The Extraordinary Synod: A Symposium


June 1, 1985

According to recent news reports, the Holy Father will convene an extraordinary World Synod of Bishops next November to discuss the Second Vatican Council “to revive in some way the extraordinary atmosphere of ecclesial communion which characterized that ecumenical assembly.” The secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Jozef Tomko, has said that there will be between 140-150 participants in the assembly-101 presidents of bishops’ conferences, the patriarchs of the Eastern Rite churches, heads of Vatican Curia offices, three superior generals of religious orders, and experts and observers. It is unclear as to who will be chosen, and by what method, as observers, experts, and representatives of religious orders, but the Pope may appoint up to 15% of the delegates, and one can predict that the three superior generals will represent communities of sisters, priests, and brothers.

I have little memory of what they’ll all be commemorating—I was in grade school when Vatican II was called—and I’m not sure how this meeting will affect me. I can remember, as the recent changes of rubrics crept across the consciousness of my suburban parishes, there was little explanation beyond that it was, all “because of Vatican II.” Instead of mumbling along in generally bad Latin by himself, the celebrant now had to recognize that we were part of this action called the Mass. At some point he began to think that he could freelance a little with this or that prayer, and we began to recognize how inane his own thoughts were.

Rather than join us with the whole Church in the prayer of the day, he was creating extemporaneous prayers from newspaper headlines and replacing the centuries of liturgical music from Solesmes with ditties of the moon-June variety accompanied by untuned guitars played by either very thin or very fat people who claimed no musical training, ever.

I have seen ordinarily intelligent men dress in vestments decorated with balloons, with flowers, with aphorisms, and with stars to celebrate masses in which they spoke about balloons, flowers, aphorisms, and stars. I have listened to hundreds of “homilies” about Selma, Viet Nam, Cuba, nuclear weapons, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Reagan administration, but very few about the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I have gone to confession more than a few times hoping to get a little advice as to how I might better live the Word of God in my life and been told only “say three Hail Marys and leave the door open when you leave.” I have been repeatedly embarrassed when my national conference of bishops looks, as someone else has said, very much like the left wing of the Democratic party at prayer.

Will two weeks in Rome cure these latest results of centuries of effort by clerics to arrogate power unto themselves? This is the result, after all, of their work, and like as not they’ll want to blame it all on the laity. While tripping over each other in a flight from modernism, they stumbled upon modernity and found they liked it just fine, thank you.

Somewhere along the line, there grew a confusion between opinion and fact. What the pulpit thumpers abandoned, the clear light of fact, remained dimly echoed in the shadow on the wall of opinion. Now, opinion seems to be the precursor of fact; the flock flocks to hear about the latest “eyewitness report” (with slides) on Nicaragua. To live the Gospel, the implicit or explicit message says, is to join in solidarity with the oppressed and oppose the evil American government which has corrupted generations of politicians into mere puppets of imperialism. This is what has become fact. This is what is substituted for the real commands: feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked. For reasons known but to their public relations representatives, churchmen and women are now mimicking that which they decry: once again they seek to arrogate power unto themselves, this time not to the detriment of the celebrations of the word, but to the detriment of the word itself.

There is some truth to the argument that, on one level, the “left wing of the Democratic party at prayer” is merely enslaved in the rhetoric of lay staffers, but that can only happen when the original education is faulty and they who are ostensibly in command are not paying attention. Such criticism implies that the laity ought to be and remain for ever more second class non-citizens of the amorphous “city-state” of the City of God.

Can a two-week synod straighten it all out? Probably not. Undereducated holders of power will delegate and relegate and continue to make the laity look bad; the response will be to tighten, not loosen, the constraints upon participation by the whole church with the whole church. That clerics have created a self-fulfilling prophesy is immaterial; that the world is beginning to ignore all religious pronouncements as political pronouncements is what is the very serious matter the synod ought to address, with the whole church, in Rome, next fall.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...