VATICAN CITY — The largest gathering of cardinals in the Church's history concluded on the feast of the Ascension, with fresh reflections on how to enter the new millennium.
Pope John Paul II said in his closing homily that he intends to use the information gathered at the consistory to create a program of apostolate “concerning evangelization and Christian witness in the world of today, at the beginning of a new millennium.”
The “extraordinary consistory” was held May 21-24 at the Vatican, where 155 cardinals engaged in three days of discussion on the broad topic of the pastoral challenges for the Church.
It was the sixth extraordinary consis-tory called by John Paul II, with the last being in 1994 to discuss preparations for the Great Jubilee of 2000. This consistory was spoken of repeatedly as a means to ensure that the graces of the Jubilee Year take root in the Church throughout the world.
Given the breadth of the agenda, the cardinals limited themselves to fundamentals for the most part. Their “final message” (printed in full on page 8) returned to basics, saying that the priorities for the Church must be contemplating the face of Christ in the Word of God, in personal prayer and in the sacraments; holiness; the missions and the new evangelization; communion within the Church, and ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue with non-Catholics; and a renewed commitment to peace and justice in world characterized by globalization.
The cardinals also made specific pleas for international solidarity with Africa, and for an end to the killing in the Holy Land.
During the course of the consis-tory, several cardinals did make specific suggestions, but the meeting did not pass resolutions or vote on any such propositions.
Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore spoke about the Church's presence in the mass media, a theme echoed throughout the consistory. He spoke about the Church participating in the “media culture,” especially the Internet, as a necessary means of evangelization.
Cardinal Keeler's comments were backed up, unintentionally, by communications snafus in that gave a confused presentation of consis-tory information to the world's media. One day's press briefing was cancelled suddenly with no reason given.
On a related matter of global communications, Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa, suggested in an interview that the Church's liturgical books should be produced in a modern language. Having the official editions in Latin, he said, made the work of translation unworkable in a world where Latin is no longer studied adequately.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles spoke on the challenges of preaching the faith in the microcosm of the world that is his archdiocese. With 5 million people from varied backgrounds and levels of instruction in the faith, Mahony thought that it would be useful to have a “Directory on the New Evangelization,” a Vatican document that would provide guidelines and direction on what the “new evangelization” meant for local churches.
Ecumenism emerged as a repeated theme, with Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, calling it “the theme of the new millennium.”
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray noted the disappointment of many that a hoped-for gathering of Christian leaders during the Jubilee Year never materialized.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England, proposed that Pope John Paul II again seek to organize a pan-Christian meeting.
Cardinal Avery Dulles, professor at Fordham University in The Bronx, N.Y., underscored the importance of papal primacy in relations with other Christians. It is the primacy that preserves unity, he said, noting that history has shown that those Christians without the Petrine primacy have suffered divisions amongst themselves.
Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan proposed that a Synod be held on the Word of God. Several of his fellow cardinals noted that the renowned biblical scholar had proposed that idea at previous meetings going back over the years, and had clearly not lost hope of eventual success.
A Better Way?
The structure of the meeting necessarily led to what one observer called a “shopping list” result of a little bit of everything, with no substantial discussion of any specific issue. That format clearly left some cardinals unsatisfied.
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston had, according to several of his brother cardinals, suggested that an annual meeting of the Synod of Bishops be held with an open agenda — not unlike the current meeting. The Synod of Bishops now meets once every few years.
That suggestion was rejected out of hand by a number of consistory participants, who thought that the current model needs major changes before any increase in the time spent at consistory or synod meetings.
“With over 75 speeches to listen to, at a certain point it didn't matter who was saying what,” confessed one cardinal, who thought there was too much talk on too many subjects and not enough sustained examination of any one issue.
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago said he thought the church could use a synod that is more “supple” and less tied to the standard format of speech-giving.
“The framework [of synods] now is quite conciliar. Therefore, it's not a forum for give and take, except in the small groups,” Cardinal George said. “The structure [of this consistory] is synodal, which surprised me. It is a synod in miniature. And the synod is a council in miniature. We still haven't found that more supple framework for these discussions that I think would be helpful.”
“[The structure] is very concerned about protecting the voice of each member, which is a good concern.
But in protecting that value, it has sacrificed the kind of give-and-take discussion where ideas can be honed on the floor of the synod itself,” Cardinal George continued.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Belgium, echoed those concerns and told reporters that many cardinals spoke about the need to improve the synod process. “What is absent in synods today is the possibility to have a debate. Bishops should be much more frank in their speaking. There are too many homilies.”
Whether or not such changes in process will happen remains to be seen. The next Synod of Bishops is scheduled for this coming October, and will focus on the role of the bishop.
John Paul himself commented on the subject of these concerns. In his homily, he said:
“Different questions will be taken up again in the next Synod of Bishops, which has shown itself to be a valid and effective instrument of episcopal collegiality at the service of the local Churches.”