The Extraordinary Synod: A Symposium

Like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, many of us could undoubtedly draw up an itemized list of events, issues, and even persons in the Church after the Second Vatican Council, to which list, presented to the coming Synod, we could gladly subscribe the words, “There’s none of them to be missed.” Just think of the delights of anticipating the successful deletion of the LCWR, bishops who mask their faltering faith by defenses of a “moderate” or “centrist” position, theologians who dissent, rationalistic exegetes, priests who arbitrarily “enrich” the liturgy, Catholic politicians who are “personally opposed but—,” etc.! The formulation of such a list would only be tempered at times by the realization that some of what we cherish—and perhaps even ourselves—would likely appear on somebody else’s list!

Those who expect such lists from the Extraordinary Synod called by the Pope to exchange views upon and more deeply incorporate in the life of the Church the work of the Council are almost certainly fated for disappointment once the Synod is concluded. This is not to say that the problems which continue to face the Church are not serious and widespread. They are—so much so that in certain cases no Synod, let alone one of two-week’s duration, could possibly solve them. They must be dealt with by the Church’s normal processes of correction and reform—prayer, constant repetition of the truth, time, and, in the intolerable and intractable situations, the cautious intervention of the Church’s canonical processes. Painstakingly slow as this process often seems, it helps remind us that today’s problems and “lists” will be replaced by tomorrow’s and that tomorrow’s may be worse; that the Church frequently “shrugs off” errors not directly but indirectly; and that error and scandal can have the advantage of making the “tried and true stand out clearly” (I Cor. 11:19).

The coming Synod, hopefully, will give in to a little old-fashioned “triumphalism.” It is deserved. Since the Council and to a large extent because of the Council, the Church is likely more prepared for the coming millennium than she would have been had Vatican II not taken place. There have been times in these past years when this could not have been asserted so confidently—when many were even tempted to forget the Lord’s promise to Peter. But that the Church, despite perduring difficulties, has grown stronger since the Council is, I think, a demonstrable truth and one that an anniversary Synod should be expected to celebrate.

It appeared twenty years ago—and is more evident now—that the pillars upon which Vatican Council II was constructed were the great documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. The former has fortunately produced a Church manifestly more collegial in her governance and one in which the Petrine office, by a typically Catholic paradox, is—again fortunately—more visible, more influential and more necessary than at any time since the Reformation. It has also yielded a Church more catholic and ecumenical. The latter document has given impetus to a growing involvement of the Church in all the great social concerns of our day, often moving Catholics to the forefront in action against the political tyrannies and social injustices of our times. The teaching of both documents and the movements flowing from them have been contested and distorted. In the name of ecumenism, the unicity of the Catholic Church as the Church of Christ and the all-embracing ordinary means of salvation are truths which have been pushed aside or abandoned by some. Others, in the name of political “reality” and “sound economics,” have pushed aside the teachings of Gaudium et Spes, Populorum Progressio, Laborem exercens, and the teaching of hierarchies which draw their inspiration from these. At the very least it can be expected that the Synod will reaffirm the central teachings of these documents, affirming again, however, that what is at stake is not simply the earthly status of the Catholic Church nor the human betterment of mankind but rather the perennial validity of the work and message of the Church’s Lord Who acts to give us all eternal life, a life we can lose by failing to heed the truth He teaches through His Church. This we can surely expect from the Synod.

If one thing can be added more as a desire than as an expectation, it is this: that the Synod, in the process of celebrating, reviewing, and forwarding the blessings of Vatican II, may honor that great man who, by his trust in the Lord, his patience, and his fidelity to the Council, brought the work of the Council to completion and implemented it for so many years, Pope Paul VI.

  • James T. O'Connor

    Rev. James O’Connor studied at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and was ordained in 1966. He received his S.T.D. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, in 1972 and has been teaching at St. Joseph’s Seminary since 1972. He has published various articles on Christology, Mariology, and the Theology of Marriage, while serving as parish priest in the South Bronx and Westchester and involving himself in the prison ministry.

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