Bishops’ synods, held every four years in Rome since the 1970s, have often been criticized as unwieldy. A three-week process that begins with more than 200 speeches, summarizes them for discussion in language-specific groups, and ends by attempting to distill them into recommendations to the pope, was never going to be an effective mechanism for deciding policy. But for stirring fresh thinking in the Church, encouraging dioceses to focus on important themes and challenges, and for bringing fresh ideas into the heart of the Vatican, the synod model has proved surprisingly effective — especially when, as this year, the topic is high on the list of concerns of those taking part.
The meeting scheduled for Oct. 7-28, the 13th ordinary general assembly since the first in 1967, may turn out to be one of the most significant in the synod’s history. Its theme — “New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith” — is how to repropose the Catholic faith in cultures long since evangelized but now, to a large extent, de-Christianized and increasingly hostile to the public presence of the Church.
Behind the movement
Although the idea was sown by Pope Paul VI in his 1975 encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, the phrase was first coined by Pope John Paul II four years later in a homily in Poland, shortly after his election: “From the Cross of Nowa Huta began the new evangelization, the evangelization of the second millennium,” he declared, going on to say that this new approach would need to be rooted in the Second Vatican Council.
|Archbishop Donald Wuerl. CNS photo
The term “new,” he later clarified, refers not to the gift itself, but the “new ardour” of the giver, as well as the changed context of the receiver. The division of the world into Christian and missionary lands no longer reflects reality; what was once mission territory — the Americas — now has the world’s three largest Catholic countries, while “Christian” cultures of Europe seek to disown their past.
The new context, Pope John Paul declared in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (“The Mission of the Redeemer”), called for both a new courage as well as new and imaginative methods. His decision to hold the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, Colo. — before then, WYDs had been held in Catholic pilgrimage sites — is considered, in retrospect, to be the first concrete initiative of the new evangelization, one both audacious and fruitful. Pope John Paul II returned to the theme in the millennium celebrations, but his long illness effectively left the task for his successor.
The new evangelization has been Pope Benedict XVI’s great task. From the start, recalling the de-Christianized cultures of the West to their roots, proposing faith as a positive alternative and creating space for religion in public life have been constant motifs of his homilies and speeches. In October 2010, he created the first new Vatican department in decades to help him to meet the challenge and carry it forward after he has gone. In setting up the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict quoted Paul VI’s words in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) that evangelization “proves increasingly necessary because of the frequent situations of de-Christianization of our days.” He went on to note what he called “a drama of fragmentation which no longer acknowledges a unifying reference point” and the power of a culture pointing the opposite way from faith. The synod is, in effect, the think tank for that new body — arguably Pope Benedict’s most significant legacy.
‘A frame of mind’
The importance he attaches to the new council can be judged by its appointees — an A-list of Catholic prelates from around the world, among them the pope’s most trusted co-workers. Its head is one of the Italian Church’s intellectual heavyweights and a longtime papal collaborator, Archbishop Rino Fisichella.
In addition to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the following U.S. prelates will attend the synod.
◗ Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez is among the cardinals, bishops and priests appointed by Pope Benedict to serve as full members of the Synod of Bishops.
◗ Synod members who were elected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., and Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., also will participate instead of Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, who is undergoing treatment for cancer.
The synod’s working document, or lineamenta, which has been studied by the delegates over the past year, reflects Archbishop Fisichella’s (and the pope’s) reading of contemporary Western culture as a temple of the cult of the individual, in which the Catholic faith appears as an unwelcome heresy. The new evangelization, says the lineamenta, is “a frame of mind” in which Catholics need to be willing to interpret the culture in which they live, and be imaginative in speaking to it. It is a culture that often misrepresents or caricatures faith, while at the same time claiming to know it. Faced with the growing marginalization of the Church from the public square by equality laws — and a culture that sees autonomy from God as progress — the document calls for a new “boldness to raise the question of God in the context of [today’s] problems.”
The document makes clear that the new evangelization is directed at renewing, or re-awakening, the baptized, many of whom “lead totally un-Christian lives” or maintain some links to faith but have a very poor knowledge of it. But it is also a call for the Church to face its internal problems and be bolder in confronting them. “Another fruit of transmitting the Faith,” the document notes, “is the courage to speak out against infidelity and scandal” within Christian communities, and “the courage to recognize and admit faults.”
In an address earlier this year in Leeds, England, Archbishop Fisichella noted how cultural pressures had led to a loss of conviction among many Christians, while others wrongly believed that “the repetition of the forms of the past” would be enough to withstand those pressures. The new situation, he said, calls for “a positive presentation with a new language, new categories, of thinking,” and said the Synod’s aim was to help develop “a new anthropological reflection in an apologetic key which is capable of communicating with contemporary man.”
In the same speech, the archbishop warned against inventing mere novelties, or watered-down versions of faith that would simply play into modern compulsions. The message remained the same and had to be offered in its integrity, with the aim of conversion, but it must be “a new way in which the Church may fulfill what she is called by her nature to do — to carry out evangelization.”
The 36 “synod fathers” appointed by the pope — who will join the 200 delegates elected by their bishops’ conferences — include key figures in the Pontifical Council, among them Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna; Cardinal Angelo Sodano of Venice, who is dean of the College of Cardinals; and Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney. Among them are also the leaders of many ecclesial movements seen as pioneers of the new evangelization. One of the papal appointees is Father Julián Carrón, president of the Communion & Liberation Movement, whose founder, Father Luigi Guissani, first suggested the idea of a Council for the New Evangelization.
The pope named Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., to what is arguably the most important role in the synod. As secretary, he is tasked with summarizing the topics to be discussed as well as the speeches by synod members; that summary is then put to the small groups to develop proposals and recommendations for Pope Benedict.
Those proposals will include lessons learned and successful models of Catholic life that seem best able to speak to Western culture. But the synod’s lasting fruit may not be so much prescriptions as a diagnosis, one that exposes the God-shaped hole in contemporary culture as a self-defeating neurosis.
Austen Ivereigh is author of “How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice” (OSV, $13.95). He writes from England.