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