By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
It’s long been an established conviction among synod-watchers that the most interesting speeches during these gatherings, more often than not, come from the heads of religious orders.
Perhaps that’s because the speeches are less solo performances than a reflection of the wisdom of an entire community, or perhaps it’s because most superiors are elected to fixed terms and are conscious they may not have this opportunity again. It may even be because serving as a superior these days requires continual travel around the world, so they’ve got long hours to fill on airplanes polishing their texts.
Whatever the explanation, this Synod of Bishops on the Bible has been no exception. A speech earlier in the week by Fr. Glen Lewandowski, a Minnesotan who serves as Master General of the Crosier order, on the link between scripture and liturgy was widely hailed for its nifty turns of phrase, such as a warning that too often the “Great Amen” at Mass seems tacked on as a “drowsy afterthought.”
Yesterday, Fr. Tony Pernia, a Filipino who serves as Superior General of the Society of the Divine Word, offered what may be one of the few images heard on the synod floor destined to outlive the synod itself: Religious orders as the “hearing aid” of the Catholic church.
Pernia argued that the title of the Synod of Bishops, “The Word of God in the Mission and Life of the Church,” can be rephrased as “The Word of God IS the Mission of the Church.”
That mission, Pernia said, is rooted in “God’s on-going dialogue with the world and humanity.” In that light, he suggested, “the mission of the church needs to be understood as dialogue.”
As such, Pernia said, evangelization is never a one-way street, in which the church speaks and the world listens. To be true to its mission, he said, the church must also listen to “the searching of faith-seekers, the cultural and religious traditions of people of other faiths, the aspirations of the poor and marginalized.”
In this effort to listen to the world, he suggested, religious orders can play the role of the church’s “hearing aid.”
“Consecrated men and women, especially the missionaries who are engaged in mission at the frontiers of faith and the margins of society, can be the ‘hearing aid’ of the church,” Pernia said, “as they endeavor to listen to the Word of God revealed particularly in the lives of people.”
Quoting the document of the Second Vatican Council on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, Pernia closed by suggesting that consecrated life “can contribute to making the church a community that not only proclaims but also listens.”
On the other hand, Pernia’s memorable speech seems a convincing indication that religious orders can also do the reverse – not only listen, but speak, and do it well.