Synod of Bishops ends with far-reaching goals
synod 2012
Pope Benedict XVI leads a closing session of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization at the Vatican Oct. 27. CNS photo via Reuters

Delegates gathered in Rome for October’s three-week Synod of Bishops had a daunting task: consider the challenge of proposing the Christian message to societies shaped by Christianity but ever more hostile to it. The synod, with its theme of “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,” was the 13th general assembly since synods were formally restored in the 1970s, and was composed of representatives of the universal Church. 

Yet there was little doubt that the 49 cardinals, 71 archbishops, 127 bishops and 14 priests — together with more than 72 collaborators, among them many non-Catholics — mostly had in mind the secularized societies of the West. The New Evangelization, said Pope Benedict XVI at the opening of the synod, was directed “principally at those who, though baptized, have drifted away from the Church and live without reference to the Christian life.” The synod’s purpose, he said, was “to help these people encounter the Lord, who alone fills our existence with deep meaning and peace.”

Calls for self-repair

It was an almost unfenced agenda, and the delegates’ speeches ranged wide. Listening for six hours each day to hundreds of inputs taxed the participants. Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, said the first 10 days of the synod was “logical, loving, faith-filled,” but lacking in “fire and energy.” Father Adolfo Nicolás, the head of the Jesuits, lamented that the synod had made little attempt to learn the lessons in the Church’s long history of evangelization before embarking on a new phase. 

New Cardinals
During the world Synod of Bishops, Pope Benedict XVI made a surprise announcement. He called a Nov. 24 consistory at which he will create six new cardinals, including an American. 

There were plenty of calls for the Church to repair itself. German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Church needed to overcome conservative-progressive division, for disunity was a countersign. Canadian Bishop Brian J. Dunn of Nova Scotia said the New Evangelization must address the distrust and anger left by clerical sex abuse, and called for “a profound change of mentality, attitude and heart in our ways of working with laypeople,” including formal recognition of lay ecclesial ministry and the role of women. Belgian Archbishop André Léonard, a “conservative,” stirred the pot when he pointed out that “two-thirds of active members of the Church are women” yet “many feel discriminated against.” (Female participation in the meeting — 10 experts and 19 observers — was the largest ever in a world synod, but still a fraction of those present.) 

Better engagement

The 58 final proposals, synthesized from more than 300 that came out of the multilingual small groups, are wide-ranging. Journalists scrabbling to find consistent narratives in them at the concluding press conference on Oct. 26 were told by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., the relator general, or chairman, of the synod, that the synod fathers had not tried to “define” what New Evangelization meant, but rather to “describe it, and how it interacts with our world.” 

Yet there are some consistent ideas, as well as creative suggestions, and one thing was very clear: the Church faces paradigm-shifting new circumstances in which the traditional distinction between “missionary” and “Christian” territories no longer holds, and secularized Christian society requires a special focus. “That bishops find secularism to be a challenge to the Church isn’t surprising,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said. “What I find more surprising is the emphasis that instead of whining about it, or running from it, perhaps we should think about ways to better engage it.” 

The synod agreed, therefore, that the New Evangelization needs to be a stable part of the Church’s mission. Arguably, that process began two years ago, when Pope Benedict created the Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. The council, under longtime papal collaborator Archbishop Rino Fisichella, has been waiting for the synod to define its work, which will mainly be about sharing best practices and experiences between dioceses. 

Among structural changes called for in the “Propositions” — which the pope will absorb and respond to in a year’s time, in a post-synodal apostolic exhortation — is a call for permanent commissions to be established in bishops’ conferences to oversee New Evangelization strategies, and for a “Pastoral Plan of Initial Proclamation, teaching a living encounter with Jesus Christ” which would make catechesis that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ a permanent part of parish life.

Tasks at hand

Asked what that might look like in five years’ time, however, Cardinal Wuerl was reluctant to be prescriptive beyond ensuring that the New Evangelization becomes a “permanent part” of the Church’s activity. “We were deliberately cautious about suggesting how this would work out,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Still, there is much here for the council can begin with. The proposals include, for example, a call better to understand the dynamics of secularism, especially in cities. Catholics need to read and study more Scripture and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Calling for a new focus on teaching the value of religious liberty, the synod also proposes a new body of Church leaders to address threats to it worldwide. 

Restoring traditions

Some of the proposals are seeking to restore traditions that have been lost. There is a call for a return to natural law arguments, and Catholic social doctrine, as part of “a new apologetics of Christian thought” and a “theology of credibility” based on reasoned argument. And the synod says particular attention needs to be paid to beauty — in the sacred arts and liturgy — as “a special dimension of the New Evangelization.” Schools need to reinforce their Catholic identity and teachers invited “to embrace the leadership which is theirs as baptized disciples of Jesus.” And the catechesis used in the initiation of new Catholics should be extended to a “permanent mystagogy” for parishioners. 

The synod calls for the New Evangelization to address cases of divorced and remarried, abandoned spouses, cohabiting couples, as well as “the trend in society to redefine marriage.” In his homily closing the synod, Pope Benedict described Christians who had fallen away from faith as being like the blind Bartimaeus: “their lives have lost a secure and sound direction, and they have become, unconsciously, beggars for the meaning of existence.” The “new evangelizers,” he added, were like Bartimaeus with new sight, “people who have had the experience of being healed by God, through Jesus Christ.” 

Helping them to be seen and heard in secular Western societies will be one of the Western Church’s major new tasks. 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England and covered the synod in Rome.