Religion: Back to the Catholic Future

An extraordinary synod marks Vatican II's 20th anniversary

  • Share
  • Read Later

Wearing white chasubles, a grand assemblage of Roman Catholic bishops will file through St. Peter's Square and into the basilica next Sunday to con-celebrate a Mass with Pope John Paul II. The stately ritual will mark the beginning of a two-week world synod of bishops, summoned by the Pope to commemorate and evaluate the results of the Second Vatican Council, which concluded 20 years ago.

With the exception of the 1978 conclaves that elected Pope John Paul II and his short-lived predecessor, John Paul I, no meeting in Rome since Vatican II has provoked as much advance speculation as this synod. One reason is sheer mystery; its agenda is wide open, and no one knows what will happen. Beyond that, many liberals fear that the synod may be part of John Paul's ongoing campaign to enforce discipline and theological orthodoxy. Conversely, some conservatives look to the synod as an opportunity to act against what they see as near heretical aberrations that have sprung up since the council.

Authorized by Vatican II, the synods are periodic gatherings of bishops, convened to advise the Pope. They have no authority of their own to pass church laws. Since the council, seven synods have been held to discuss such specific topics as the role of the Christian family and the sacrament of penance. Next week's synod, however, is an "extraordinary" meeting, outside the regular three-year cycle. There will be 165 delegates, 102 of whom are presidents of national bishops' conferences. Other participants: 14 Eastern Rite prelates, 25 Vatican officials and three superiors of men's orders. Also present for the first time: non-Catholic observers.

The synod will meet in an ultramodern Vatican conference room. John Paul, who plans to attend most of the plenary sessions, has appointed a balanced slate of three presiding cardinals: Johannes Willebrands, 76, a Dutch ecumenist who is president of the Vatican's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity; John Krol of Philadelphia, 75, a conservative on ecclesiastical matters; and Joseph Malula of Zaïre, 67, a symbol of the Third World, which accounts for three-fifths of both the synod delegates and the globe's 825 million Catholics.

On opening day, Godfried Cardinal Danneels, a progressive Belgian, will deliver a summary of written reports from national bishops' conferences. Each delegate will then be allotted eight minutes to speak on subjects of his choice. After the speeches, the bishops will form small groups and try to work out recommended courses of action. The Pope will be free to accept, reject or even ignore any or all of the bishops' recommendations.

John Paul surprised the bishops last January with his call for the synod, allowing a mere ten months for planning. Many observers think the meeting will be too brief and ill prepared to do more than celebrate Vatican II's accomplishments. Still, says Father Paul White, editor of Boston's archdiocesan weekly, the Pilot, "the Pope didn't call this for nothing."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3