Cardinal George Pell was a delegate president at the recent Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in Rome. As the synod entered its final week, he offered his highlights of the three-week meeting.

He also discussed the potential of the Internet for sharing the Bible, looked ahead to the next World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, and gave his opinion on the current global financial crisis.

What were the most helpful aspects of this synod?

I think the most encouraging fact to come from the synod was the unanimity of the synod fathers on the importance of the Scriptures and the absence of any significant differences. But it didn’t stop there.

Delegates from the American Bible Society were present there for a while and presented us with a beautiful five-language version of the Scriptures. I think the visit of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople is of immense symbolic importance, and the fact that Rabbi Cohen from Haifa spoke to us.

At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, there were enormous and violent differences over the Bible. But today, as a result I think of the ecumenical movement, and more broadly the interfaith dialogue where we emphasized what we have in common, the Scriptures now are something which brings us together and reminds us that if we are to be brothers and sisters of Christ we should cooperate as much as possible, without dumbing down or fuzzing over important differences.

On Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit, there was plenty of uplifting talk about working together on common causes and prospects for unity, yet full corporate unity still seems a distant dream. When is full unity with the Orthodox going to be realized, in your view?

When you’ve been disunited for a thousand years, you cannot undo that in 15 minutes, much less in 30, 40 or 50 years. But the symbolic importance of his [Bartholomew’s] presence at a Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in the magnificent setting of the Sistine Chapel where the popes have been chosen, I think, for about 500 years — this is a symbolism which will rank, I think, with the visits of [Patriarch] Athenagoras with Paul VI. It represents a significant step ahead.

Some members of the laity might find the Holy Father’s intervention hard to understand. Is it possible to explain in a nutshell what he said?

He was saying we have to use the historical-critical method, but it has to be used within the Church community, within the Catholic Tradition; it has to be used to build up and purify the faith of the people and not to scandalize them or shock them, or much less, to destroy their faith. And the biggest help to that is the long-term Tradition of the Church, and we move from within that Tradition.

He didn’t say much that he hadn’t already said in his first volume on Jesus Christ, or what he has said in many other places, but it’s an approach to the Bible which I substantially endorse or, which I might say, totally endorse. We can get a lot of help from modern Bible scholarship in understanding just what was being said and the circumstances where and when it was being said.

Relators of the synod said two elements stood out: a need to reawaken interest in the word of God in general and to emphasize the importance of listening to the word of God among laity as well as experts, not only the missionary aspect of spreading the word of God. How much will this synod be able to further these goals?

Of course, we can’t be missionaries, we can’t be witnesses, unless we’re continually listening to what God is saying to us, and that comes principally through the liturgy and through the Scriptures.

Certainly, the synod has emphasized the link between the Scriptures and the sacraments especially, and the Eucharist, but we have to know what we’re hearing. We have got to be open — not only to the signs of the times. So we’ve certainly got to be able to listen both to the world and more to God if we’re going to preach. But we’ve been sent here to preach and to teach and bear witness.

One of the synod fathers also pointed out that we do that best in a climate of service and of charity. If people see the Catholic community is not only supporting one another, but also specially trying to support the poor, they’re more inclined to listen to what we have to say.

And it’s not just the financially poor. People can be very rich and spiritually poor, or rather comfortable and with their family lives and personal lives in considerable turmoil.

What other talks stood out to you as helpful and important that you will take home with you?

They [synod fathers] returned again and again to the importance of the homily. It’s easier said than done to improve what you have to say in a homily or to encourage the priests to work harder at their Scriptures.

One point which came across to me, which I didn’t fully understand before, was the importance of getting the Bible translated into the local language, especially in Asia, Africa and Oceania. There are many local languages where the people don’t have access to the word of God.

Also, we need to do more to get Bibles out to people cheaply. Probably the Protestants do that more effectively than we do, and we praise them for that. As Cardinal Ouellet said, the Protestants have made a marvelous contribution to Bible scholarship, but also to spreading the written word of God.

One survey released during the synod showed that Protestants consider their pastors’ homilies better and more important than Catholics consider their priests’ homilies. Why is that?

That would be compatible with a very long tradition.

In my home town in South East Victoria there was a little Catholic village where 50 or 60 years ago all the people would go to Sunday Mass. But the men would go outside and have a smoke during the sermon and come back in for the rest of the Mass. So that was completely opposite to what took place in Constantinople, say in St. John Chrysostom’s time, where people with perhaps not such a strong faith would drift around the cathedrals just to hear the sermons, rather than be there for the praying.

So sometimes we feel we’ve got more than just the word, and of course we have, in the great mystery of the Eucharist and the Mass. But sometimes, by emphasizing that, we’ve underplayed our obligation to preach and to teach effectively. And, of course, with the rise in education, people are more discriminating.

Do you foresee that changing?

We hope that it might be one of the long-term effects of this synod, that we will return with renewed enthusiasm to the long, slow, hard struggle of trying to teach and preach more effectively.

One synod father suggested the Church publish a manual on writing good homilies.

That’s one suggestion, and that would be of some use, of course. Another suggestion would be to put together a compendium where over three years the basic teachings of the Church would be taught and that would link to the readings which presently exist. I suppose there’s a danger with all of us: that our teaching is quite patchy and that some aspects of our teaching aren’t touched on for some reason or another, perhaps because they are too challenging or too difficult.

In your talk, you spoke of the need to use new media in spreading the word of God. What could the Church do to make this more of a reality?

We have, with the help of a group from England, instituted this interactive site in cyberspace, the XT3, Christ for the Third Millennium. The last I heard, it had just under 40,000 members of young people able to form groups of particular interest.

One of the most popular areas is to ask a priest a question; another popular aspect is a prayer wall where people can request prayers for certain intentions.

But young people spend an awful amount of time on the Internet, not always for good purposes, so I think it’s very important that different Christian groups are present there, bringing the word of God to people.

I read that the two most popular uses on the Internet are for pornography and religion. I was a little bit surprised at the second, but in our secular world, a lot of people are still interested in religion, and in the privacy of their homes, they’re able to investigate it without anyone being aware that they are. So I think there’s a great opening for us there.

There’s as much suffering as there ever was, probably a little bit more moral confusion. So to present the teachings of Jesus will prove as attractive as it’s been over the ages.

What advice would you give to the organizers of the next World Youth Day in Madrid?

I wouldn’t give them any advice. Cardinal Rouco Varela has already run a World Youth Day at Compostela [Spain]. I think things have changed and developed enormously since then. They know, like I know, there will be many more people at Madrid than there were in Australia, but one of the things we worked very hard at was preparing not just organizationally but spiritually — and emphasizing that it wasn’t just a jamboree for five or six days.

There was a period of preparation and then the World Youth Day itself, which we hope will be a spiritual springboard for the future.

How should young people prepare for the next World Youth Day?

I would also emphasize to them that it’s a pilgrimage; it’s not a tourist trip. If they’re coming from some distance, such as Australia, they need to start saving early, but it’s important for them to prepare spiritually by regular prayer and trying to understand more about the Church.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.