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Catholic-Synodal Church


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 44/2010, P. 491 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Patriarchs, bishops and priests of the with the Pope affiliated churches of the East have gathered in Rome for two weeks, and in Vienna lay people and leaders of the diocese consult together in a synodal process on the future of the church.


"Already in 1999 the Vienna Cardinal Franz König spoke out in favour of strengthening the collegial joint responsibility and commitment to the whole Church" and, at the same time, of "strengthening the local and regional church jurisdiction of individual bishops in their full responsibility as shepherds of their local church" (Herder Korrespondenz, April). After a century of Roman centralization, the requests of the Second Vatican Council could thus be realized, namely, that the community of bishops and not only the Roman Curia support the Bishop of Rome in the exercise of his Petrine ministry for the good of the whole Church.

König's call for a greater say in the universal church and more responsibility in their diocese was preceded by a two-year "Dialogue for Austria", as response to the affair of König's successor as Archbishop of Vienna, Hans Hermann Groër. He had been advised to resign from office after allegations of pedophilia and a hitherto unknown increase in the number of people leaving the Church. At the final meeting in 1998 "the delegates - all of them had been directly or indirectly proposed or nominated by the bishops -, showed an impressive desire for renewal and a determination to reforms in the church. This became visible - across all individual topics - in permanent two-thirds to three-quarters majorities, wrote the "Herder Korrespondenz" at that time (December 1998). According to the assembled participants viri probati, i.e. men proven in work and family, should be ordained priests, women permanent deaconesses, remarried divorcees be allowed to receive the sacrament. In addition, the delegates called for more rights of co-determination of the parish councils on the occasion of the appointment of a new parish priest, and more involvement of local churches in the appointment of new bishops.

After nearly two decades and several other Roman tendencies towards greater centralization, initiatives to implement the synodal principle in local and universal Church give rise to new hope. Just as Franz König emphasized the involvement of each individual bishop in the welfare of the universal Church, the patriarchs of the churches in the Middle East at the synod that ended last Sunday in Rome spoke out in favour for the formation of a Council of Patriarchs which should also participate in the election of the Pope. And just as König reminded of the full responsibility of the local bishop, the current Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn examines carefully the life, the structures and organization of his diocese in a synodal process.


"Apostelgeschichte 2010"

As part of "Apostelgeschichte 2010", during a total of three meetings the up to 1400 delegates from parishes, associations, movements, religious orders and offices of the diocese are deliberately to celebrate and pray, and informally talk with each other and with a cardinal "at eye level, with heartfelt closeness and grip on reality", said Schönborn. Contrary to the many stacks of paper produced by the "Dialogue for Austria", which had finally come to nothing, the diocesan meetings should be "paper-free and enthusiastic, no McKinsey from outside, but a separate, 'spiritual kick-off' for a later, deeper structural process", summed up the Catholic news agency.

As an observer of the first Diocesan Assembly in October 2009, the Swiss professor of pastoral theology Leo Karrer experienced "a fusion of horizons between the time of Acts and today (in Vienna)." Karrer wrote in the journal "Diakonia" (January 2010) that the church had proved to be an interpretation community that, shaped by the triad of prayer and meditation, meeting and discussions, lectures and stimuli, "in a dialogic atmosphere uses the history and tradition as fantasy-factory for the current challenges and as authorization for acting in the Now of the present time". At the beginning of the first three-day meeting in St. Stephen's cathedral, the delegates deliberately discussed the things by which the faithful in the diocese are pleased, supported and united. "Only if we master this step, we can also stand the fact that there are problems and painful things, and that possibly different opinions result from our approach to solving a problem," said project manager Andrea Geiger. Also Karrer observed that spiritual depth and experience were important for the delegates. Nevertheless, the applause was "even greater when it was about reform issues or hot potatoes within the church. Notwithstanding a thriving life of faith on the spot, the reform issues "have to be advocated also against reform-resistant high church leaders with their patriarchal and centralized system."

There is a real hope that "Apostelgeschichte 2010" will have a lasting impact - due to its timeframe of initially one year. The second meeting in March was marked by the topic Mission. How can we as Christians, under the current social conditions, live our faith in the parishes in such a way that it is attractive for outsiders? And how can we get into conversation about God and the world with truth-seekers or people of a different faith or unbelievers? During the "Mission Week", which began on Pentecost Monday, the various presented approaches and projects could be realized and filled with life by the total of 660 parishes.


"Now we have the Opportunity"

At the start of the diocesan meeting (14 to 16 October) Schönborn surprised many an observers with the announcement to work out a "master plan" (literally a strategy) for ecclesiastical structural reforms. When he presented his project, its motivation became clear, too. We experience currently the "greatest surge of leaving the church in the history of our country since the Nazi era," said Schönborn. That's why action has to be taken, before people have voted with their feet and have created facts. "Now is the moment to actively cope with the changes. In ten years we will only endure them. But now we have both the opportunity and the task to be involved in this fast transformation process," warned Schönborn.

Besides rather vaguely worded points as a "yes to the world", i.e. the willingness to deal with the secular world, and a deliberate awareness of the "diversity of religions as they live with us" and of the variety of Christian denominations, particularly the announcement in future also to involve lay people in the management of parishes caused a sensation. "Maybe I was too timid in recent years regarding the admitting and promoting the cooperation in the management of our parishes," said Schönborn. As it is already the case in Latin America and other regions of the world, in parish associations with several parishes also lay people could be involved in the leadership on the spot - as it is provided by the canon law (Canon 517, § 2). In concrete terms, for example, in the remote Amazon region three to four priests of religious orders are not seldom entrusted with the pastoral care of hundreds and more parishes that are widely scattered. Catechists and parish leaders are often trained in the larger city where the padres live. On their journeys lasting weeks the priests visit every parish once every three months in order to celebrate the Eucharist, to baptize, and to hold a parish assembly. Apart from that, the parish leaders, often women, preside over the Sunday church services with Communion. Female catechists prepare parish members for receiving the Sacraments


Parish Leadership by Lay People

But is this model from the Latin American province suited for a European city such as Vienna? Long distances to almost inaccessible villages with a few families are hardly the problem there! Within the project there had already been a day with the topic "parishes". Here the merging of parishes, while maintaining vibrant communities, was discussed. But "one question has been bypassed then. Who should lead these parishes?" complained Rev. Gerald Gump, who belongs to the Executive Board of the reform-oriented "pastor initiative", in the Austrian weekly newspaper "Die Furche". If the parishes are to remain Catholic, a sacramental basic structure is needed. This will be destroyed, if "the parishes are deprived of the Sacraments because the church leadership considers human arrangements to be more important than the fundamental right of parishes to sacraments as the Eucharist." As the glance at Latin America shows, the venture of a parish leadership by lay people is not new and above all turns out to be a stopgap. There is still a lack of willingness to openly and magisterially to discuss the causes of the current shortage of priests or even to consider the conditions for admission to the priesthood.

However, this objection does not call the process of the "Apostelgeschichte 2010", begun by Cardinal Schönborn, into question. The announcement to work out in concrete terms the "Master Plan" until Easter and regularly, every two to three years, to hold a diocesan meeting is groundbreaking - not only for the dioceses in the German-speaking area. The chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Robert Zollitsch, too, had recently vigorously proposed a dialogue initiative, which now starts in his diocese of Freiburg. Indeed, with that mix - faith strengthened by prayer and meditation on the one hand and the controversial struggle for structures of a future-oriented church" on the other hand - Vienna might have found a new, reliable form of synodality" as Schoenborn said in allusion to the diocesan assemblies of the early church.


Synod of the Eastern Churches

Also the Roman Synod of the Eastern Churches united with the Pope was a lively forum of dialogue. It dealt with many questions and topics relating to the Catholics of that world region, issues which are often left aside due to the narrowness of our just Roman Catholic, i.e. Latin point of view. Which of the presented ideas will ultimately be implemented is, of course, dependent on the Roman church leadership alone. For example, the proposal that all seven patriarchs of the Catholic churches of the Middle East should participate in the papal election. This innovative initiative, which acknowledges a certain "autonomy" of the Eastern Churches, was finally swept under the table. A total of 44 proposals were submitted to the Pope. Benedict XVI should make them the basis of a final document, which has still to be written.

With the release of those so-called propositions, a church service in St Peter's and a final, rather political "Message to the People of God" the Synod for the Middle East ended (see CIG No. 41, p. 469 and No. 43, p. 482). The bishops called on the United Nations to do everything so that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is at last ended and peace is made. Benedict XVI insistently urged, "We must never resign ourselves to the absence of peace."

The results were differently assessed by the international press. The French daily "Le Figaro" e.g. spoke of a "Synod for freedom". The Swiss "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" and the American "International Herald Tribune" emphasized the call for peace. While the "Frankfurter Allgemeine" directed the attention to a possible effect on the church. "The participants agreed that closer ties between them are necessary."

For two weeks, the Catholic patriarchs, almost all the bishops (165) of the region, and also several advisers have together with the curia representatives deliberated on the delicate situation of the fourteen million Christians who live among a predominantly Muslim population. The human and cultural diversity of the Eastern Churches became also noticeable in the divine services. Every day the Eucharist was celebrated in a different rite. Although during the deliberations of the Synod particular emphasis was laid on pastoral issues, observers reported that during the breaks the participants intensely discussed political topics. The bishops movingly portrayed the depressing situation of the minority. The Melkite Patriarch of Damascus, Gregorios III Laham e.g. spoke of an impending "clash of civilizations." The Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Basile Georges Casmoussa, criticized that the consultations at the synod were unfortunately "too gingerly", too diplomatic. He drastically compared the plight of Christians in Iraq with the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. What is happening today in Mesopotamia, "reminds us of what happened in Turkey during the First World War."

Bishop Paul Hinder, who is responsible for the Christians in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Yemen and Oman, emphasized that the churches of the Middle East must overcome a false rivalry. "Especially in this region there are third parties who are laughing up their sleeves, if we are unable to resolve our conflicts." The Swiss complained that, in particular the Roman Catholic guest workers from the Far East, especially from the Philippines find little understanding for their religious needs in the traditional Catholic churches there.

With a glance at the relations with Judaism and Islam David Rosen, rabbi and director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, opened his speech to the Synod Fathers. As FAZ observed, the participants unfortunately rather "indifferently" listened to him. And this, although he praised the Jewish-Catholic relations, and characterized the 120.000 Christian Israeli Arabs as a "particularly successful minority" in Israel. But among the Arab bishops Rosen was seen rather as the representative of Israel, which hinders the peace process.

A debate about Israel's conception of itself showed how seriously the synod was overshadowed by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros of Newton, USA, who comes from Lebanon, criticized that the biblical word of the "promised land" is misused as reason for Israel's settlement activity in the West Bank. But the whole earth is 'promised land'. The Israeli Foreign Ministry subsequently denounced sweepingly the meeting of the bishops as "anti-Israel" event. However, Mordechai Lewy, Isreal's Vatican ambassador declared that one had not criticized the attitude of the Vatican but the message of the Synod. On behalf of the Vatican, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Antonios Naguib vigorously denied the accusation. The assembly had expressly confirmed Israel's right to exist and emphasized the right of Israel to live in peace and security.


Christian-Arab Identity

"With rigid faces", it says, the Bishops listened to the Shiitic scholar Sayed Mustafa Mohaghegh from Tehran. He explained that the Koran demands friendly and respectful relationships of Muslims with Christians and Jews. He acknowledged that in the history also "dark moments" occured and that "reactionary views" of fundamentalists still impede a normal relationship.

The Lebanese Bishop Antoine Raboula Beylouni of Antioch protested against this appeasement. The Koran is by no means as peaceful as claimed. The sacred book of Muslims is downright calling for violence and does not admit any religious freedom. The Vatican later attempted to belittle this statement as a "single voice". The Sunni Professor Mohammed el-Sammak from Beirut, however, got applause when he said, "The Christians inherently belong to the Middle East. The Arab identity would be impoverished if the Christians disappear from the region."

The proposals point to the fact that the bishops want to reform the liturgy, youth work, training of clergy, and to involve increasingly the laity within the churches. They plan a pastoral Bible Programme and the establishment of an episcopal commission on the social question and the use of the media.


"We are too much Old Orthodox"

The Coptic Bishop Youhanna Golta of Alexandria said that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council had "not yet reached the Eastern shore", because the weight of its own traditions is so great. Like young people in the West, many baptized Arab young people do no longer want to deal with the church, because she appears them to be rigid, anti-modern, and too traditional. The churches of the East, too, increasingly experience the secularization and the demythologization of their religious traditions. Also in the patriarchal systems of the Arab region, women criticize their still strong discrimination in church institutions.

The synod participants request that a common Seminary should be founded, and the cooperation in the field of charitable work improved. Moreover, the Pope should allow married priests, who until now are employed only within one patriarchate, in future to work also in other churches.

Furthermore, a thorough reform of the Eastern liturgies is necessary "in a contemporary language." Up to this day, many Catholic Churches of the East firmly keep to celebrating divine services mostly in the languages of the early church, which nowadays make a strange impact: Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek. A start would be, as suggested, to speak the Creed and the Lord's Prayer in Arabic. Another recommendation wants a common fixed date of Easter and Christmas.

As "La Croix" reported, the ecumenical movement had been put rather "on the back burner." One participant criticized the excessive traditionalism of Oriental thought both in the world and in the church. "We are all still very old-Orthodox." The mother churches' pride of their traditions inhibits reforms - to the detriment of faith.

Which of the synodal propositions will be approved by the Roman church leadership is still an open question. However, the Christians in the Middle East have gained self-esteem by the Synod. Reforms are needed everywhere in the Catholic Church, in the western and eastern parts, in Rome, Berlin, New York and São Paulo as well as in Jerusalem, Damascus, Ankara, Baghdad, Cairo ... Solidarity between the Occident and Orient means always also to strengthen the synodal principle, in the common belief, despite all the variety of paths.


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