Reflections on the Eucharistic Synod

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., attended the 11th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

The synod officially brought the Year of the Eucharist to a close Oct. 23. Bishops from all over the world came together to discuss “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church,” and Pope Benedict XVI was an avid observer of the sessions. And, after each of the sessions, the Pope held one-hour “free discussions,” where synod fathers could explore different themes with the Holy Father.

Bishop Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke by telephone Oct. 10 with Register Correspondent Edward Pentin.

What aspect of the synod has made the most impact on you?

This is my first synod, and what I found most remarkable was the sense of universality of the Church.

When you have 256 bishops from all over the world — to listen to their varying viewpoints, the richness of their tradition and culture, and being profoundly in communion with the Church universal and the Holy See — I find it all really very remarkable. That's the first thing.

The second, for me personally, is the opportunity to meet and chat with those bishops, especially during the break times, people whom you hear give interventions in the hall and have the opportunity to chat with them, or a few of the bishops I've not seen for quite a few years since I was on the board of Catholic Relief Services and had a chance to visit them either in Latin America or Africa. Some I haven't seen for 10 or 12 years, so for me it's been a chance to restore those relationships.

Certainly for me, overall, the richness of the universality of the Church is just tremendous, and to listen to their own insights, their struggles, their own challenges — I find this very enriching.

The Holy Father introduced the chance to have a free discussion for an hour at the end of each day of the synod. Some say this “open forum” has encouraged more debate. How useful has that been to you?

I think it's been very good. It's the first time that they've had this, and actually it's been a fairly lively session — not so much debate as bishops simply offering their own reflections on the interventions that have been made during the day. It's interesting to note that the Holy Father made himself available for that session in the last hour of the day, just a remarkable spirit of generosity on his part in his wanting to listen to what the bishops have to say.

Do participants feel free to bring up any issue they choose during these free discussions?

Very much so. They're coming from all over the world, bringing different insights about the Church and especially about the liturgy and the Eucharist, differing challenges — some of them the same, some quite different. But yes, the bishops do feel free to share what they honestly feel in their heart.

Some commentators said the free discussions have “changed the culture” of the synod. Is this a true assessment?

I can't say because I've not been to a synod before, but certainly the open hour, later in the day, has given the bishops the opportunity to give a more immediate response. Before, the interventions were longer; now they've been reduced to six minutes. And the time of the synod has been shortened considerably. That is partly to make the time more efficient, but also because bishops’ lives, perhaps more than ever, are very busy, and it's hard for them to be away from their dioceses for an extended period of time. I find listening to the interventions — even though there's one after another, and especially in these early days of the synod — really gives you a sense of what's going on all over the world and the challenges people have. I would also say that so far we have only had one small group meeting. There are 23 [participants] in my English-speaking group and, because of the smaller numbers, and representing only the English speaking world, that has been a very lively and interactive discussion.

Is the synod more consultative or deliberative in your view, and how much do you think the fruits of the synod will impact the Church?

Certainly, the synod itself is a consultative synod, but that doesn't mean that whatever comes through from the discussion is going to be taken lightly. The fact that the Holy Father has been there for a good many of the sessions shows that he is wanting to listen. Everyone is deeply concerned about how we address the Eucharist, how we can make it more vibrant and alive in the Church. The Second Vatican Council told us that this is the sacrament that is the source and summit of our life in the Church, where we see, in at least some parts of the world, a dropping off in attendance of the Eucharist dramatically, but some less so.

How do we make this sacrament really vibrant and alive in celebration and worship in our Church? That's something we're all facing, given the fact that, all of a sudden, as we look to a world that has become in some ways more and more secularized, we need to ask how can we help people appreciate the gift of the Eucharist, to be faithful to it, and make sure that it's a very important part of their spiritual lives.

In response to the secularization you mention, there have been certain rather controversial points raised which, of course, were picked up on in the secular press, such as the possibility of a married clergy to compensate for a shortage of priests, and the “rights to the Eucharist” for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. How much do you think these issues are being seriously considered?

I think, as we look at the secularization of cultures in many parts of the world — it has impacted us considerably in the United States, but there are European cultures too that have been greatly secularized — we need to ask how do we, as Church, address that in terms of evangelization.

I like Father Ronald Rolheiser's comment that secularization has come about, been spawned by the Church in terms of helping people to become educated and develop their gifts and talents and individual persons. But on the other hand, that can go too far in terms of people becoming too independent or moving into rugged individualism. How do we evangelize that culture? How do we evangelize the sense of secularism? That is the challenge.

And hearing from other participants from other parts of the world helps bishops rise to the challenge?

Yes, I think we all struggle with that and you have to remember that we're really relatively new in the world community with its continuous communication, with television, with mobility. That's all very, very new, and how can we address that reality in terms of secularization, and helping people to appreciate the value of the gifts that touch our lives and are life-giving? And certainly, the Eucharist is that in a superb way.

Before the synod began, some Vatican officials voiced concern that some bishops have not been abiding by recent Vatican and papal instructions on the Eucharist, and allowing abuses in the liturgy to continue. Is that a concern of yours? And do you think a “tightening up” of liturgical practice, as one official put it, will be something the bishops will take back to their dioceses?

There might be some of that. I know the document [Instrumentum Laboris] refers to the “shadow side.” But what has come up in the many interventions is that, yes, there are some shadow sides, but far more positively, the power of the liturgy in terms of what has happened since the Second Vatican Council has been tremendous. So, yes, there's always going to be a bit of slight abuse here and there. You don't want to see it, try to make sure it doesn't happen. But we need to look far more positively on all the tremendous good that has happened because of the liturgy. I think it's far greater than the shadow side.

What will happen at the end of the synod? What will be the final contributions of the bishops in the list of propositions?

I'm sure they will be somewhat involved in the discussion of the propositions and input will be given. Who knows exactly what those will be? There's only speculation at this point. I do think in general, though, that the bishops have a strong sense of solidarity and making sure that the Eucharist does stay at the center of the Church's life. Almost universally, there is a strong sense of feeling that we help our Catholic people in general all over the world, make sure that their spiritual lives are centered in on the Eucharist. That's an ongoing challenge for us and, to my way of thinking, an exciting one. The rich tradition of our sacramental celebration in the Church, and especially the wonderful tradition of the Eucharist, is just a powerful one and one for which we, as Catholics, need to be very, very grateful.

A recurring theme has also been the importance of catechesis?

That's right, and I think in general there's a feeling that we need to do a lot more catechesis, and that's a tough challenge, especially with people's lives filled with so much media today. If you take a look at the United States, the life of families, and the life of parents and so on, is very, very busy. How can we make people fit that in, in a way that they can appreciate the Eucharist and so that the decisions that they make, make provision for the Eucharist in their lives?

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.