Pope Benedict XVI formally closed the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God by stressing the urgency of evangelization at a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
“So many people are searching, sometimes unbeknownst to them, to encounter Christ and his Gospel,” preached the Pope in his Oct. 26 homily. “So many people need to find in him the meaning of life.”
The Holy Father said that giving a clear and shared witness of a life experienced according to the word of God, attested by Jesus, “thus becomes an indispensable basis to check the mission of the Church.” He added that the synod fathers recognized that the Church needs to work harder to know the Bible and make it more familiar to the laity and clergy.
What evangelization needs, he continued, is greater commitment to the Bible: “A primary task of the Church at the start of this new millennium is, first and foremost, to be nurtured by the word of God, to commit to the New Evangelization work.”
Two hundred fifty-three bishops and cardinals and more than 100 Bible scholars attended the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which ran from Oct. 5-26 and whose theme was “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”
Lack of Controversy
The synod concluded with a final “Message to the People of God,” a pastoral document in which all the main points were outlined in accessible terms. That was followed by a vote on 55 propositions, all of which were approved by the synod fathers with the largest consensus since synods were reinstituted at the Second Vatican Council.
The synod, first put forward by members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission 13 years ago, was noted for its lack of controversy and for steering a middle course between secular skepticism and fundamentalist literalism.
Arguably, the subject of the Pope’s talk went to the core of the meeting’s discussions: While historical-critical methods of biblical study are important, so, too, is a distinctly “theological” and “spiritual” reading of the Bible.
The first group of propositions (Nos. 1-13) includes suggestions on how Catholic communities can better understand and live their deep relationship with the Word — Jesus Christ — who can be found in the reading and meditating of Scripture.
The document highlights the role of the Holy Spirit, the Church and Tradition, as well as the intimate relationship between Scripture and the Eucharist. Also presented were propositions on the importance of the word of God as an instrument of reconciliation, “the characteristic trait of sacred Scripture is revelation of the predilection of God for the poor.”
Proposition 12 was noteworthy in calling on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to clarify the concepts of “inspiration” and “truth” in the Bible, along with their reciprocal relationship, in order to better understand the teaching of Dei Verbum (Divine Revelation) No. 11. This section also considers the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
Also underlined was the importance of the word as the basis of natural law.
“The understanding of natural law grows from nourishing oneself with the word of God, permitting progress in moral awareness,” reads Proposition 13. “The synod, for this reason, recommends to all pastors to take particular care so that ministers of the word are sensitive to the rediscovery of natural law and its function in the formation of consciences.”
The second part of the document (Propositions 14-37) considers the word of God in the life of the Church.
Among other priorities, concrete ideas are offered to improve homilies, a revision of the Lectionary is suggested, and lectio divina (prayerful reading of the Bible) is promoted.
It is suggested that women officially be allowed to be instituted lectors (this proposition was the most controversial, acquiring the highest number of No votes). This section also urges overcoming division between exegetes (sacred Scripture scholars) and theologians or exegetes and pastors — the subject of the Pope’s talk.
Also of note is Proposition 37, which contains the talk of Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.
Proposition 16 also calls for a review of the Lectionary of readings at Mass. “The bond” between the Old Testament and the Gospels should be reconsidered, it says, “so that they do not imply an overly restrictive reading of the Old Testament or an exclusion of certain important passages.”
The third part of the propositions (Nos. 38-54) includes the word of God in the mission of the Church, the word in relation to art and culture, and the urgent need for translations and availability of the Bible. This section underlines the importance of transmitting the word in today’s media.
Fundamentalism and the problem of sects was a key concern before the synod began. Proposition 46 distinguishes the Catholic approach to the Bible from “fundamentalist interpretations that ignore the human mediation of the inspired text and its literary forms.”
Jews and Muslims
Also in this section are propositions on the word of God and Jews and Muslims. With regard to Islam, it states that an important part of any dialogue must be “reciprocity and liberty of conscience and religion.”
Finally, the section includes propositions on the promotion of pilgrimages and studies in the Holy Land and the relationship between the word and protection of the environment.
The concluding proposition is dedicated to Mary; it invites a promotion of the Angelus and the Rosary — contemplation of the word though the eyes of the Mother of Christ.
The list of propositions is an advisory one; it is now up to Pope Benedict to decide which should be included in his post-synodal exhortation.
On presenting the propositions to the public Oct. 25, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the synod’s general relator, neatly summed up the importance of the synod which, he said, “has allowed us to step into a new season of our mission, because the Church has once again become aware of its foundation, which is the word of God.”
At a papal luncheon for all the synod fathers Oct. 25, the Holy Father said how moving the three-week meeting had been because of the depth of listening that had taken place. In listening to one another speak of the word of God, he said, we better hear the Lord.
At the same luncheon, Cardinal George Pell, one of three presidential delegates, said light-heartedly that the synod had found “most agreement and most communion” and was, therefore, “perhaps the least interesting.” But despite its lack of controversy, Cardinal Pell told the Register shortly before the meeting ended that the unanimity of the synod fathers was what had made the meeting so encouraging.
Other highlights for the participants were the variety of the talks from around the world and a reinvigorated sense of mission in spreading the word of God.
The Pope’s talk pinpointed long-running tensions over historical and theological exegesis. He said the historical-critical method has important value but stressed that it must be used to strengthen the faith of Christians. The talks of Patriarch Bartholomew I and Haifa Chief Rabbi She’ar Yishuv Cohen were unprecedented moments of the synod.
At the final press conference, Cardinal Ouellet explained with some intensity that the meeting had allowed the Church “to step into a new season of our mission.
“The pivotal point of this synod has once again been that of rediscovering the Bible as a book for everyone and of everyone, not just for specialists,” he explained. “It is a book of prayer first and foremost, meditation, intimate renewal, and hence, the mission of communication.”
He said he felt that the path taken by the synod fathers was analogous to that of the disciples on their way to Emmaus.
“Something was bestowed upon us,” he said, and predicted that after the final Mass held the following day, the spirit of Pentecost would fall on all those who took part, inspiring them to share the word of God.
A common thread running through the meeting was that the word is more than just a book — and must be listened to as well as communicated.
“The word is not just something you read but also something you meet,” noted Bishop Filippo Santoro, of Petrópolis, Brazil, a member of the synod’s information commission. “It comes into our life, offers hope, and shows the way to change our life and our daily lives.”
Edward Pentin writes