Unity Throughout Americas Is Synod’s Take Home Message
Differences between North and South remain, but month-long meeting has strengthened ties between bishops 'from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego'
BY Stephen Banyra
December 14-20, 1997 Issue | Posted 12/14/97 at 1:00 AM
VATICAN CITY—Pope John Paul II wants to travel to the Americas to proclaim the results of the Synod of bishops for the region, a top Vatican official said.
Cardinal Jan Schotte, the month-long American Synod's general secretary (see profile, page 6), told participants the Pope has expressed a desire to make such a trip. Before the assembly's conclusion Dec. 12 in the Vatican, full voting members were given ballots to register their recommendations as to where the outcome of the Synod should be officially proclaimed.
The Pope traditionally makes a pastoral visit to preach about the results of Vatican synods concerning a country or region. He visited three cities in Africa to promulgate his document after the African synod, and he visited Lebanon to issue his exhortation after the Lebanese synod.
Officials said an eventual papal visit to the Americas would likely include stops in several countries. Although no date or itinerary has yet been decided, one suggested stop was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, since the Blessed Virgin Mary, under that title, is honored as the patroness of the Americas.
The task of the Special Synod of Bishops for America has been to examine the challenges facing the Church in the Western hemisphere. Participants represented 485 million Catholics throughout North, Central, and South America plus the Caribbean—nearly half the world's Catholic population.
The Synod marks the most intense series of high-level meetings of bishops since the Second Vatican Council.
Pope John Paul II told the bishops that five centuries after Columbus and at the threshold of the new millennium, it was important “to mentally review the way taken by Christianity throughout the whole extent of those lands.”
Synod participants, with the Pope, spent four weeks in the Vatican listening to more than 250 speeches. They also met in small groups to discuss issues ranging from poverty to parishes.
Unlike a council, synods are consultative, not deliberative assemblies. They meet at the request of the Pope to share information, concerns, and suggestions with him. While a synod may write a public message at the end of its work, the assembly's formal proposals are given to the Pope without publication.
Pope John Paul II traditionally issues a post-synod apostolic exhortation using many of the propositions. A document such as this following the Synod for America would serve as a reference point for policy and initiatives carried out on the local Church level for years to come.
Many participants at this month's Synod said the most important result of the meeting may be stronger ties and greater understanding among the hemisphere's bishops.
“Perhaps the story of the synod is not to be found in a particular project or declaration,” Archbishop Francis George of Chicago told journalists. Rather, he said, it is in “a shift of relationships, where North and South America look to each other first instead of to Europe.”
As members of the Synod began drafting propositions to present to Pope John Paul II, Archbishop George said there was a noticeable change in the way terms were being used and problems were being described.
“Solidarity with the poor is a shared concern for all the bishops and that is, I think, because of the conscience-raising on the part of the bishops of the South,” the archbishop said. And while the Synod has not resolved the differences between North and South, he said it has helped the bishops better understand them.
The bishops were due to release their own Synod “Message to the World” before heading home from Rome. Archbishop George said he expected it would repeat the Pope's call for the reduction or forgiveness of the debt of poor nations and to promise to keep the issue before the conscience of the world.
In his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near), Pope John Paul II urged a resolution of the debt crisis in honor of the Holy Year 2000.
Although dozens of social concerns topped the list of challenges facing the Americas, the bishops agreed the outcome of the Synod must emphasize faith in Jesus Christ.
Reports by the Synod's small working groups unanimously called for a focus on the importance of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ as the starting point for strengthening the Church and for motivating its work in the world. These reports represented a first step in drafting the final document to be given to the Pope.
All agreed on the need to improve religious education programs to lead people to Christ, to strengthen their bonds with the Universal Church and to make them aware of their responsibilities to care for the poor and to work for justice.
Synod participants also called for clear guidance on how the Christian message should be presented today.
“This proclamation must be festive, attractive, and convincing,” especially when addressed to young people, one report said. Another stated: “The pastoral challenge we face across our hemisphere is the sharing of our faith in a way that captures the interest and attention of this generation, living as we do in an increasingly secular and materialistic world.”
The working groups also agreed on the need to underline the importance of the family, both for the Church and for society. One report requested that the specific vocations of fatherhood and motherhood be addressed. Another said modern threats against human life—especially abortion and euthanasia—are so serious that they should be treated separately from a final document's discussion of family life.
All of the groups called for balance in treating the complicated themes of economic globalization and the foreign debt. Recognizing “our limited competency in the technical issues that drive so much of today's economics,” one group said, the Church's role is “to offer pastoral and moral guidance.”
The working groups were also unanimous in stressing the laity's primary mission of bringing Gospel values to the world, particularly through their families, their work, their community activities, and their political involvement.
Most, however, also praised the growing number of lay people who have accepted responsibilities for various Church ministries.
“Since the laity use their gifts and charism in the life of worship, catechesis, pastoral care, and education, we must promote their formation, including specialized theological training,” one report stated.
The Special Synod of Bishops for America is the second of five continent-wide synods called for by Pope John Paul II ahead of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. It's certainly one of the most ambitious of its kind, if only because of its geographical scope and the vast differences in the regions covered.
Yet so keen was the Pope on stressing what joins rather than separates the Church in the Western Hemisphere that he named the synod the “Special Assembly for America,” instead of “for the Americas.” He told Synod fathers to consider the continent as a whole, “from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, without introducing a separation between the north, the center, and the south so as not to risk a contrast between them.”
Pope John Paul II challenged the bishops from throughout the territory to widen their vision and see that, not only are people throughout the Americas more alike than they may realize, their common faith calls them to unity.
“Christians, while loving and honoring their own countries, are men and women ‘without borders,’” he said, “because the Church community does not know any boundaries of race, language, and culture.”
Stephen Banyra is based in Rome.
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