Today is my last full day in Rome.  I leave first thing in the morning to return to the other beautiful city built on seven hills (Sheffield).  Today is also the last full day of the five minute interventions.  We’ve heard around 160 so far.

There were two significant themes for me this morning and one significant question.

The first was ecumenism and the new evangelisation.  There were significant interventions both yesterday and today from Cardinals here in the Vatican on this theme.  Cardinal Coccopalmerio spoke yesterday in favour of a “renewed relationship between the other Churches and ecclesial communities”.  He said:  “The division between Christians is not entirely innocent in terms of the de-christianisation of the Old Continent”.  If we are seeking a new evangelisation of Europe, unity is vital.  He focussed his remarks on a plea for urgency in the dialogue between the Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches especially in Russia and Romania because consumerism and relativism which have become “the subtle poison that pushes them towards a devastating secularisation”.

Today Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity spoke in even stronger terms. He said that division among Christians is a scandal which endangers that most holy of causes, the preaching of the gospel.  He recalled the historic Edinburgh conference of 1910 which was the beginning of the global ecumenical movement: the original roots of that movement are in common concern for mission.  He drew the attention of the Fathers to the unity of the Church found in the martyrs of the 20th Century (see yesterday’s blog).

Enculturation was the second theme which struck me this morning.  Sorry about the long words.  Enculturation is the process by which the gospel needs different languages and forms in different places.  We had several pleas for greater listening to local culture,  a plea for more local decision making about liturgical texts and patterns, a plea for enculturation to be more complete.  These voices came from Asia and Africa predominantly where the members of the church can sometimes still feel caught between two cultures: their own local culture and that of the missionaries who first brought the gospel.  There was a general sense in the Synod that this matter of enculturation is a profoundly challenging part of being a global Church and a single communion.  The direction of the comments was  clearly a plea for greater freedom and local decision making.

And finally, the silence of the West.  One of the abiding privileges of the Synod is attending to voices from all across the world.  Just this morning we heard very movingly from Syria and from Haiti of Christian faith in the midst of catastrophe.  The Synod has heard clearly the voices of Asia and Africa, of South and Central America and the voice of the Middle East , Oceania and Eastern Europe.

The Synod has not heard as clearly, in my view, the voice of the North America and Western Europe on the new evangelisation.  In the initial presentations from each continent, the presentation on Europe was more reflective of the former communist states than western Europe.  There was a single presentation from America which focussed on South and Central America.

There have, to be sure, been some individual interventions from these areas but they haven’t been frequent and nor have they articulated as clearly as some of the others a single position.  If there is a theme uniting them it is a willingness to ask a series of more difficult questions arising from, for example, the abuse scandals, or the situation of the divorced and remarried.  Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, made a very good intervention yesterday on the need for deep listening to the multiple cultures around us and for deep dialogue with them as key to the new evangelisation.  There was a similar contribution this morning from a Swiss bishop.  This is not so far from the question of enculturation above, but the culture we are listening to is pluriform and rapidly evolving, and we ourselves are swimming in it.

There is an irony here because the Synod and the new evangelisation are explicitly attempting to address the questions of faith in the historically Christian countries of Europe and North America.  I may of course not be hearing things correctly.  But it seems to me that there is some more listening still to do to the real questions the Bishops from North America and Europe are bringing.  It is to these questions that the Synod will need to apply its wisdom in the small group stages.

Later this afternoon, the Fraternal Delegates will be invited to speak for four minutes each.  I hope to post what I plan to say later this evening.

The Synod resumed this morning with a series of very fine presentations from many different parts of the world.

Two themes came across very strongly to me today.  The first was the theme of small ecclesial communities or base ecclesial communities.  These feature strongly in the working document for the Synod.  In paragraph 80 we read:

“The younger churches are working to enliven parishes which are oftentimes extensive, animating them internally through a programme called Basic Christian Communities or Small Christian Communities.  Their stated purpose is to foster a Christain life which is better capable of sustaining of the faith of their members and illuminating through their witness various areas of society, particularly large, sprawling cities”

At the turn of the millennium, base ecclesial communities were associated especially with the Roman Catholic Church in South America and with a theology of liberation.  It seems that over the last twelve years, since Pope John Paul II’s call for a renewal of evangelisation, many, many bishop’s conferences have adopted small ecclesial communities as a major programme for parish renewal, for equipping the laity and for mission and the fruits seem very significant.  There no longer seems any specific link with liberation theology.

So we heard a few days ago of these communities rejuvenating parishes in the Philippines and key for the nurture of individuals and families.  They offer more intense experiences of the faith and many encounters with the Lord.  Today we heard from Thailand in a similar way of B.E.C. as “a new way of being church”.  The parish is enabled to become a community of communities.  Every Diocese and every parish is encouraged to have a pastoral committee to promote and develop these small communities. They are seen as essential in equipping people for witness and service.  In Zimbabwe the Church in encouraging small Christian communties in similar ways.  In Ethiopia these small communities have been vital in developing lay ministries and a missionary orientation for the whole church.  I

n India since 2000 there has been extensive renewal and transformation in parishes through the same means:  “People gather to reflect on the word of God, to pray, to serve together, to experience community and to grow in personal encounter with Jesus.  Gifts and charisms of the Spirit are placed in the service of the church.  There is a reflection on life’s experience and an equipping in service to the neighbourhood”.  These small Christian communities call for a new model of leadership from the priest and the integral formation of the laity who are called to serve the kingdom of God.

It is clear from these numerous testimonies that the small ecclesial community movement is coming of age in the Roman Catholic Church and is bearing significant fruit.  The small communities are an integral part of parish life and they are taking on many of the features of the church not in competition with the gathering around the priest for mass but to complement that experience.  They are vital for lay formation, equipping people for discipleship in the world and for mission.  I have not so far heard of any Church in the post Christian West give testimony to such investment in small communities but it may be that the penny will begin to drop during the course of the Synod.  The message really is loud and clear.

The second theme which came across again very powerfully was the sense of suffering and the powerful witness of the martyrs of the 21st Century. This may be actual martyrdom in the sense of dying because you are a Christian and we heard moving testimony from Croatia and Romania.  Or it may be the experience of the Church living through common experiences of great suffering as is the case in Cambodia, in Mali and in Japan following last year’s terrible events and bearing witness in acts of love and compassion.

It is very moving for me to reflect on the experience of Christians across the world in all kinds of places bearing a powerful and costly witness through their suffering in the name of Christ.  The Synod has given me a fresh and deep experience of the worldwide body of Christ.