An Extraordinary Synod

It may seem appropriate for a pastor to be parochial but a member of the Second Extraordinary Synod, which met in Rome from November 24 until December 8, had to lift his sights, and spirit, to a universal perspective.

Announced by John Paul II on January 25, 1985, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Extraordinary Synod was asked to celebrate, verify and promote the Second Vatican Council. It was in many ways a nostalgic event, constantly evoking the ecumenical council of twenty years before.

As the Pope said in announcing it in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, “This year is the twentieth anniver­sary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, whose first announcement, we well recall, was made by my predecessor John XXHI, of venerated memory, in this very basilica and on this same day, the 25th of January 1959.” And, in the novena of Angelus addresses he began September 29, to lay the ground for the synod, the Holy Father even used the word “nostalgia” when he spoke of the ecumenical hope for reconciliation between the eastern and western churches. The synod opened with a solemn concelebrated Mass in St. Peter’s on the Feast of Christ the King and closed similarly two weeks later on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, precisely twenty years to the day since the close of Vatican II.

The dates, the theme and, of course, the place, focused the attention of the synodal fathers on recovering the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Nor was the source of that spirit left vague. “The principal protagonist of the Council is the Holy Spirit” (October 5, 1985).

The Extraordinary Synod was the most important con­vocation since the Council itself. An average of 160 fathers took part in the sessions, considerably fewer than the fathers of Vatican II, of course, but the press corps was said by veterans to be considerably larger than that which covered the Council. There are 200 regular accredited members of the press corps. According to Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pon­tifical Commission for Social Communications, an additional 600 accreditations were issued for the synod, half of them from the United States.

The pope was not the only one who, in the interval be­tween announcement and opening, said things meant to prepare for the synod. Cardinal Ratzinger’s Report on the Faith (see my assessment in the December, 1985 issue of Catholicism in Crisis) was available in all major languages in advance of the synod and his realistic appraisal of the two decades since the close of the Council was endorsed by Cardinals DeLubac and Koenig as well as by Hans Urs Von Balthasar and many others. It is not too much to say that the synod would not have been what it was without Cardinal Ratzinger’s book.

The great blessing for the Church and the world that Vatican II was and is has been obscured by false claims about it and strange practices said to follow from it. As Aquinas said of what Averroism attributed to Aristotle, these were not so much interpretations as distortions of the Council. Dissidents who have had such a free field for so long began a counterat­tack consisting of personal vilification and disinformation, not stopping at calling Cardinal Ratzinger a Nazi. Such people regarded the coming synod with foreboding. Their opposite numbers, it must be added, indulged in unseemly trium­phalism, as if the Campo dei Fiori would soon be put once more to its historic use.

Needless to say, the Extraordinary Synod was not a seminar on Cardinal Ratzinger’s book. It was called to live again the spirit of the Council, to evaluate its implementation over the past twenty years, and to suggest ways in which it can in the future more effectively animate the Church.

If you were reading the secular, and some of the Catholic, press, you would have gained the impression that the world’s bishops were about to engage in a march on Rome to assert their autonomy and to wrest more power from the papal bureaucracy. Alternatively, in those same pages, the bishops were said to be gathering in trepidation at an impending papal annulment of Vatican II, with some bishops at least prepared to prevent this from happening. Such imaginative accounts went on apace in the course of the Extraordinary Synod, with breathless reports of pitched battles between liberals and con­servatives, acrimonious debates on liberation theology and na­tional bishops conferences. In the Sala Stampa journalists read one another’s heated accounts and, in the odd way of these matters, the press became part of what the press reported. Perhaps this is the meaning of the word “copy”?

When these accounts were called fanciful and highly in­correct by synod spokesmen, reporters were unfazed. Indeed, they found in the intonation and facial expression of the speaker tacit endorsement of what they had written. I saw one report in Le Figaro which gave the impression the writer was in the synod aula watching procedures. When I make up things like that I publish it as fiction. Perhaps these things are in­stances of what a Doubleday editor once called “faction” — a sort of literary mule. Certainly some of the religious reporters constitute a faction in the usual sense.

Nor was the press loath to create an incident to report. Babi Burke, a middle-aged nurse from Fort Lauderdale, ac­companied by photographers and writers, entered St. Peter’s and mimicked a mass with a consecrated host she had brought from the States. Ushers soon put a stop to this photo oppor­tunity, but for twenty-four hours or so Babi enjoyed the eva­nescent fame the press can bestow.

Imaginative reporting suggested that the synod was the idea of the bishops, a bid for episcopal autonomy, a body distinct from and opposed to the pope.

What is a synod? Canon 342 of the New Code defines it as “A group of bishops chosen from different regions of the world, who meet together at stated times to foster a closer uni­ty between the pope and the bishops, to assist him with their counsel in safeguarding and strengthening ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the Church’s activity in the world.” A creation of the Council in their present form, synods are general, extraordinary, or special. The first Extraordinary Synod was called in 1969; there have been general synods in 1971, 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983. In 1980 there was a special synod of the pope with the Dutch bishops. Only the pope can convene a synod, its pur­pose is to advise him, and it has no authority except in union with him. Press attempts to play the College of Bishops off against the Holy Father overlooked the fact that he is a member of the College and it is he who gives it unity. As Car­dinal Dearden reminded reporters in one news conference, there is no College of Bishops without the pope.

Not that such facts in any way hampered the freedom with which the bishops expressed their views in the assembly. There were certainly differences among them, there were cer­tainly differences expressed, as, for example, on the Vatican pronouncement on liberation theology. That the meetings were lively enough seems clear, but spokesmen had constantly to deny that the kind of Wild West shootout that makes good copy was any part of the proceedings.

The main documents produced by this fortnight of deliberations were two. The first, A Message to the Christian People, was written by Archbishop Dosseh-Anyron of Lome, Togo, Bishop Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, secretary general of CELAM, Cardinal Cordiero of Pakistan, and Car­dinal Lustiger of Paris. Approved by the assembly, this message was read serially by its composers at the closing Mass on December 8. Secondly, there is the Relatio Finalis, a fourteen-page document containing the advice to the synod of the Holy Father. The pope decided to have that Final Report made public.

It is useful to know how that fourteen-page document got written. In mid-March, the General Secretary of the Synod, Archbishop Jan Schotte, sent out a questionnaire to those com­ing, who included certain statutory members, like the presidents of national and regional conferences of bishops, and special invitees of the pope. Cardinal Godfried Danneels, of Mechlin-Brussels, was the realtor of the synod and had the task of summarizing the replies. His summary was then the basis for individual interventions of bishops which took up most of the first week, after which Danneels made another summary. At that point, the bishops were divided into circuli minores, study groups, on the basis of language. Thus there was a Latin group, an Italian, a German, and two each of English, French and Spanish. A tenth group was made up of special auditors. In a few days, reports from these had been written, the tenth written by Henry Chadwick for the ecumenical observers (the longest). These reports then formed the basis of Cardinal Danneels’s draft of a final report. That draft was discussed by the assembly, approved — the voting being section by section — and presented to the pope, who then, speaking for the first time, apart from an ecumenical prayer service, commented on it.

All in all, it was an efficient procedure. In the course of those two weeks the press was supplied with 45 bulletins, available in five languages. It was thus that we received the Danneels summaries, the interventions of individual bishops in summaries made by the speakers, the final report, the message, the pope’s response, and much more. The opening and closing addresses by Cardinal Krol were magnificent, as was Cardinal Garonne’s opening retrospect on Vatican II, meant to evoke for the assembly the spirit they were to recap­ture.

News briefings were held at least once daily in different languages and there were plenary press conferences, with one or the other of the three presidents (Cardinals Krol, Malula, and Willemans) presiding. The English press briefings were given by an articulate young Irishman, Father Dairmuid Mar­tin, of Cardinal Gagnon’s staff; Joaquin Navarro-Valls, direc­tor of the Sala Stampa, conducted the plenary press con­ferences, and Russell Shaw performed that function at the American press conferences where Bishop Malone gave a vivid argument for collegiality, having to be corrected regular­ly by Cardinals Dearden or Law. Bishop Malone astonished the press by several times suggesting, albeit jokingly, that the Extraordinary Synod was a contest between himself and Car­dinal Ratzinger. Nonetheless, the question of national con­ferences of bishops, a special concern of Bishop Malone, was included in the some 24 suggestions of the Final Report and was second of three especially singled out by the Holy Father as welcome.

What does it all mean? Time will be needed to assimilate the work of this synod, but it can be said without qualification that it was extraordinary indeed. One can follow through from the summary of the pre-synodal statements, to the individual statements and then the reports of the Circuli minores to the Final Report and Message a movement from almost provincial concerns to the perspective of the universal Church. Here was the most striking exhibition of collegiality. The pope recalled Vatican II’s basis for collegiality: a bishop is not consecrated for a diocese alone but to share, with the other bishops in union with the pope, responsibility for the whole Church. This is not to say that local issues are unimportant but rather, as Cardinal Law suggested in a conversation at the Villa Stritch, that local difficulties take on a different valence when one is seated shoulder to shoulder with bishops from everywhere. A profound sense of the universality of the Church and of the im­portance of the new churches was one of the graces Cardinal Law attributed to participation in the synod.

The three suggestions the Holy Father particularly welcomed were: (1) the desire for a compendium or catechism of Catholic faith and morals for the universal church which could then serve as a point of reference for particular catechisms; (2) the desire that the theology of national bishops conferences, their status and authority in the Church, be studied; and (3) a speedy publication of a new code of canon law for the Oriental Churches.

The proposal for a compendium or catechism caused a stir in the Sala Stampa. Clearly it relates to the theological confusion of the past twenty years. Moreover, it echoes a desire of Cardinal Ratzinger in his Report. Neither the Message nor the Relatio Finalis gives a detailed phenomenology of these first two decades, but there is more than enough evidence that the horrors were recognized. And a logical warning was issued by Monsignor Philippe Delhaye of the International Theological Commission: Do not confuse post Concilium with propter Concilium.

When it is understood that the constant reference to “par­ticular churches” in this synod is to dioceses and not to na­tional conferences, it can be better appreciated that such con­ferences need analysis and appraisal despite their practical value. The concern is that the authority of the individual bishop can be threatened by the conferences. Perhaps, too, the specter of national churches occurred to some.

The overriding message of the Extraordinary Synod would seem to be a reminder that the Church is a mystery — the description taken from Chapter II of Lumen Gentium — and a reminder of the Church as Communion. This was meant to correct an excessive emphasis on the hierarchical structure of the Church. The hierarchical structure is of course essential but it must be seen in terms of the Church being the sign and sacrament of man’s reconciliation with the Triune God through Christ.

The universal call to salvation, and thus to holiness, is conveyed through the Church which is the conduit of grace. The splendid progression in Lumen Gentium from baptism to the other sacraments, linking the sacramental priesthood with apostolic succession and the primacy of Peter, makes clear the salvific point of the hierarchical Church. In a final press con­ference on December 9, Archbishop Schotte drew special at­tention to the notion of the Church as Communion. Thus, theologians who had suggested that it was above all ec­clesiology that should concern the synod, seemed to have had their wishes fulfilled.

Lumen Gentium culminates in a chapter on Mary as Mother of the Church. The Extraordinary Synod had a Marian tone from the beginning and its culmination on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception seemed particularly fitting. The Holy Father noted this in his homily at the concluding Mass, in his Angelus address immediately after, and in his visits to the statue of Mary as Immaculate Conception in the Piazza di Spagna and at vespers in St. Mary Major that afternoon.

The pope had every right to be pleased. The Extraor­dinary Synod had been the occasion for feeling anew the spirit of Vatican II, of appraising what we have made of it until now, and then, transcending the contention and quarreling of which we have all been guilty, underscoring the truth Leon Bloy un­forgettably expressed in The Woman Who Was Poor. There is only one tragedy, not to be a saint.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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