By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Delegates from other Christian bodies have long been invited to Synods of Bishops, but this time around they’re especially at home. The theme is the Bible, which represents the “common ground” that all the divided branches of the Christian family still share.
Ecumenical sensitivity in this synod is palpable, from the large representation of “fraternal delegates” to the decision to stage a joint vespers service on Oct. 18 led both by Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople – the first time a non-Catholic prelate will co-preside over a liturgy during a Synod of Bishops.
Several speakers have even adopted the custom of referring to the gathering as the “holy synod,” a term drawn from the argot of Eastern Orthodoxy. (Archbishop Nikola Eterovich, the Secretary of the Synod, yesterday quipped è bella questa nuova espressione, “this new expression is beautiful.”)
Catholic prelates have struck ecumenical notes in several speeches. Irish Cardinal Sean Brady, for example, said Catholics should recognize that “the emphasis in the Reformation on improving access to the Scriptures was a bonus from which all Christians have benefitted.”
So far, four of “fraternal delegates," meaning the representatives of other Christian denominations, have made formal presentations to the synod. Each has brought a perspective that the gathering might otherwise not have heard.
Rev. Robert Welsh, an American who heads the Council of Christian Unity for the Disciples of Christ, made a two-pronged appeal: renewed effort towards the possibility of shared communion, and joint solidarity with the poor.
“Our division at the Table of the Eucharist stands as a continuing denial of the power of the cross to heal, to reconcile, and to unite all things on earth and all things in heaven,” Welsh said. “My hope is that this Synod will deepen its reflection on the relation between the Word of God, the Eucharist, and the unity of all Christians within the one body of Christ.”
Welsh also invited the synod “not only to listen to the poor, but to anticipate encountering the living Word of God in their struggle and daily witness to hope in the face of despair.”
Bishop Gunnar Stålsett, representing the Lutheran World Federation, gently suggested that the synod balance it emphasis on the church as the authority for reading the Bible with equal regard for the Reformation emphasis on the Bible as the authority for judging the church.
“The Lutheran distinction between the Holy Bible as norma normans and the confessions , or traditions of the church, as norma normata places the Holy Scriptures as the final authority of the Church,” Stålsett said.
Equally gently, Stålsett called for greater compassion for various categories of suffering people, including those struck by HIV/AIDS – whether or not their lifestyles are fully in keeping with Christian teaching.
“We need to continue to seek ways, congenial to our faith, in order better to protect the life of those who are exposed to the HIV-virus, in marriage and outside,” he said.
On Saturday, Archmadrite Ignatios, who represents the Greek Church to the European Union, issued the strongest call heard in the synod so far for an examination of conscience about the historical failures of Christianity.
“The history of Christianity is full of crimes, sins and errors,” Ignatios said. “There is a need for metanoia and the metamorphosis of our weak hearts.”
Ignatios urged Pope Benedict XVI to be “the visible and paternal sign of unity” among Christians.
Brother Alois of the ecumenical community of Taizé (who is technically not considered a “fraternal delegate,” but rather an “invited guest”) offered practical suggestions for making the Christian tradition of prayer with scripture, especially the monastic Liturgy of the Hours, relevant for young people. He recommended a lengthy period of silence after the Bible is read aloud – eight to ten minutes – as well as repeated singing of a single phrase from scripture.
Brother Alois ended with a plea for more frequent opportunities for different Christians to come together to hear the Word of God.
“To listen to the scriptures together introduces us through anticipation to a unity, perhaps an imperfect one but a real one,” Brother Alois said. “Could this common listening be made a greater part of our daily life, instead of being content with ecumenical prayer once a year?”