes that the theme chosen by the Pope for the Synod for America—“jesus Christ: Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity” corresponds “beautifully” to all this criteria. The cardinal also believes that the theme is central to challenges shared by North and Latin America: “We have to foster communion, communion in society and the communion in the Church between all the people, between the bishops and the priests, between the bishops and the laity and so on.”
But can two regions so culturally different benefit from gathering to reflect on common challenges? “It is true that there are cultural differences from one area to another,” said Cardinal Schotte. “That will always be true. But on the other hand, we should not exaggerate the particularities because at the same time all the people belong to the same human race, and in the Catholic Church we are all members of the universal Church, therefore we have a lot in common.”
Cardinal Schotte said that nowadays it “is very difficult to speak about a monolithic culture that belongs to one particular group and that is totally closed off from all other cultural influences. We live in a time of a total intercultural penetration and there's no culture in Latin America that is immune from influences that come from North America, there is no culture in North America that is not exposed to influences from Latin America.”
According to the cardinal, there are many issues the Synod will have to consider, but the first is “religious ignorance among Catholics and ignorance of Jesus Christ among non-Catholics.” Responding to this challenge, he believes, “will require a tremendous effort of catechesis on all levels of the Church. A task that will be helped very much by the existence and the availability of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“We are beyond the time when every bishop tried to develop his own faith and his own teaching of the faith,” he said. “We now have a common ground and a common tool. The whole doctrine of the Church, the whole message related to Jesus Christ enclosed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that common ground.”
Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima, Peru.