The Synod for America is now history, leaving behind a legacy of words, and hopefully more. In January in Mexico City Pope John Paul II presented the final document, his own perspective on all the thinking and deliberations that went into that landmark meeting. This cogent, moving apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), provides a pastoral program for the new evangelization and is fruitful meditation for this post-Easter season.
If the Synod is to move beyond memories and words, those memories must change attitudes and those words spark actions.
These synods for each continent are intended to prepare us for the challenges of the new millennium. The Synod for America met in Rome November 15-December 12, 1997. It was a collegial gathering of bishops from the 24 countries in North, South and Central America and the Caribbean.
The Holy Father's first goal in calling one meeting of the Americas was to encourage the Church and society to see this hemisphere as one entity. Did this strategy work?
Granted, we have a shared history. Compared to the 2,000 years of Christianity, the churches of this hemisphere are all "young." They represent a plurality of cultural expressions because of their mix of immigrant and native populations. The continents are predominantly Christian, though not
necessarily Catholic. Secularism and consumerism affect the religious scene throughout North and South America today.
But do we now view ourselves sharing a common future, a future in which we are inexorably linked? Do we allow ourselves to be affected by the actions of that proverbial butterfly in the Brazilian rain forests or, more profoundly, by the search for justice in the struggling democracies of Central America?
That America is one was the premise and most radical insight of the Synod. It will have the most far-reaching consequences, if we really let it change our attitudes.
The document follows three main themes: encounter with Jesus Christ which sparks conversion, communion and solidarity. Singling out some challenges posed in the first part of the document, we can see the hard issues raised and the kind of change required of us all.
Ecclesia in America points out three places of encounter with the living Jesus: the Scriptures, the Eucharist and persons, especially the poor. The document cites the words of Pope Paul VI at the close of the Second Vatican Council: "On the face of every human being, especially when marked by tears or sufferings, we can and must see the face of Christ (cf. Matthew 25:40), the Son of Man" (#12).
The unity of hemisphere is revealed in the discussions of the drug trade and ecology. Certain countries face the problems of drug production, others of drug use, and all tarnish their international reputation by involvement in trafficking. The uncontrolled emission of harmful gases (like car exhaust and industrial pollution) is cited as an opportunity for believers to take personal action, just as is the dramatic phenomenon of deliberately set fires and destruction of the Amazon forests.
Perhaps the main challenge this section raises is the burden of external debt faced by many American nations. The issue is complex, the debt often resulting from corruption and poor administration. It is the poor who are the first to suffer. No solutions are given, but the moral imperative to rectify the situation is stressed.
"Conversion is a lifelong task" (#28), says the document. "Conversion (metanoia), to which every person is called, leads to an acceptance and appropriation of the new vision the Gospel proposes" (#32). To this end, the document holds up the value of the Sacrament of Penance, the sacrament of forgiveness. "Only those reconciled with God can be prime agents of true reconciliation with and among their brothers and sisters" (#32).
The section on communion raises a panoply of internal challenges, from the vocations crisis to the stresses on today's families.
Solidarity, the third theme, is defined as a fruit of communion which commits us to a sharing of spiritual gifts and material goods. It was in fulfillment of this challenge that the U.S. Church rose so quickly to aid the victims of recent hurricanes in Central America. We hope the response continues.
In the end, all this analysis is focused on the "new evangelization" to which the pope has called us. It is laypeople who are to be the lead agents.
The document is not perfect. It contains repetitions. It is weak in its consideration of the pervasive influence of mass media.
But this hopeful document should set the agenda for the Church in America for a long time to come.
The document concludes with a plea for the evangelization of our culture and a promise that Mary, especially as the Virgin of Guadalupe, will help us. In America her "mestiza face...was from the start a symbol of the inculturation of the Gospel, of which she has been the lodestar and the guide. Through her powerful intercession, the Gospel will penetrate the hearts of the men and women of America and permeate their cultures, transforming them from within" (#79). B.B.