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Eat, pray, listen

The core of the Synod of Bishops is summed up in these three words.

Eat
It’s not, of course, about the food but about sharing meals together and the conversation and growing connection and friendship.  I’ve been privileged over the last twenty four hours to have dinner with the Ecumenical Patriarch, breakfast with the Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance and lunch today with the Pope.  I don’t expect ever to be able to write that sentence again!

It was very good to sit with His Holiness, Barthelomew, the ecumenical patriarch at a dinner given by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity for the Anglican and orthodox delegations in Rome for the special mass yesterday.  I learned something of the situation of the orthodox church in Istanbul and the new growth in Korea and other parts of the patriarchate.  Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary of the WEA, told me about a great new series of television programmes on the Bible made by the producers of the Apprentice currently in edit and due to be on television around the world in the five weeks before Easter.  Watch out for more news from the EA in Britain.  The Pope gave a lunch for everyone at the Synod today – the first time we have all eaten together and a great time for conversation about how things are going.

Pray
Synod begins every day with prayers: chanting psalms together (in Latin); collects; a scripture reading and meditation.  Today the meditation from one of the African bishops was based on Psalm 22.1: My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?  The bishop spoke movingly of a visit he made to a cell for condemned prisoners and the way he was greeted with joyful singing of Christian hymns.  He asked the prisoners why they had all become Christians.  He was told it was because of the faith and joy of those who were already Christians which shone out even in that dark place.

Listen
The listening is the hardest of the three parts.  Each Synod Father gives a speech (called an intervention) which is strictly timed to five minutes on some aspect of the new evangelisation.  We listen to 12 speeches an hour in the course of a morning and then again in the afternoon.  There was a round of applause at the end of lunch when the Pope decreed that the Fathers could take most of the afternoon off.

Individually the speeches are mostly very interesting.  But they follow one another in a fairly random order and without reference to the previous speaker – not a method of debate I have encountered before.   It’s like building a great stew of ideas out of which the small groups and the ongoing working group after the Council will produce, I hope, many good things.

This morning, for example, we had contributions from Spain on the renewal of liturgy, reconciliation and preaching; from the Ukraine – and several other places – on the parish as the centre for mission; from the Vatican on preserving priestly identity; from Vietnam on the family as the place of evangelisation; from Cameroon on small Christian communities; from India on the need for a variety of approaches; from Italy on the importance of schools; from Chile on the vital need for the Holy Spirit; from Poland on the true nature of the gospel; from Argentina on the preferential option for the poor; from Honduras on lay ministry; from North America on the reality of dealing with the breakdown of trust following the abuse scandals; from the West Indies on the need for a clearer role and support for catechists.  The bishops know their dioceses and their people.

What am I hearing in the midst of all this listening?  I am certainly hearing people who are speaking of God and especially of Jesus Christ.  I am hearing people who recognise their own need to be evangelised again.  I think I am hearing a renewed emphasis on Christology from which is beginning to flow a clear missiology and sense of renewal.

And out of the eating, prayer and listening, I hope there is a growing love for God’s world and God’s church and God’s Son.

Postscript
It’s good to share these experiences with different people through this blog.  As I do that could I ask you to say a prayer today and tomorrow for the town of Rotherham in the Diocese of Sheffield which is facing a particularly challenging day of protest tomorrow by the English Defence League and which will be in my thoughts and prayers here.

 

Remembering Vatican II and moving forward

Fifty years ago on this day in 1962, Pope John XXIII inaugurated the Second Vatican Council – a great assembly of the Roman Catholic Church from all across the world to attempt a great work of re-sourcing Christian theology and identity in the life of the Church in the modern age.

The Council met every October to December for five years (much longer than first intended).  It produced a significant agenda for change in the Roman Catholic Church: a new understanding of the Church; a more positive and generous attitude to the world; liturgy in the mother tongue and not only in Latin; a more coherent embracing of biblical scholarship and the insights of charismatic renewal; an openness to greater collegiality and collaboration and a more positive approach to ecumenical endeavour and to sharing the faith.

Less than twenty years after the end of the Second World War, as society emerged into the modern era, the Catholic Church found a confidence to embrace a vision of a global Church and Communion, a sacrament and sign of God’s love in the world.  For a recent, readable and detailed history see John W. O’Malley, What happened at Vatican 2, Harvard, 201.

This morning in a Solemn Pontifical Mass in the same St. Peter’s Square, the Pope remembered Vatican  II and the many rich blessings which flowed from its meeting.  The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch were both present along with many Cardinals, Bishops and Archbishops from across the world and thousands of priests and laity filling St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Benedict XVI also inaugurated this morning the Year of Faith to mark the 50 years from the beginning of the Council, a Year which will be kept in every Catholic parish across the world: a year of prayer to deepen the whole faith of the Church and a prayer for a deeper experience of the new evangelisation – the theme of the Synod of Bishops.  Like everything else about this Synod, the call to faith is Christocentric: it is call to focus on Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12.2).

Pope Benedict spoke in his homily of the tension which was present in Vatican II and which is present today:

… we can understand what I myself felt at the time: during the Council there was an emotional tension as we faced the common task of making the truth and beauty of the faith shine out in our time, without sacrificing it to the demands of the present or leaving it tied to the past: the eternal presence of God resounds in the faith, transcending time, yet it can only be welcomed by us in our own unrepeatable today. Therefore I believe that the most important thing, especially on such a significant occasion as this, is to revive in the whole Church that positive tension, that yearning to announce Christ again to contemporary man.

The Pope pointed the Church back to the actual documents produced by the Council as a source of renewal, theological study and apologetics and on to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published twenty years ago today, as a summary of Catholic doctrine and a tool for teaching the faith.

Will these new ventures make a difference?  As we looked back fifty years this morning, there was a real sense of thanksgiving for the changes effected through Vatican II.  The Catholic Church acknowledges that change in an every changing world is not easy.  Yet change there has certainly been.    There is no doubt that Vatican 2 was one of the most significant Christian gatherings of the 20th Century.  The documents and history deserve to be better read and more widely understood.

What fills me with more hope than anything is the determination which comes through in almost every service, discussion and Synod session I have attended here that the Church must be drawn back to Christ, hear the gospel afresh and so renewed in God’s mission for the coming years.

The Synod begins: confessio et caritas

The Synod of Bishops held its first session this morning and began, as expected, with prayer and an address from Pope Benedict.  About 400 Synod Fathers, experts and fraternal delegates are gathered in the audience hall, a tiered auditorium.  There was a substantial press presence at the start of the morning.

Orientation
Today is all about orientation.  We were brought up to date with the pathway to the Synod this morning and looked ahead to the main themes for our conversation and listening over the next three weeks.  The feel of the gathering is formal but not stuffy: the bishops all in cassocks; everything so far has been in Latin with simultaneous translation into five different languages.

The Fraternal Delegates sit together behind the Cardinals near the front of the auditorium.  I have a Metropolitan from Romania on my left and two Armenian Orthodox priests to my right.

The main theme of this evening are a series of 10 minute reports on the new evangelisation from every continent represented here which promises to be fascinating.

The Pope’s Address
However the highlight of the morning was undoubtedly the opening address from the Pope.  He began by introducing and exploring the term good news (evangelion) drawing on both the Book of Isaiah and its use in Imperial Rome:  news from the Emporer was by definition good bringing power, renewal, salvation and health.  Luke fuses these two senses in his use of the term.

The gospel is great good news: the question asked by humanity in every generation is the same:  is God there and is God good?  The good news we proclaim is that God has broken his silence and spoken and Jesus is his word.  God is a God who loves us, suffers with us.  God is no longer the great stranger.  God has spoken and has broken the great silence.  This is good news today as it was in the days of the apostles.

The theme of this Synod is to ask how we can convey this message to the contemporary world?  How can we make this known?  We must begin in prayer and in co-operation with the Spirit like the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.

The Pope then developed two specific ways in which God involves us in the proclamation of the Good News around the two Latin words confessio (confession of faith) and caritas (charity or love).  We must be penetrated by the gospel, so that it abides deeply within us.  We must also be prepared to witness to the gospel, to make the good confession.  Our lives must be set on fire by love.  That love must work itself out in our actions.

The Pope left the Synod in no doubt that the consideration of the New Evangelisation is an urgent task, a theological task, a task which engages heart and mind and life and calls for deep engagement with Scripture and the tradition as well as the experience of the Church.

And finally…
One of the striking stories told this morning was from Hong Kong where the diocese has trained over a thousand catechists.  This has resulted in an increase in the number of baptisms – 3,000 this year.  Thanks be to God.