Inside the Synod for America: A Play-by-Play Guide
Economic disparity, inculturation, and liturgical renewal top agenda of the month-long gathering of bishops that begins today
VATICAN CITY—Every effective CEO convokes periodic meetings with his top advisers to analyze company performance and plot a course for the future. In a similar way, in the dawning light of the third Christian Millennium, Pope John Paul II has scheduled a series of synods with bishops from around the world to reflect on the Church's current needs and her continuing work of evangelization.
Three years ago the bishops of Africa came to Rome; now the Eternal City is hosting the Americans. In the spring of 1998 the Asian episcopate will meet to discuss “Jesus Christ the Savior and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia,” followed next fall by the Oceanic episcopate, whose theme will be: “Jesus Christ and the Peoples of Oceania— Walking His Way, Telling His Truth, Living His Life.” Then in the spring of 1999 the European bishops will meet for a second time (their first synod took place in 1991) to speak about “Jesus Christ Alive in His Church, Source of Hope for Europe.” The last synod, planned for fall 1999, will involve the universal Church in discussing: “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.”
The more than 240 participants in the Special Assembly for America have prepared comments on the Instrumentum laboris (working document), entitled “Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: the Way to Conversion, Communion, and Solidarity in America,” and Nov. 16 begin their month-long meeting with the present successor of St. Peter.
Drawing from the abundant responses to the lineamenta (a preliminary agenda, complete with questionnaire) to the 24 American episcopal conferences., a pre-synodal committee drew up the Instrumentum laboris, a diagnosis of the problems afflicting the Church in the Americas today.
Cardinal Jan Schotte, the general secretary for the Synod of Bishops, gives a panoramic view of the entire Synod in a preface to the document. In the introduction, attention is focused on the Synod topic and on the three fundamental characteristics that define the religious identity of America: common Christian roots, the vitality of a young Church, and cultural pluralism.
Part I, entitled “Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ,” treats the principles to be followed to ensure the announcement of the complete truth about the mystery of Christ, and discusses the subject of the relation between the gospel and culture (the dominant characteristics of the contemporary culture, the indigenous and Afro-American cultures, the culture of the immigrant people, popular piety, education, and the media).
Part II, on conversion, develops the concept of conversion to Jesus Christ, presenting from the point of view of all America the contrasting elements of both the church and the world.
Part III, focusing on communion, looks to communion in Jesus Christ as the basis and goal of evangelization. It also introduces within the context of Vatican II's ecclesiology of communion the difficulties in living communion in the Church, and evaluates the situation of the Catholic Church in the religious context of the continent.
Part IV treats the subject of solidarity, calling attention to the awareness in conscience of solidarity in all America and the use that the Church makes of her social doctrine to respond to the great challenges of contemporary society on the continent (poverty, international debt, the culture of death, etc.).
The document ends with a brief conclusion which takes up anew the synod topic in the context of the new evangelization on the threshold of the third millennium, invoking the patronage of the Virgin Mary, our Lady of Guadalupe, in the task of announcing the living Jesus Christ, the way to conversion, communion, and solidarity in the hemisphere.
The first and subsequent sessions, to be held in the Paul VI audience hall on the south side of St. Peter's Basilica, will begin with the Synod president announcing the theme of the day and inviting the general rapporteur to explain briefly the session's topic, previously prepared and distributed in written form to those present. The assembly will then divide into smaller discussion groups according to languages. Afterwards, a spokesman from each group will present the conclusions of the discussion to the entire assembly.
Further discussion in the plenary assembly will consist only in voicing objections, and if more analysis is deemed necessary a special commission will be named to carry it out. Once the secretaries have made the appropriate modifications, all the members will vote individually using the Latin placet, non placet option. When the majority has approved each individual point, the final text will be submitted to the Pope. These documents have often served as the basis for the post-synodal exhortations that the Pope offers to the Church and the world.
Topics currently on the agenda include: the coordination of efforts between certain ecclesial movements and the diocesan pastoral structures, liturgical renewal, inculturation, economic poverty, and Latin America's international debt. In his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II has already asked for the cancellation of this debt in honor of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000.
Of the many points included in the working document, perhaps the one most likely to receive widespread publicity is the great economic disparity within the Americas. Paragraphs 34-36 describe the current situation, beginning with the recognition that the majority of America's population is Catholic: 63.3%, according to the 1995 Statistical Yearbook of the Church. (In the northern hemisphere the percentage is 23.8%, while in the southern hemisphere it soars to 88.1%.)
Though largely united in the one Catholic faith, American standards of living are worlds apart. For example, dividing the gross national product among all the citizens of the United States yields roughly $23,000 per capita, while Mexican and Brazilian counterparts muster barely a tenth of that. The average life expectancy also varies: most North Americans will outlive Mexicans by five years and Brazilians by 10.
Some members of the Church have responded to this real disparity by promoting what is often referred to as liberation theology, a political ideology disguised as Catholic theology, which actually contradicts the social doctrine of the Church. The issue ultimately transcends mere economics and material well-being and touches the realm of the human spirit, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained in his recently published interview with Peter Seewald entitled Salt of the Earth (not yet available in English).
Disillusioned with the empty promises of liberation theology and stripped of the substantial consolation and warmth proper to true religion, the cardinal points out that many of the Catholic faithful wander unknowingly into any number of anti-Catholic sects, hoping to find what they no longer receive from their politicized pastors. Besides leaving the Church, many of these end up bouncing from sect to sect in a perpetual search for solid spiritual food, a pilgrimage that often leads to their abandoning religion altogether.
In the same interview, Cardinal Ratzinger also commented on the problems specific to North America, claiming that in the midst of so many difficulties he perceives a budding resurgence of the religious spirit. This hope should encourage the Catholic faithful in America to reflect seriously on the Instrumentum laboris, as well as to keep the synod in their prayers, asking the Virgin of Guadalupe, on whose feast day the Synod will end, to guide these shepherds, so that they may lead the American flock (extending all the way from Ellesmere Island in northern Canada to the Island of Horns in southern Chile) towards an ever deeper encounter with the living Jesus Christ.
Brother Stephen Fichter is a seminarian studying theology in Rome.
- November 16-22, 1997