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Drinking Coffee with Ecclesiastical Leaders: Synod Breaks Provide Important Networking Moments

October 7, 2008
800px-dutch_coffe.jpgVATICAN CITY, OCT. 7, 2008 (Zenit.org).- I was always fascinated listening to the stories of how much of the Second Vatican Council took place in smaller, informal venues, rather than at the general sessions in St. Peter's.
Cardinal George Flahiff (1905-1989), former superior general of my community, the Congregation of St. Basil, and archbishop of Winnipeg from 1960-1982, told me that while the sessions in the Vatican were the venues of the major speeches and voting sessions, it was during the small group meetings and coffee breaks that some of the more interesting things happened!
That is understandable especially when over 2,500 Council fathers were present in the basilica for the plenary sessions, and seating arrangements didn’t necessarily allow for open discussions or much fraternizing.
The synod hall is certainly not St. Peter’s Basilica, although a formal structure and organization is present. For example, Benedict XVI, surrounded by the three delegate presidents, the secretary-general, the relator-general and the special secretary, preside over the synodal sessions from a long table in the front of the modern lecture hall. The cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, experts, fraternal delegates, auditors and official press attaches are all assigned to specific seats. Nonetheless, there is a sense of informality and friendliness in the room.
Yesterday and today the synod fathers tried out the newly installed electronic voting machines, which revealed a number of glitches that need to be ironed out. The malfunctions gave way to much humor in the assembly as the audience was told several times by some unseen voice booming through the sound system: “Those on the left (sinistra) are not voting properly.” Or, “the patriarchs are not registering.”
Even the Pope seemed to enjoy the humorous moments as he watched his brother bishops from throughout the entire world attempt to use the “new technology” that wasn’t delivering!
What has been rather amazing and edifying over the first two days of the assembly is the punctuality of the synod fathers in entering and beginning the sessions, and an almost universal respect for the five-minute time period allotted to each talk. At this morning’s sessions, 23 bishops delivered their synodal addresses with only a handful going over their time limit by a few seconds. When the microphone is turned off promptly at the five-minute deadline, there were no major crises in the assembly, but rather some smiles on the faces of the participants.
Just as during the famous coffee breaks of the Second Vatican Council, there is a time of fraternity, discovery and exchange of ideas and business cards during the synod's pauses. If there was ever a time of ecclesial networking, it is synodal coffee breaks on the first floor of the Paul VI Hall in Vatican City.
You find yourself in line for coffee and Italian pastry surrounded by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the prior of the Taizé Community in France, the Cardinal Secretary of State, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, African sisters who have been teaching Scripture in seminaries for years, women experts who have been invited to the Synod by the Pope, and the heads of virtually every Vatican Congregation and Dicastery.
There certainly is equality in this part of the Vatican. And while we are carrying on downstairs at the half-hour coffee break, the Pope is taking his break upstairs in a room just off the synod chambers, where each day, he receives a different group of people present at the synod, thus being able to spend a bit more quality time with the world gathered at this major happening in the life and mission of the Church.
Synodal interventions are made one after another, and sometimes it is difficult to keep them straight in one’s mind, especially when I have to report on them at the daily press briefings in the Press Office of the Holy See. Copious notes and texts provided by the synod fathers help to keep things in order.
Today's presentation by Australian Bishop Michael Putney of Tonwsville, hit home with me as he spoke about his country as being one of the most secular countries in the world. The bishop said: "After World Youth Day, some Australians and New Zealanders have a sense that the promise of a new evangelization may finally be underway despite the apparent impermeability of the secular culture."
Seeing Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa, Israel, address the synod on its opening day Monday reminded me of this historic moment that we are all experiencing at this 12th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican.
The rabbi, the first Jew to address a world Synod of Bishops, said: "I deeply feel that my standing here before you is very meaningful. It brings with it a signal of hope and a message of love, co-existence and peace for our generation, and for generations to come."
The rabbi continued: "We pray to God using his own words, as related to us in the Scriptures. Likewise we praise him, also using his own words from the Bible. We ask for his mercy, mentioning what he has promised to our ancestors and to us. Our entire service is based upon an ancient rule, as related to us by our rabbis and teachers: 'Give him of what is his, because you and yours are his.'"
Stay tuned for more words from the world Synod of Bishops on the Word of God.
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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.