By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Over the first week and a half of a Synod of Bishops, the roughly 250 members have five minutes each to say whatever’s on their minds. That makes for moments of drama, but it also complicates efforts to isolate trends.
tJudging solely by the first morning of discussion, however, it would seem that three points already seem to be emerging as recurrent themes:
•tThe need for better preaching
•tThe importance of the liturgical context in which the Bible is proclaimed
•tThe practice of Lectio Divina, a prayerful and contemplative style of reading Scripture
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, for example, this morning mused aloud about the prospect of declaring 2009 a “Year of Preaching,” as a follow-up to 2008, which has been designated by Pope Benedict XVI as a “Pauline Year.”
Weaving humor into his remarks, Kicanas noted that according to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul once preached so long that one of his listeners went to sleep, fell out an open window and died. According to Acts, Paul was able to restore Eutychus to life.
Unfortunately, Kicanas said, “the effect of some of today’s preaching is only slumber.”
In a “Year of Preaching,” Kicanas suggested, bishops might study the art of preaching together with their priests and deacons in order to “speak to a distracted world.”
"What if, in that year of preaching, priests and deacons together with their bishop studied what matters in order to preach better?" Kicanas asked.
"What if, in that year of preaching, priests and deacons with their bishop met with the laity to listen to their struggles? They could discuss how preaching might inspire the laity to be a leaven for the world, bringing the Gospel values to the questions of the times. What if, in that year of preaching, there would be a thorough exploration of the catechetical potential of the Sunday homily?"
"If all these 'what ifs' were realized then the new springtime for Christianity about which the Holy Father speaks could burst forth and bloom throughout the church," Kicanas said. His remarks were met by a small ripple of applause, which is technically a violation of synod rules.
Also on the subject of preaching, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra-Goulburn, Australia, suggested the publication of a “General Homiletic Directory” that would offer guidelines and tips for preachers.
“Moralistic preaching may evoke interest and admiration,” Coleridge warned, “but not the faith that saves.”
According to Fr. Tom Rosica, head of Salt and Light Television in Canada and the Vatican’s official briefer for the English-language press, no synod participant so far has echoed the suggestion that some groups outside the synod have been advancing – widening the possibilities for preaching by women and laity.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, touched upon the liturgical context for Biblical proclamation.
“Scripture is the soul of liturgy, even more than it is the heart of theology,” George said.
George also lamented the “disappearance” of Biblical imagery from popular culture, such as art and theater. He said that once familiarity with images such as the Good Samaritan, or Sodom and Gomorrah, could be taken for granted, but that’s no longer the case.
George called to renewed efforts aimed at a triple conversion: conversion of the imagination, the intellect, and the will.
Fr. Glen Lewandowski, General Master of the Crosier order and a Minnesotan, delivered perhaps the most carefully crafted speech this morning, also in defense of taking seriously the liturgical context in which the presentation of scripture is framed.
Lewandowski rued that too often, the celebrant at Mass is guilty of “prosaic mutter” when pronouncing the key prayers, rather than doing so with “paschal joy.” As a result, he said, words meant to offer hope “often drift away as a drowsy afterthought.”
According to Rosica, appeals for wider practice of Lectio Divina have been practically ubiquitous – and not just in church, but also as a form of private prayer and devotion at home.
Aside from Kicanas, the only other round of applause from this morning’s session was drawn by Bishop Luis Tagle of the Imus diocese in the Philippines. His speech focused on what one might call the opposite of preaching – the art of listening.
People today, Tagle said, “are trapped in a milieu of monologues, inattentiveness, noise, intolerance and self-absorption … No one seems to listen.” To buck that trend, Tagle said, the church is called to show that sincere dialogue and respect are still possible.
The Bible is a precious resource in that regard, Tagle said, because it shows a God who not only speaks but also listens – "especially to the just, widows, orphans, persecuted, and the poor who have no voice."
In that spirit, Tagle said, “the church must listen the way God listens, and lend its voice to the voiceless.”
In one of the more technical, but fascinating, speeches of the morning, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, insisted upon reading the whole Bible, not just snippets. He suggested that the Lectionary, or the collection of scripture readings for use in the Catholic Mass, is not always helpful in that regard.
For example, Barbarin noted that Matthew 23:13-31 is not included in the Lectionary, which features Jesus’ denunciation of scribes and Pharisees as “hypocrites.” The absence of this passage is keenly felt, Barbarin said, because “it sheds light on a whole style of teaching that follows the Beatitudes.”
Barbarin also cited the call of Samuel and the call of Elijah as Biblical stories that are either missing, or incompletely presented, in the Lectionary. He suggested that these lacunae make efforts to teach and preach on the Bible more complicated.