Inside the synod: We begin with words from the Holy Father

By Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas
One in a series

Monday, Oct. 8, 2012

VATICAN CITY — The U.S. delegation began the day at Mass in the small Marian chapel of the North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome, where we are staying. The reading of today’s Gospel of the Good Samaritan reminded us that the service of the Good Samaritan is to be our mission as well. Who would not be moved by the sensitivity of the Samaritan to human need? He had, as Pope Benedict would say, “a heart that sees where love is needed and he responded.” Such a demonstration of compassionate care draws people to the church.

The synod day begins at 9 a.m. with a break at 12:30 p.m. and then resumes from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Roll is taken of all synod participants, indicating their presence by pressing an electronic pad that lights up the seat on a chart in front of the hall. There are no cuts or ditching a session. You would get caught.

The Holy Father entered the synod hall right at 9. He led us in the Liturgy of the Hours and offered a reflection after the reading. This elderly man spoke passionately and with vigor, without any notes, on confession and charity as roots of the new evangelization. The wise teacher obviously knew the message he was presenting. His strong gestures and clear thoughts were captivating. Alert and vehement in delivery, one could only feel in the presence of a master teacher for whom the new evangelization matters much.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, right, speaks with a bishops as they leave the opening meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization at the Vatican Oct. 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

He called Catholics to confess out loud and make public what is in their hearts. We need courage to utter the Word. He called us to sing out our faith.

Recently I was in Madagascar for Catholic Relief Services. I was moved by the profession of faith of the people as they sang and danced, possessed by a profound faith that they were not embarrassed by but were proud to profess. They celebrated their faith and professed that faith openly. Martyrs of course confess their faith with their very lives.

The Holy Father then spoke of charity in living the faith. Confession is nothing abstract. The Gospel is not mere words. Faith cannot be separated from love. For some time the Holy Father has been calling the church to awaken, to be set on fire with love of the Lord so that we can set others on fire with this love.

I could only feel that the Holy Father with his open, wide gestures during his reflection was trying to get the church moving, to give it new life, new energy, to wake us from our tiredness and shake us from our lack of confidence.

Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, reviewed for us in Latin the process that led to the gathering of the synod fathers. He described an extensive consultative process that led to the “instrumentum laboris” that will guide the work of the synod. He used the image of the icon of the Good Shepherd that was found in the Catacomb of Priscilla that shows Christ carrying back the lost sheep. We seek like Christ to bring back the stray.

As I listened to him I could only think of how many have drifted from the church. We feel their loss. We miss them. We long for their return. If only this synod might give us “new ardor, new expressions, new methods” to draw people back to Christ.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington and Archbishop Claudio Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, speak as they leave the opening meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization at the Vatican Oct. 8. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I was very proud of our own Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who is the “relator general” for this synod. He presented —  in exquisite Latin no less —  seven important points that underlie the new evangelization that gave a good grounding to our discussion.

He reminded us first that we can never forget the One we proclaim. Second, he reminded us of the rich documents about evangelization written by the popes since Pope Paul VI even up to the present Holy Father. He spoke of how challenging it is today to evangelize, especially in cultures that are immersed in secularism and materialism strongly influencing the young. He reminded us that “evangelization is not a program but a mode of thinking, seeing and acting.” He called us “to a new confidence of the truth of our message.” He laid out the theological foundations of the new evangelization and the qualities of the new evangelizers as boldness/courage, connectedness to the church, as well as a sense of urgency and joy. He concluded with an emphasis on social justice in evangelization.

In the afternoon we covered the continents of the world, hearing about the glimpses of light and shades of darkness that are present in each continent. Having just visited in Southeast Asia for Catholic Relief Services, I was interested in the report on Asia. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai spoke of this young continent, central for the future of the world and the church. China and India are emerging. There is great inequality among the Asian nations. Asia is the cradle of many religions. He enumerated three areas for the work of the church in Asia: Dialogue with culture, with the poor, and with traditions. Youth are vulnerable.

He described five challenges for the church in Asia:

  1. Secularism — even though people are spiritual by nature we need to present faith as relevant, appealing to mind and heart.
  2. Family ties are being eroded and sanctity of married life, and there are some voices being raised in support of same-sex marriage.
  3. Anti-life movements are growing, including ethnic conflicts and threats against the helpless. For some a girl child is a divine curse.
  4. The Asian soul seeks community, but individualism is creeping in.
  5. There are attacks on religion and persecution of Christianity. Christians feel weak and vulnerable.

In Asia Christians are 3 percent, and only the Philippines and East Timor are very Catholic. For Asians, discipleship matters more than doctrine. Contemplative prayer is important.

After the continental reflections, some of the five-minute interventions started, beginning with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, who was given the right to speak first by the Holy Father. For the last hour of the day anyone can speak for three minutes in a free-floating conversation which will get more interesting as the synod continues.

At the end, Cardinal Wuerl expressed how encouraged he was to see so many media present for the press conference. The press wondered whether there would be continuity between the synod and the Second Vatican Council. Media members emphasized the importance of the work of the church in serving others as a way of bringing people to the faith. They asked how the church will provide spiritual resources for people hungering for deeper meaning.

It was a full and productive day.

Bishop Kicanas, of Tucson, Ariz., is chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services and is a former vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Also a former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Communications Committee, he is blogging from the world Synod of Bishops this month by special arrangement with Catholic News Service. He was elected an alternate delegate to the synod by the U.S. bishops and became a full delegate when Cardinal Francis E. George was unable to attend.