Synod: As speech-making winds down, key themes emerge


A Synod of Bishops can be said to unfold in three basic stages: a tidal wave of speeches during the first week and a half; reflection in small groups; and the sausage-grinding of approving propositions for the pope and a concluding message to the world.

The Synod of Bishops on the Bible is currently reaching the end of that first phase, and while no major disagreements have emerged, a few basic themes seem clear:

1.tReading the Bible in the context of the church: A number of bishops have argued that inviting Catholics to simply 'take and read' carries the risk of seduction by one of two great temptations: secular skepticism and fundamentalist literalism. The challenge, they've said, is to help Catholics read scripture within the broader doctrinal and spiritual traditions of the church. In practical terms, that’s led to calls for better preaching and more widespread use of Lectio Divina, meaning a prayerful reading of scripture; at the more theoretical level, some bishops have proposed a new Vatican document on the “inerrancy” of the Bible, or a new compendium of resources for Biblical interpretation.
2.tMaking the Bible accessible: Several bishops have warned that four decades after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) called for a Biblical revival in the church, the Bible still doesn’t reach a broad swath of Catholics. In some cases, there’s no translation in the local language, or a large percentage of people in are illiterate; in other cases, even when the text itself is widely available, scripture isn’t being presented in ways that resonate. (Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin pointed out that in today’s Ireland, most people don’t read anything other than the sports pages.) In that light, bishops have called for more creative efforts in the media and in public performances such as the Way of the Cross.
3.tMaking the Bible relevant: Especially from developing countries, bishops have insisted over and over again that the Bible must speak to the concrete struggles people face: poverty, war, disease, and daily life in the midst of cultural and religious diversity. Asian and Latin American bishops in particular have put great stress on ‘inculturation,’ meaning taking seriously the values and perspectives of local cultures.
4.tReliance on the Laity: In a global context of acute priest shortages, several bishops have emphasized formation of laity and the importance of lay-led initiatives: new movements, basic communities (often termed basic “ecclesial” communities to emphasize the link with the broader church), and Liturgies of the Word led by laity. On this last point, one bishop told NCR on Tuesday that he's detected a faint echo of debates over viri probati, meaning the ordination of married men to the priesthood, in conversation in the synod about lay ministers of the Word. Both, he said, imply recognition that priest shortages require the church to find alternative ways of meeting people’s spiritual needs.

In the synod hall over the last couple of sessions, each of these notes has been repeatedly struck.

On Saturday, for example, Bishop Louis Portella Mbuyu of Kinkala, Congo, referred to the lack of Bible translations in local languages as one of the “pastoral emergencies” of the church.

Portella said that in the absence of ready access to scripture as well as a compelling Catholic mode of interpretation, his people are often seduced by one of two alternatives: Either a revived form of traditional African religion, with an emphasis on personal liberation; or a “Pentecostal/magical” way of reading the Bible that accents the miraculous and hopes for divine favor, including material prosperity.

Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo of Semarang, Indonesia, said that the multiple references in the synod to Dei Verbum, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on divine revelation, need to be balanced with Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II text on the church’s relationship with the modern world – especially, he said, “dialogue and inculturation.”

“We have to respond to the structural causes of poverty and marginalization for integral liberation in the light of the Word of God,” Suharyo said. “God’s preferential option for the poor is the Word of life for the ignored, humiliated and the deprived.”

Inculturation was also stressed by Auxiliary Bishop Enrique Diaz Diaz of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico, who called on the church “not to condemn what we do not understand” and to “to avoid destroying cultures, to truly incarnate the Gospel in our people.”

Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, India, argued that successful inculturation presupposes humility.

“We do not win a hearing through self-righteous condemnations, truth claims and pretensions to a higher moral ground,” Menamparampil said, “but evident human concern, Gospel-inspired commitment to the suffering, attention to various cultural sensitivities. The Word reveals its power in actual life-contexts: it challenges unjust societies, it reconciles, it uplifts the poor, it brings peace.”

Menamparampil also appealed for inter-religious sensitivity: “To Buddhism, with its traditions of respect for life, monasticism, renunciation, celibacy, contemplation, silence; to Hinduism, which has in addition the concept of ‘sacrifice’, traditions of rituals, rubrics, processions, use of images, holy water, pilgrimages, fasts; [and] to Confucianism, with deep attachment to family values, social order, and deference to elders.”

The importance of lay ministers of the Word was stressed most strongly by Bishop Guido Plante of Choluteca, Honduras, who described how shortly after Vatican II, his predecessor in Choluteca sent 17 peasants out to celebrate Holy Week services in isolated communities without a priest. They became the kernel of what is now known in Honduras and other parts of Latin America as the “Delegates of the Word,” referring to a corps of some 10,000 trained lay people who celebrate Liturgies of the Word in areas where the Eucharist is not regularly available.

“These Delegates are more than a mere Sunday celebrants, and they are more than mere readers,” Plante said. “They are real promoters of Christian communities.”

Plante tackled head-on the criticism that is sometimes raised about reliance on lay ministers: that promoting such lay vocations will weaken efforts to recruit new priests. In his experience, he flatly said, that just isn’t so.

“Maybe in other regions, the celebration of the Word without a priest may weaken the endeavors of pastoral vocational work in favor of ministerial priesthood,” Plante said. “On the contrary, in Honduras, it was a source of priestly vocations. In my diocese of Choluteca, for example, all young priests were first Delegates of the Word.”

Last night, Pope Benedict XVI and the participants in the synod attended a concert at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform Anton Bruckner's Sixth Symphony.

Afterwards, the music-loving pope compared the way disparate instruments come together in an orchestra to produce a beautiful melody to the unity that he said should obtain among the various members of the church, with their various talents and experiences.

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