VATICAN CITY—Reaching out to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics is likely among the many pastoral proposals the Synod of Bishops for Oceania made to Pope John Paul II as it wrapped up three weeks of work.

The synod's seven-page closing message emphasized that the Church teaches best by witnessing and by bringing the Gospel to bear on the religious and social problems of Oceania. It expressed special concern for the indigenous, the poor, and Catholic communities without priests, while thanking the thousands of people in the Church's pastoral work force.

Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne, Australia, said the synod “has made me more conscious of the real missionary challenge: the need to vigorously and tirelessly proclaim the person of Jesus Christ, his teaching, his sacraments. He is truly the answer to everything that people seek. Our duty is to be the salt of society.”

The Pope closed the synod Dec. 12 with a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. Like the opening liturgy Nov. 22, it featured dancing and singing from Samoa and other Pacific areas; the Pope's entrance was heralded by the blowing of a conch shell. In his sermon, the Pope thanked the bishops for bringing to his attention “the spiritual wealth of your peoples as well as the problems they encounter.”

The challenges of the modern world, including the inroads of secularization, require the Church to show pastoral care and charity, he said.

“We give thanks for this great experience of the Church,” the Pope said the next day, in wishing the departing bishops a happy home-coming.

Synod participants echoed the Pope's remarks, describing their meeting as an extremely open discussion of difficult topics.

While there has been some public speculation about the yet-to-be-released 48 final proposals which the synod has submitted to the Holy Father, Archbishop Pell warned against focusing on such hot-button issues as priestly celibacy and instances of sexual abuse among the clergy: “I would say that this is due more to the space given by the media to these questions, than the Synod Fathers. Certainly the issues were raised, but discussion was quite brief.”

Pell continued: “Regarding abuse, I think the worst is over, because the Church is taking very precise measures. Regarding celibacy, in the synod propositions there is no request to ordain married men, but there is a question about allowing the people, in situations where priests are scarce, to participate as much as possible in the Eucharist.”

The Pope will use the proposals to write an apostolic letter on the Church in Oceania.

According to synod sources, the final proposals call for a number of clear pastoral strategies, including the strengthening of Catholic schools, improved formation programs for the laity, and better use of communications and advertising media.

The challenges of the modern world, including the inroads of secularization, require the Church to show pastoral care and charity.

The synod proposals, it appears, also reach out to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, encouraging them to remain in contact with the Mass and with parish life, despite their separation from the sacraments. Other proposals reportedly urge better promotion of Church social teaching and condemned all discrimination, especially against indigenous peoples, while supporting efforts to rectify past injustices.

In separate proposals, the synod called for improved vocations programs and highlighted the value of priestly celibacy. Sources said it also asked the Pope for a special sign of understanding and mercy toward priests who have left the active ministry.

According to sources, another proposal, encouraging the contributions of women in the Church, recommends the use of gender-inclusive language in the liturgy and in all Church statements.

While Archbishop Pell confirmed that “some asked for a more colloquial language, including also feminine terms,” he also stated that “a good translation must be faithful to the original and put across the meaning, while taking into consideration the modern day mind-set.

“For example we can only define God, as Father: This was the definition Jesus himself gave. We cannot substitute terms such as Father, Son, and Spirit with others such as ‘Creator,’ ‘Redeemer,’ and ‘Sanctifier.’”

The synod began with the reading of a thematic report. Following speeches by most of the 154 participants, including 117 voting members, the assembly heard a revised report, then drew up the message and proposals.

While the opening report emphasized society's eroding values and the necessity for a return to the Church's traditional moral teachings, the closing report, message, and proposals apparently focused on the many areas of social action in which the Church and the larger society can cooperate: refugees and migration, environment, unemployment, development funding, health care, economics, and education.

The pastoral focus of the synod's proposals left some wondering whether the “theological” aspects of evangelization had been sufficiently highlighted, while others lauded the emphasis on the pastoral realities in Oceania. Archbishop Pell suggested that the synod was made up of “many bishops and few theologians”—reflecting a chronic deficiency in Oceania, he said.

In that sense, the synod might have been a “heavy cross” for the Pope, who presided over all the general assemblies, said Australian Bishop James Foley.

In the end, several participants said there was no major move for policy changes in the final proposals, as such changes transcended the synod's role. “Synods are not events that are going to change the traditions of the Church, and anyone who comes here thinking they're going to get great concessions is deluding themselves,” said Bishop Kevin M. Manning of Parramatta in Australia.

The synod picked possible sites for the Pope to visit if he decides to present his post-synodal document in Oceania. The bishops' top three selections were Noumea in New Caledonia; Sydney, Australia; and Brisbane, Australia. The apostolic letter is not expected to be ready before the end of 1999. (Staff, CNS, Zenit)