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Pontiff marks 50th anniversary of Synod of Bishops

By editor - 18 October, 2015

Cardinal Vincent Nichols highlights the importance and influence of the Synod of Bishops on the life and mission of the Church in Europe.

synod_cropPope Francis on Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops as a permanent body.

The Pontiff was joined by almost three hundred prelates gathered in Rome for the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the vocation and mission of the family in contemporary society.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, was among the Synod Fathers who spoke to mark the anniversary and highlighted the importance and influence of the Synod of Bishops on the life and mission of the Church in Europe.

In his address, Pope Francis described a synodal Church as “a Church of listening”.

“It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn: the faithful, the College of Bishops, [and the] Bishop of Rome; each listening to the others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ to know what he ‘says to the Churches’.”

“The Synod of Bishops,” Pope Francis continued, “is the convergence point of this dynamism – this listening conducted at all levels of Church life,” starting with the people, who “also participate in Christ’s prophetic office” and who have a right and a duty to be heard on topics that touch the common life of the Church.

Then come the Synod Fathers, through whom, “[T]he bishops act as true stewards, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, which [they] must be able carefully to distinguish from often shifting public opinion.”

In all this, the Successor to Peter is fundamental.

“Finally,” explained Pope Francis, “the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, called upon to speak authoritatively as ‘Shepherd and Teacher of all Christians’: not on the basis of his personal beliefs, but as the supreme witness of the Faith of the whole Church, the guarantor of the Church’s conformity with and obedience to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and the tradition of the Church.”

The Synod, the Pope emphasised, always always acts cum Petro et sub Petro – with Peter and under Peter – a fact that does not constitute a restriction of freedom, but a guarantee of unity.

“In fact,” he said, “the Pope is, by the will of the Lord, ‘the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful’.”

In his address on the ‘Importance and influence of the Synod of Bishops in the life and mission of the Church in Europe’, Cardinal Vincent Nichols recalled that in the course of the 20th century, Europe was possibly the most clearly divided of all the continents.

Two great wars and a long period of ‘cold war’, two powerful atheistic ideologies, had rendered the continent and its people into powerful warring factions, wars that had cost millions of lives and fashioned inflexible attitudes and stereotypes in the minds of all. Europe was not only deeply divided but also absorbed within itself.

“Slowly, the meetings and the work of the Synod of Bishops have contributed to the dissolving of our Euro-centric vision not only of the world but also of the Church. Some may speak of it as the internationalisation of the Curia,” the Cardinal said.

The Archbishop of Westminster said the contribution made to Europe by the institution of the Synod of Bishops is most clearly seen in the two Special Assemblies for Europe of the Synod of Bishops which have been held, the first in 1991 and the second in 1999.

“The memory of these two Synods brings to mind some of the great figures who have held leading roles here: in 1991 Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, Cardinal Glemp from Krakow, Cardinal Vlk from Prague and Cardinal Ruini as Relator. In their lives they embodied some of the great themes of the Church in Europe: relations with Judaism in the light of the Holocaust; the battle for hearts and minds of the Church in Poland; the virtual imprisonment of the Church in Czechoslovakia where for so many years Cardinal Tomasek, Cardinal Vlk’s predecessor, had his every move monitored by government observers, both through the windows of his residence and from within. Yet, he was a rock, or, as was told to a friend of mine, he was held by the people, living under the hammer of communism, to be, and I quote, ‘the father of our nation.’,” Cardinal Nichols said.

That first Synod was intended in the mind of Pope St John Paul II to get the Church breathing with both lungs, both Catholic and Orthodox, even though the first attempt that was needed was to get West and East to breath together.

There was no final document from this Synod. The distance between East and West was greater than had been realised and the wounds from seventy years of submission to the Soviet Union still hurt too much.

Eight years later the Second European Special Assembly of the Synod contributed to a fine Papal Exhortation, ‘Ecclesia in Europa‘ (28 June 2003).

At this Synod there was much more mutuality.

“In the West we were learning about the real depth and radical nature of the challenges we were facing and were beginning to find a focus on the task of the New Evangelisation, in countries in which socialisation had been accepted as also providing essential Evangelisation. But culture and Gospel were pulling apart rapidly.”

And the Churches of the East were finding that with their new openness what flooded in most powerfully were the materialistic centred philosophies and cultures of the West, dissolving the religious resolve of many, which for some had been intertwined with heroic resistance to a foreign occupier.

“Our problems were finding common ground and our encouragement and inspiration, one for another, becoming much more mutual. Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, as envisaged by Pope St John Paul II, was becoming more of a reality, but not a Christian or Catholic reality as might have been hoped.”

Cardinal Nichols acknowledged that there are challenges facing the Synod itself and identified the following:

* It is difficult to measure the impact of the Post-Synodal documents. Some stand out:Familiaris Consortio; Christifiledes Laici, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Sacramentum Caritatisand Evangelii Gaudium.Others have had less impact.

* Relationships with the media, especially in western European countries, are always delicate, as a free, investigative press and a desire to control the flow of information are always going to clash.

* Patterns of consultation prior to these  Synods on the Family have been invigorating but also frustrating, partly because the questions were fashioned in a manner not conducive to a widespread response and partly because a public consultation carries with it responsibilities of accountability which we have been asked not to fulfil.

* Also, I must confess, that the methodology of the Synod meeting itself demands much stamina! But despite shortfalls, the Synod of Bishops is a transforming gift in the Church, with even more potential yet to be realised.

Looking to the present, the Cardinal said the Europe is not what it was even in 1999.

Any parish in the Diocese of Westminster will have parishioners from 30 or 40 different nations. The migration towards Europe of peoples from wars, violence and poverty in Arab States and from elsewhere is challenging the European sense of presence and status in the world.

“The European Union is facing critical questions and tensions, especially the temptation to remain a fortress, protecting itself and its material benefits and comforts, which, of course, have been drawn from the world over,” Cardinal Nichols stated.

“Each country has its own challenges and difficulties. Europe has its enemies and must act with vigilance. But, and I quote, ‘It is right that we should be silent when children sleep, but not when they die.’”

Recalling the last meeting of the Presidents of European Bishops’ Conference which took place a few weeks ago in Jerusalem in the presence of the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, the Cardina explained, “Not only were we able to give encouragement to our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, but we could also see some of our common challenges.”

He said perhaps first among these were the challenges facing the family today and the strength which the family brings and the “cultural tsunami of ‘gender theories’ sweeping through sections of our societies”.

“At the same time, we recognised together that the family is the first witness to the faith in society, the first workshop in the faith and the backbone of every parish, the first tutoring in humanity for every person. Europe knows clearly now this challenge and the need to find ways of holding before people the full invitation of marriage in the Lord, its faithfulness, its fruitfulness and its witness.”

“We bishops of Europe, now together, are ready to play our part in this Synod. We thank God with full hearts for all that we have received in this Aula since the institution of the Synod of Bishops fifty years ago and all that we are receiving in these days and those still to come.”

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