O.K., most Catholics have little-to-no interest in the
10th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops meeting
in Rome (September 30-October 27) on the theme, “The Bishop:
Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the
Although the synod’s focus may appear extremely inward-looking,
it has enormous practical implications for how the Catholic
Church fulfills its primary mision: sharing the Good News
of Jesus Christ.
Representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
are Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston (president),
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois (vice president),
plus Cardinals William H. Keeler (Baltimore) and Francis
E. George, O.M.I. (Chicago).
Collegiality and Primacy
The synod theme involves the Church’s teaching on collegiality
(as members of the college of bishops, local bishops share
a concern for the entire Church) and primacy (all bishops
work with and under the bishop of Rome, the head of the
college of bishops).
Most of the synod’s members are bishops chosen by episcopal
conferences. They will meet with the cardinals and archbishops
who head the Holy See’s 24 major offices, with 32 bishops
appointed by the pope, plus 20 worldwide superiors of religious
communities (10 men, 10 women), experts and Christian observers.
The pope’s U.S. appointees include Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka
(Vatican City), Archbishop Justin F. Rigali (St. Louis),
Ukrainian Archbishop Stefan Soroka (Philadelphia), Bishop
Robert P. Maginnis (auxiliary, Philadelphia) and Cardinal
Edward M. Egan (New York), the synod secretary.
Vatican II taught, “The pastoral charge, that is, the permanent
and daily care of their sheep, is entrusted to them [local
bishops] fully; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of
the Roman Pontiff; for they exercise a power which they
possess in their own right and are most truly said to be
at the head of the people whom they govern” (Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church, #27). This document had
earlier affirmed that the pope has “full, supreme and universal
power over the whole Church, a power which he can always
exercise freely” (#22).
The relationship of local bishops to the Holy See’s offices
needs to be discussed. In recent years there have been several
high-profile cases where a local bishop’s decision has been
publicly challenged by Vatican offices (most recently, the
renovation of Milwaukee’s cathedral). Individual conferences
of bishops or groups of conferences (such as the International
Commission on English in the Liturgy) have disagreed with
certain Vatican offices (for example, about translations
to be used in the Sacramentary and Lectionary).
The Holy See’s offices must work with and under the pope’s
direction. In his 1988 apostolic constitution Pastor
Bonus (reorganizing the Roman Curia), the pope wrote,
“not only is it unthinkable that the Roman Curia should
hinder or condition...the relations and personal contacts
between the bishops and the Roman pontiff, but rather that
Curia is, and must always be even more, a ministry of communion
and sharing in concern for the Churches” (Introduction,
Some individual bishops and episcopal conferences feel
that what the pope described as “unthinkable” has occasionally
During his homily at a meeting of the U.S. bishops last
June, Bishop Fiorenza said: “Every bishop has the right
to express his opinion, and he should feel free to do it
with the expectation that brother bishops will receive his
opinion not only with respect but with the assumption that
he speaks out of great love for the Church and for the pastoral
service our episcopal conference renders to each diocese.”
He suggested that “we not only listen with great respect
to those whose opinions differ from ours, but that we not
assume that they have any less love for the Church than
we do or assume that they have a lesser fidelity to the
Holy See than we do.”
Synods require a great deal of listening in general sessions
and in language groups. After each group summarizes its
work, recommendations are discussed, revised, adopted and
sent to the pope, who writes an apostolic exhortation based
on that synod.
From the Heart
Synods also require courageous, conscience-based speaking.
Participants need to speak whatever, before God, they believe
needs to be said for the good of the Church about this topic.
When participants at the 1991-1999 continental synods of
bishops spoke from the heart, they did not all approve of
the Church’s current mix of centralization and decentralization.
The 2001 synod suggests how Catholics can deal with difficult
issues in a faith-filled, conscientious way.
How many meetings of parish councils, school boards, lay
associations and communities of women or men religious need
more respectful listening and speaking? How many publications
or broadcasts could use less demonizing of certain Catholics
and others, plus a greater, common effort to witness to
the Good News of Jesus Christ?
All of us (in Rome and elsewhere) can be living signs of
Christ’s hope for the world—but only through respectful
listening and conscientious speaking.P.M.