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Heartfelt Listening, Speaking Needed


O.K., most Catholics have little-to-no interest in the 10th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome (September 30-October 27) on the theme, “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.”

Although the synod’s focus may appear extremely inward-looking, it has enormous practical implications for how the Catholic Church fulfills its primary mision: sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston (president), Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois (vice president), plus Cardinals William H. Keeler (Baltimore) and Francis E. George, O.M.I. (Chicago).

Collegiality and Primacy

The synod theme involves the Church’s teaching on collegiality (as members of the college of bishops, local bishops share a concern for the entire Church) and primacy (all bishops work with and under the bishop of Rome, the head of the college of bishops).

Most of the synod’s members are bishops chosen by episcopal conferences. They will meet with the cardinals and archbishops who head the Holy See’s 24 major offices, with 32 bishops appointed by the pope, plus 20 worldwide superiors of religious communities (10 men, 10 women), experts and Christian observers.

The pope’s U.S. appointees include Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka (Vatican City), Archbishop Justin F. Rigali (St. Louis), Ukrainian Archbishop Stefan Soroka (Philadelphia), Bishop Robert P. Maginnis (auxiliary, Philadelphia) and Cardinal Edward M. Egan (New York), the synod secretary.

Vatican II taught, “The pastoral charge, that is, the permanent and daily care of their sheep, is entrusted to them [local bishops] fully; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff; for they exercise a power which they possess in their own right and are most truly said to be at the head of the people whom they govern” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #27). This document had earlier affirmed that the pope has “full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise freely” (#22).

The relationship of local bishops to the Holy See’s offices needs to be discussed. In recent years there have been several high-profile cases where a local bishop’s decision has been publicly challenged by Vatican offices (most recently, the renovation of Milwaukee’s cathedral). Individual conferences of bishops or groups of conferences (such as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) have disagreed with certain Vatican offices (for example, about translations to be used in the Sacramentary and Lectionary).

The Holy See’s offices must work with and under the pope’s direction. In his 1988 apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus (reorganizing the Roman Curia), the pope wrote, “not only is it unthinkable that the Roman Curia should hinder or condition...the relations and personal contacts between the bishops and the Roman pontiff, but rather that Curia is, and must always be even more, a ministry of communion and sharing in concern for the Churches” (Introduction, #8).

Some individual bishops and episcopal conferences feel that what the pope described as “unthinkable” has occasionally happened.

Respectful Listening

During his homily at a meeting of the U.S. bishops last June, Bishop Fiorenza said: “Every bishop has the right to express his opinion, and he should feel free to do it with the expectation that brother bishops will receive his opinion not only with respect but with the assumption that he speaks out of great love for the Church and for the pastoral service our episcopal conference renders to each diocese.”

He suggested that “we not only listen with great respect to those whose opinions differ from ours, but that we not assume that they have any less love for the Church than we do or assume that they have a lesser fidelity to the Holy See than we do.”

Synods require a great deal of listening in general sessions and in language groups. After each group summarizes its work, recommendations are discussed, revised, adopted and sent to the pope, who writes an apostolic exhortation based on that synod.

Speaking From the Heart

Synods also require courageous, conscience-based speaking. Participants need to speak whatever, before God, they believe needs to be said for the good of the Church about this topic.

When participants at the 1991-1999 continental synods of bishops spoke from the heart, they did not all approve of the Church’s current mix of centralization and decentralization.

The 2001 synod suggests how Catholics can deal with difficult issues in a faith-filled, conscientious way.

How many meetings of parish councils, school boards, lay associations and communities of women or men religious need more respectful listening and speaking? How many publications or broadcasts could use less demonizing of certain Catholics and others, plus a greater, common effort to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

All of us (in Rome and elsewhere) can be living signs of Christ’s hope for the world—but only through respectful listening and conscientious speaking.—P.M.



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