VATICAN CITY, OCT. 12, 2008 (Zenit.org).- We survived the first week of the synod! I remain in admiration of the "Padri Sinodali" and all the rest of the synod participants who ended their deliberations on Saturday evening at 6:55 p.m. (We were released five minutes early last night.) Previous synods always included Saturday morning working sessions that ended at 1 p.m., thus giving participants some semblance of a weekend.
On Friday evening, synod Secretary-General Archbishop Nikola Eterovic reminded the assembly of our love and respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters: "While our elder brothers were enjoying their Sabbath beginning at sundown, we would not enter into our Sabbath rest until Saturday night!"
His words were gently challenged in an ever so fraternal and humorous manner on Saturday afternoon when Cologne's Cardinal Joachim Meisner took the microphone during the "open discussion" and began his comments in Latin stating that what we were doing late on Saturday afternoon was "contra natura" (against human nature) by working so late. Needless to say that his words elicited roars of laughter and applause! No matter how serious and intense the interventions and discussions have been in the "aula," I am struck by the good humor, fraternal spirit and kindness of all involved.
In another moment that illustrated the "mood" in the aula, when the archbishop of Cameroon began his intervention during one of the sessions when the Holy Father was busy in St. Peter's Square addressing tens of thousands of people, the archbishop began with "Holy Father in absentia, dear brother bishops ... ." At that point Archbishop Eterovic grabbed his microphone and announced to us all: "He (the Pope) may be absent but he reads every word!" Ripples of laughter once again through the assembly ...
At the various press conferences, briefings and meetings with journalists from the various language groups, I have been asked to identify emerging themes, emphases, frequently occurring references or citations, or to indicate some of the "emerging" stars of the synodal assembly. Stars is probably the wrong word in a setting like this, but there have been nevertheless, several interventions from bishops or fraternal delegates that have not only elicited applause or many nods, but also deeper reflection on what was shared.
I like to recall several of the individuals and their words, reminding you that you can find the summaries of their talks elsewhere in the excellent coverage being provided by ZENIT, Catholic News Service of the United States, and of course the Vatican Information Service. Earlier this week, Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Diocese of Imus in the Philippines addressed the synod on "The Disposition Needed for Hearing the Word of God." His brief yet rich and poignant address has been referred to by many of his brother bishops at the Synod. It was a profound yet simple address, in which Bishop Tagle said: "As servant of the Word, the Church lends its voice so that the world may hear God. But in Scriptures, God does not only speak. God also listens. God listens especially to the just, the poor, the widow, orphans, the humble and the persecuted. Mysteriously enough, God listens to those who have no voice. The Church must learn to listen the way God listens and must lend its voice to the voiceless." I am certain that Bishop Luis Antonio's words will be remembered, recalled and recited by many for years to come.
One address this past week which is also being shared around the world was the powerful presentation of Bishop Anton Justs of Latvia. Bishop Justs spoke about one of his Latvian priests, Viktors, "who during the Soviet regime in Latvia was arrested for possessing the holy Bible. In the eyes of Soviet agents the holy Scriptures was an antirevolutionary book. The agents threw the holy Scriptures on the floor and ordered the priest to step on it. The priest refused and instead knelt down and kissed the book. For this gesture the priest was condemned to 10 years of hard labor in Siberia. Ten years later when the priest returned to his parish and celebrated the holy Mass, he read the Gospel. The he lifted up the lectionary and said 'The Word of God!' The people cried and thanked God. They did not dare to applaud him, because that would be understood as another provocation."
As Bishop Justs told this story, many around me in the synod aula wept. I had tears in my eyes. The synodal assembly gave the loudest round of applause to Bishop Justs for his testimony.
Stories like this one (and there have been many more) from the suffering Church have left a deep and lasting impression on me and on many others. They will be the stories told about this synod for years to come. Somehow these accounts situate all of our seeming ecclesial problems and struggles in a much wider context and remind us of how important it is to strive for a wider perspective on things. Left to ourselves, our own small and often meager situations and bleak and Spirit-less worlds, we forget that many people are suffering and dying for the Word of God while we are killing each other over smaller issues of no great consequence.
Another address, remarkable for its clarity, simplicity and depth, is making its rounds among the "Padri Sinodali" and others. People are mentioning it in conversations and referring to its author, "the young cardinal from Texas," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. Though probably not intended, Cardinal DiNardo spoke to the powerful presentation earlier in the week by Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who addressed the lack of Biblical imagination and language in our culture today. Cardinal DiNardo began his presentation by telling people that he comes from the "Bible Belt" in the deep south of the USA. "But though a location, the Bible Belt is a frame of mind also, diffused through many places in the world. There are surely issues and problems with this mindset, but it has kept alive a Biblical imagination and vocabulary, and a sense of divine agency in the world that is important for us." The cardinal stressed the importance of Matthew 11:25-30 in our efforts to teach and preach the Scriptures.
He then captured the imagination of all those present in the aula when he related the story of his recent pastoral visit to Galveston in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Ike. Houston's cardinal spoke about the simple faith and confidence of victims of the hurricane who, because of their biblical language, "displayed intelligence and humility. Their attitude reflected their openness to the Holy Spirit and their quotations of the Biblical texts were wise and prayerful. Their mindset was also confident, with a humble assurance that was astonishing. They had a concrete sense of the Holy Spirit in the Biblical text."
Needless to tell you that this week, many people the world over got a powerful and positive impression of a Texan shepherd who communicated intelligence, depth and great pastoral sensitivity to this global assembly.
At the conclusion of each synod's proceedings, a summary of the bishops' discussion, along with any recommendations, is presented to the Pope. This is often accompanied by a public "Message to the People of God." After his further reflection, which may last a year or more, the Pope issues an apostolic exhortation in which he shares his own thoughts, convictions and proposals for action. Committees have now been established that will advise and assist the Pope in the formulation of the final texts.
Finally, here is a biblical thought on all that has transpired during Week I of the synod on the Word of God. On a purely human and worldly level, any international gathering of any organization of this magnitude has the great potential for chaos, misunderstanding and strife! As I sat in the synod aula during the first week and looked out over the whole world gathered before me, I could not help but think of the New Testament accounts of Pentecost. Artists of the Middle Ages loved to contrast the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel with the "Tower" of the Upper Room. Babel symbolizes the divisions of people caused by sin. Pentecost stands for a hope that such separations are not a tragic necessity.
The babbling mob of Babel compares poorly with the heartfelt unity of the Pentecost crowd. Babel was a mob. Pentecost was a community. A people without God lost the ability to communicate. A people suffused with the Love of the Spirit spoke heart to heart (Cor ad Cor as Cardinal Newman would say).
With the Pentecost accounts from the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament seems to say that -- for a fleeting moment -- the nations of the earth paused from their customary strife and experienced a community caused by God. Pentecost signals the start of the universal mission of the Church. It is a mission that overcomes human obstacles and has the Spirit as its driving force.
We still have many towers of Babel today in various parts of the world and I dare say in the Church. This synodal experience of fraternity, discussion, speech, sharing and openness, as fraught as it might be with translation difficulties, regimented schedules, frustration and confusion for some, nevertheless models a different way and also teaches us about the meaning of Pentecost, and the cost of belonging to a worldwide church.
Stay tuned Monday for more words on the synod on the Word.Basilian Father Thomas Rosica is the Vatican's English-language press attache for the 2008 world Synod of Bishops. A Scripture scholar and university lecturer, he is the chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, and a member of the General Council of the Congregation of St. Basil.