Cardinal Walter Kasper, former President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity told me a few years ago that people do not come to the Vatican to see Pope Benedict XVI, they come to see Peter. As I looked out into St. Peter’s Square from the steps of the Basilica before Mass on Sunday morning, I knew, finally, what he meant. The people came waving their flags, but contained their shouts of joy until the moment they saw the Holy Father slowly descending the steps.
The Mass celebrated the opening of the Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. I was sitting between the altar and the narthex just in front of the papal choir. And as the bishops poured out from the Basilica I couldn’t help but feel a spark of what must have been an overwhelming energy at the opening of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago. About ten times as many bishops came to that Council, but a Synod such as this one, or as I call it a “mini-council,” carries with it that same experience of fraternity, conciliarism, and universality.
On Monday, October 8th the first sessions of the Synod took place with 262 Bishops from all over the world and dozens of experts both religious and lay coming together to discuss the contemporary implications for this essential part of the Gospel – evangelization. It takes on many different forms based on the cultural contexts present in our global society, but it is truly a great inspiration to know that our Church is present in all of them. We should never take for granted this unique and fundamental dynamic of the Church, that it is universal in the truest sense, and in that sense it is not true of any other institution.
Collegiality, that ancient and timeless tradition, was revived at the Second Vatican Council and continues to manifest itself in the reality of the great Synods. Twenty-five have been called over the past fifty years, including the recent Special Assembly on the Middle East in 2010 and the Synod on the Word of God in 2008. It is quite telling of our current Holy Father that five have been called in his relatively short pontificate since 2005. We often think of the Vatican and the successor of Peter as the center and focus of the Catholic world, and it is true in many respects. But how much more do we see the gospel brought to life at the grassroots level on a daily basis in our parishes and our dioceses, where the people of God live out their vocation? This is the full expression of the Catholic Church that we too often forget. When the Bishops of the world convene for a Synod, it is this experience of ecclesia (church; community) that they bring with them; that shapes their unique perspective on the human family, and that ultimately fuels the mission of the Catholic Church in the modern world. We must always remember the great gift of collegiality that the Second Vatican Council resurrected fifty years ago and give thanks for its many enduring fruits.
Photo: Priests and Bishops find their seats and prepare for the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the Transmission of the faith in St. Peter’s Square.