In Rome, America Synod Is in Full Swing

VATICAN CITY—A Special Synod of Bishops for America has now passed the halfway mark, tackling issues that have traditionally divided the American continents.

Representatives from North, Central, and South America, plus the Caribbean, have been presenting concerns of the Church in their particular countries. What is emerging from more than two weeks of discussion, however, is a common vision and a pastoral commitment that transcend national boundaries.

Synod father Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, Ohio, told the Register that many participants have come to the realization there is more that unites them than they first thought.

“All the local Churches in the Western Hemisphere are relatively young,” he said, listing historical roots shared by the more than two dozen Synod countries. Colonizers founded each of the American nations. In every one, conflict has erupted between settlers and the indigenous people. In most countries, slavery has been an issue, and from northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego, there was a Christian dimension to the establishment of each American nation.

“That's a lot to have in common,” Archbishop Pilarczyk said. “And I have to say, many of us had never thought of it in those terms.”

He said that in naming the month-long Synod “the Special Assembly for America,” instead of “for the Americas,” Pope John Paul II has given the local Churches an important teaching.

“In choosing to gather this group of bishops, the Pope is saying: ‘You ought to get together more and think a little more in the same direction,’” the archbishop said.

The Synod, which continues in the Vatican through Dec. 12, has entered its final phase. The bishops are now working in small groups divided along linguistic—not geographical—lines. Their task is to draft recommendations based on presentations made during the initial weeks of general assembly meetings.

Synod fathers will eventually vote on these proposals and present them to Pope John Paul II. In the past, he has used synod recommendations as the basis for a post-synodal document or exhortation. In addition, the bishops will release their own Synod Message to the World before they head home from Rome.

Archbishop Pilarczyk, who has taken part in three other synods, said listening to scores of speeches day-after-day can be a daunting task.

But “talk can be very important, very informative, and very nourishing,” he said.

An Ecclesial Speech-fest

Talk they certainly have. In fact, the Synod for America could perhaps best be described as a high-level “ecclesial speech-fest.” The first two weeks alone included 18 general sessions during which more than 250 bishops, papally appointed observers, and experts aired their views—in total, some 50 hours of individual speeches—and Pope John Paul II was present for all of it.

“I've been impressed,” Archbishop Pilarczyk said of the Pope's stamina. “I'm 63 years old and I can tell you, I've slept through a lot more speeches than the Pope has!”

He noted that Pope John Paul II obviously enjoys spending time with the Synod participants.

“He's having groups of bishops in for meals—sometimes twice a day,” the prelate said. “My perception is, the Pope is energized by this sort of event and by talking to bishops.”

Just as in the opening week of the Synod, the burden of international debt and the economic divide between the North and South dominated the litany of social ills during week two.

Archbishop Samuel Carter, retired archbishop of Kingstown, Jamaica, said the debt burden was a main reason why 180 million people were living in poverty in the Caribbean and Latin America.

“When children go hungry or die from preventable disease, when more money is spent on debt service than on health care or education, then the cost of debt in human terms is unjustified,” he said.

Bishop Guido Brena Lopez of Ica, Peru, proposed the establishment of an international organization for the redistribution of resources and foodstuffs, to help right the balance of consumption in the North and South. He also joined the list of bishops who called for outright forgiveness, or at least partial reduction, of the foreign debt that burdens Latin America.

Venezuelan Archbishop Ramon Perez Morales of Maracaibo agreed, saying the external debt was becoming the “eternal debt” in his region.

Women and the Laity

The role of women in the Church also emerged as an important theme, even if the Synod's preliminary 42-page working paper devoted scant space to the subject.

Bishop Gerald Wiesner of Prince George, British Columbia said Church leaders must have the courage to examine practices that have ignored the concerns of women or contributed to their alienation.

“Jesus treated women with openness, welcoming them into his company. We can do no less,” he said.

Auxiliary Bishop Manuel Eguiguren Galarraga of El Beni, Bolivia, called for Church attention to the rights of women, especially in Latin America.

He reminded the bishops: “Women have been the primary transmitters of the faith for generations and were the first catechists of us who are participating in this Synod.”

The central role of the laity was also a key topic discussed—coming less than two weeks after a new Vatican document warned about a blurring of distinctions between the roles of priests and lay men and women.

Father John Corriveau OFM Cap., the superior general of the Capuchin Franciscan order, said bishops need to gather the laity, organize them, and encourage them to go out into the world with the Gospel message.

“Without any confusion of roles, the laity must be accepted as equal dialogue partners and as collaborators in ministry in the Church,” he said.

Sulpician Father Emilius Goulet, secretary-general of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the priest shortage has helped lay people become more aware of their responsibilities in the Church. At the same time, overcoming the so-called vocations crisis is tied to reaffirming the identity and indispensable role of the priest.

Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, Calif., said catechesis must be the “engine” of the new evangelization “in order to provide the lay faithful with a comprehensive understanding of their faith to allow them to embrace Christ's mission of transforming the world with confidence.”

The archbishop, who was instrumental in the process of publishing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, said the book is a valuable instrument for preparing lay people for their mission.

The concerns of families were the focus of a speech by Canadian Archbishop Francis Spence of Kingston, Ontario.

“We ask this Synod to send a message of hope to all families, to explore ways to encourage families to take up the task of family ministry and to promote the vocation of fatherhood as central to the well-being of families,” he said.

“Many children of single-parent families have limited or no contact with their fathers—a situation with far-reaching and harmful consequences,” Archbishop Spence said. He also said single heads of families, the divorced and cohabiting couples all need understanding and evangelization.

So far, Pope John Paul II hasn't commented on what the bishops are saying. This is not uncommon however, as he traditionally uses the post-synodal apostolic exhortation to make public his remarks after studying a synod's conclusions.

A Consultative Mood

Archbishop Pilarczyk said that in the flurry of synod activity, participants would do well to remind themselves they have been called to Rome to take part in an assembly that's merely consultative.

“Synods are discussion groups. The final outcome is not legislation, it's not a decision, it's not even a document,” he said. “The final outcome is a series of propositions that's left behind for the Pope to use if he chooses in preparing some kind of teaching document about the Synod's theme.”

“It's not an efficient way of doing business,” Archbishop Pilarczyk added, “but you have to realize at every moment, we are not here to do business. We are here to talk, to discuss, to learn from one another and to help each other learn. From that point of view, I think this Synod for America has been quite successful.”

Stephen Banyra is based in Rome.