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November 5, 2008

Did the world Synod of Bishops say anything of value for parish life?
The Word of God in the church's life.

In this edition:
-- Synod of Bishops concludes: Accent on justice and the poor.
-- What was this synod really all about?
-- The inculturation of God's Word: Crossing cultural borders.
-- Synod themes in brief.
-- "Lectio divina": Scripture and prayer.
-- Fundamentalism.
-- The homilist's challenge.
-- Of lectors and liturgy.

Synod of Bishops Concludes: Accent on Justice and the Poor

"One of the characteristic traits of sacred Scripture" is its revelation of God's predilection for the poor, the world Synod of Bishops said in one of the 55 recommendations (called "propositions") it forwarded to the pope at the conclusion of its three-week October assembly. Social justice and care for the poor emerged as a strong point of concern at the synod, whose theme was "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church."

The authentic hearing of God's Word leads to action, the synod said Oct. 24 in another of its concluding documents, the "Message to the People of God." Putting the Word of God into action "means making justice and love blossom in life," it said.

In this edition of the jknirp.com newsletter, I'd like to spend time with the synod's concluding documents in order to point out what they contain that may be valuable for leaders and discussion groups in parish life.

Some critics have suggested over the course of recent decades that the work of the Synod of Bishops, which usually assembles every three years in Rome, is of little value to the life of the church in local communities. Yet, each synod assembly does tend to discuss concerns that also are discussed in ongoing ways in the local church. True, to find what is valuable about a synod, it is necessary to "wade through" a lot of material. But I have found over the course of several decades that in wading through this material I usually happen upon more than a little that is quite worthwhile. Which is why this is the third, but also the last, edition of this newsletter to deal this fall with aspects of the 2008 synod.

Now back to the synod and social justice: One clear conclusion of this synod assembly was that God's Word generates charity and justice, especially toward the poor.

But the poor are not simply objects of charity, the synod said. Instead, their capacity to serve as agents of evangelization through their own generosity and willingness to share with others deserves appreciation. The synod called upon pastors to hear and learn from the poor, while guiding them in their faith as well. Deacons were encouraged to exercise a special responsibility toward the poor.

In its "Message to the People of God," the synod said that "the just and faithful man not only 'explains' the Scriptures but also 'unfolds' them before all as a living and practiced reality." And in a recommendation to the pope, the synod said the Word of God heard in Scripture leads people of faith to serve others who suffer and are oppressed (Proposition 39).

Pope Benedict XVI forcefully took up the theme of justice and charity Oct. 26 in his concluding homily at the synod. He said:

"The fullness of the law, as of all the divine Scriptures, is love. Therefore anyone who believes they have understood the Scriptures, or at least a part of them, without undertaking to build by means of their intelligence the twofold love of God and neighbor, demonstrates that in reality they are still a long way from having grasped its deeper meaning."

The twofold commandment to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself serves as "the main axis upon which all of biblical revelation rests," Pope Benedict told the synod. Listening to the Word of God gives birth to the "love of neighbor," the pope stated. There is a "bond" between "loving attention to the Word of God and unselfish service" to others, he said.

What Was the 2008 Synod Really All About?

Once the Synod of Bishops got under way in early October, it quickly became clear that some participants wanted to examine the precise meaning of its theme, "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church." The question, it became apparent, was, What, exactly, is the Word of God?

In the months leading up to the synod it was assumed widely that the sessions would focus almost solely on Scripture as the Word of God. Of course, the Bible did take center stage during the synod's deliberations. But there were those who pointed out that in the language of Christianity, "the Word of God" refers not only to Scripture, but to God's eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity.

What then is the relationship between God's eternal Word and Scripture? What really is meant when one speaks of "the Word of God"?

It may sound somewhat lofty and highly theological, but the synod found it necessary to respond to these questions, which have a bearing on how Christians regard Scripture. Does the value of the biblical books reach beyond their historical value? Is it a living Word of God that is heard?

The synod called upon pastors in the church to help people understand the different meanings of "the Word of God."

"The sacred Scriptures 'bear witness' to the divine Word in written form," said the synod's "Message to the People of God." The Scriptures "memorialize the creative and saving event of revelation by way of canonical, historical and literary means. Therefore, the Word of God precedes and goes beyond the Bible, which itself is 'inspired by God' and contains the efficacious divine Word," it was added.

The synod's message observed that "our faith is not only centered on a book, but on a history of salvation and on a person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, man and history." It said, "The capacity of the divine Word embraces and extends beyond the Scriptures."

The synod's message noted that "Christian tradition has often placed the divine Word made flesh on a parallel with the same Word made book." In the sacred text, the synod said, "the Word is enveloped in concrete words."

In Scripture it is possible to encounter "the Word in words," the synod commented in one recommendation sent to Pope Benedict (Proposition 37). Another recommendation observed that God's eternal Word transcends Scripture, even though God's Word is contained in a unique manner in Scripture (No. 3).

I've indicated that the synod's attempt to define "the Word of God" brought the dynamism of the Word into fuller view. Thus, it could be seen that God's dynamic, living Word initiates a dialogue with hearers of the Word. In his homily at the synod's conclusion, Pope Benedict described how this works.

In the context of the liturgy, the pope said, the Word and the words converge "with the single aim of bringing the people into dialogue with the Lord and into obedience to the Lord's will." The pope said that God's eternal Word, "witnessed in the Scriptures, returns to him in the shape of a prayerful response, a living answer, an answer of love."

The Inculturation of God's Word: Crossing Cultural Borders

The Word of God cannot be "chained" to just one culture, the 2008 Synod of Bishops said in its "Message to the People of God." God's Word "aspires to cross borders." The synod noted, in fact, that St. Paul "was an exceptional craftsman of inculturation of the biblical message into new cultural references."

The synod insisted that the church "should make the Word of God penetrate into the many cultures and express it according to their languages, their concepts, their symbols and their religious traditions."

The synod recalled the following words of Pope John Paul II, speaking in 1980 to the bishops of Kenya:

"Inculturation will truly be a reflection of the incarnation of the Word when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought."

That there should be an encounter of God's Word with all peoples and cultures is implied in the Lord's mandate that the church proclaim the Gospel to everyone, the synod said in one of its recommendations (Proposition 48). It falls to local churches, while avoiding the risk of syncretism, to inculturate the Gospel message in an authentic way, the synod said. It suggested that the evangelizing community's maturity will assure the quality of its efforts in this regard.

Synod Themes in Brief

Let's look now in a capsulized way at a few more points made by the 2008 world Synod of Bishops in its concluding documents.

1. Small Communities in the Church: Small ecclesial groups that promote an understanding of the Word of God and draw upon it for prayer were encouraged by the synod (Proposition 21). Small communities often are formed within parishes or by various church movements, the synod noted.

2. Preparation of Pastors: Special care "should be paid to the preparation of pastors" who are ready "to take whatever action is necessary to spread biblical activity with appropriate means," Pope Benedict said in his concluding synod homily. He added, "Ongoing efforts to give life to the biblical movement among lay people should be encouraged, along with the formation of group leaders, with particular attention being paid to the young."

3. Liturgy of the Hours for Everyone: The synod encouraged recognition of the Liturgy of the Hours as a means of hearing God's Word (Proposition 19). The Liturgy of the Hours places both Scripture and the church's living tradition before the church's people, it pointed out. The synod encouraged greater participation by the church's people in the Liturgy of the Hours (particularly Lauds and Vespers). It recommended that a simpler form of the Liturgy of the Hours be prepared in places where this has not already been done.

4. Encountering Christ in Scripture: The synod hoped that people today will be led toward a relationship with Jesus Christ through Scripture (Proposition 33). At the center of revelation is the divine Word who "has put on a face," said the "Message to the People of God." Christ "retrospectively sheds his light on the entire development of salvation history and reveals its coherence, meaning and direction," it added. Quoting Pope Benedict's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," the synod said that "the ultimate finality of biblical knowledge is the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."

5. The Word of God and the Times We Live In: Pope Benedict asked in his concluding synod homily, "How many times in the past few days have we heard about experiences and reflections that underline the need emerging today for a more intimate hearing of God?" Much was heard in the synod, he indicated, about the need for a truer knowledge of God's Word of salvation" and about "a more sincere sharing of faith that is constantly nourished at the table of the divine Word!"

Lectio Divina: Scripture and Prayer

The October Synod of Bishops lent strong support to the practice of "lectio divina" on the part of individuals and communities - a practice that incorporates the reading of Scripture into prayer. In one of its recommendations (Proposition 22), the synod said it was aware that "lectio divina" and similar methods of prayer are widely practiced today. This, the synod said, is a hopeful sign. The synod urged increased efforts to promote such practices.

The Oct. 23 edition of this jknirp.com newsletter was devoted in large part to discussions of "lectio divina." For, this method of prayer was discussed by a number of speakers during the early days of this synod. Apparently some participants, not fully aware of the practice, requested a further explanation and even demonstration of it.

The synod's concluding "Message to the People of God" described "lectio divina" as a "prayerful reading in the Holy Spirit that is able to open to the faithful the treasure of the Word of God and also to create an encounter with Christ, the living divine Word."

How does the practice of "lectio divina" proceed? The synod message explained:

1. "Lectio divina" starts "with the reading ('lectio') of the text, which provokes the question of true knowledge of its real content: What does the biblical text say in itself?"

2. "Then follows meditation ('meditatio'), where the question is: What does the biblical text say to us?"

3. "In this manner, one arrives at prayer ('oratio'), which presupposes this other question: What do we say to the Lord in answer to his word?"

4. "And one ends with contemplation ('contemplatio') during which we assume, as God's gift, the same gaze in judging reality and ask ourselves: What conversion of the mind, the heart and life does the Lord ask of us?"

In calling attention to the value of "lectio divina" for members of the church in general, the synod also accented its value for seminarians and its potential for promoting unity among divided Christians in the context of the ecumenical movement. Moreover, the synod called attention to the role religious orders have fulfilled in preserving and teaching this method of praying with the aid of the Bible.

The type of reading of Scripture employed in "lectio divina" takes seriously both the value of the Bible as historical writing and the reality that God's Word in Scripture remains a living Word, the synod suggested in one of its recommendations (Proposition 46). The synod stressed the historical dimension or context of the written word in order to make clear that the practice of "lectio divina" is not related to fundamentalism and should not be pursued in a fundamentalist, literalist manner. The synod held that a fundamentalist approach to Scripture overlooks a text's "human mediation" and "literary forms."

Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is mentioned several times in the synod's concluding documents. The synod firmly rejected fundamentalism as an approach to reading Scripture on grounds that it overlooks the historical nature of the biblical text.

The "Message to the People of God" said that in Scripture, the Word "is enveloped in concrete words." In this way, the Word "is shaped and adapted to make it heard and understood by all of humanity." Ignoring this dimension of the sacred text, the synod said, leaves one at risk of falling "into fundamentalism, which in practice denies the incarnation of the divine Word in history."

Fundamentalism, the message continued, "does not recognize that [the] Word expresses itself in the Bible according to a human language that must be decoded, studied and understood. Such an attitude ignores that divine inspiration did not erase the historical identities and personalities of its human authors."

This does not mean, however, that the synod encouraged a reading of Scripture that in some way might be strictly historical or exegetical. In fact, the synod rather strongly encouraged biblical scholars and others not to overlook the role of theologians and of church tradition in the interpretation of the Bible.

The Homilist's Challenge

For many Christians, the homily remains "the central moment of encounter with the Word of God," said the synod's "Message to the People of God." Numerous synod delegates expressed a desire in the synod hall for improved preaching throughout the church. Not surprisingly, the synod's concluding documents offered a bit of concrete advice on how to prepare a good homily.

"In preaching, a dual movement is achieved," the synod message said:

-- "With the first, one goes back to the roots of the sacred texts, the events, the first words of the history of salvation, to understand them in their meaning and in their message."

-- "With the second movement, one returns to the present, to the today lived by those who hear and read, always with Christ in mind."

In order to proclaim God's works in salvation history, the homilist needs to begin with "a clear and vivid reading of the biblical text proposed in the liturgy," the synod message said. But the homilist also needs to bring the biblical text to bear upon the realities that characterize the hearers' lives - and to make "the question of conversion and vital commitment blossom in their hearts."

A homily should be delivered at every Mass with the people, even on weekdays, the synod said in one of its recommendations (Proposition 15). If they are to preach from the heart and with passion, homilists will need to make prayer part of their preparation process, it said.

In addition, the Word of God is meant to challenge the homilist, and the homilist should allow this to happen, the synod said. Also, it said, doctrine ought to play a role in homily preparation so that what is said will convey the church's teaching.

Homilists, the synod said, should reflect upon three questions:

1. What do the liturgical readings from Scripture say?

2. What do these readings say to me?

3. What should I say to the people, bearing in mind the community's situation?

In one of its most concrete recommendations, the synod requested the development in the church of a homiletic directory as a resource for homilists (Proposition 15). Such a directory would present principles that are basic to homiletics and communication, and would discuss biblical themes that recur in liturgical readings.

Seminarians were urged by the synod to prepare themselves to speak in an effective way as future homilists. The synod recommended, for example, that seminarians hone their homily skills by heightening awareness of the laity and their concerns - in the words of the synod, by developing the desire to hear "what the Holy Spirit is arousing" in the church's people. Seminarians might heighten this awareness by participating in groups of lay people whose meetings are centered on God's Word, the synod suggested (Proposition 32).

Of Liturgy and Lectors

In one of its most widely reported recommendations (Proposition 17), the 2008 world Synod of Bishops expressed hope that the ministry of lector might be opened up to women. In this way, recognition would be given to the role of women as proclaimers of the Word, the synod said.

What the synod had in mind was not simply allowing women to serve as lectors during celebrations of the Mass, but formally installing them in the ministry of lector. In a report on this recommendation, Catholic News Service noted that women already serve as Mass lectors throughout the world, including at Masses with the pope. However, according to present canon law, only qualified laymen can be "installed on a stable basis in the ministries of lector and acolyte." The CNS report explained that canon law allows for the "temporary deputation" of both men and women as lectors, which is why women commonly serve as lectors today.

For centuries, the office of lector was one of the church's "minor orders," generally reserved to seminarians approaching ordination. Still, the synod recommendation that women be formally installed in the ministry of lector was not an attempt to open the door to ordination for them. The lector's role today commonly is said to be rooted in the sacrament of baptism. One Vatican source told CNS, "It's important to emphasize that any proposition for women lectors would simply arise from their baptism and not from any presumptive opening for orders."

The lector's role was addressed in yet another recommendation from the synod (Proposition 14). It said that all who serve as lectors should receive an adequate formation in order to proclaim God's Word clearly and to be understood. Lectors were urged to study (and to live) what they read. And lectors, the synod said, should be at home with the dynamics of communication. Discussion of the lector's role arose in the synod as it re-examined the Liturgy of the Word. The synod's "Message to the People of God" recalled what Vatican Council II's Constitution on the Liturgy said about the intimate relationship between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. These, Vatican II said, "are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship."

This, the synod stated, "must be brought back to the center of Christian life."