They Came, They Saw, They Did Not Conquer: A Report on the Synod on the Laity

Our 747 breaks through the clouds off the western coast of Italy. I can see the grey waters of the Mediterranean below. The Italian countryside comes into view, verdant and green, dotted here and there by a few old farmhouses and, closer to the airport, by new apartment complexes. Seen through the filmy mists of early morning the land offers the impression of a lush and ancient fecundity.

When we touch down at Da Vinci airport south of Rome the large contingent of Italians on board breaks out in applause. The old man in the seat in front of me, his voice quavering with emotion, murmurs “Italia!”

The first thing I see upon entering the terminal is Italian military police with Uzi submachine guns cradled in their arms; their eyes flick over us with unfriendly interest. Rome International Airport was, of course, the scene of a bloody terrorist attack some months earlier. Passing through customs, I am approached by two husky young men who ask if I want a taxi. I have been warned to avoid such offers; I do not wish to end up miles from Rome relieved of my wallet (and, quite possibly, worse). Americans who travel in the States, of course, are familiar with airport security; all this, however, is on a rather different level. Already, I begin to catalogue the differences between Italy and America.

This is my first trip to Rome, on assignment to cover the last week of the World Synod of Bishops on the laity. I hail a taxi, haggle with the driver over the fare, and am soon hurtling through the outskirts of Rome. The driver is friendly, and is eager to try his English. I tell him I am from Indiana. No reaction. Notre Dame University, I add, more hopeful. “Ah, si, football,” he responds with a grin. He drops me at the International Student Residence in the section south of the city known as the E.U.R., a modern suburb built in the 1940s by Mussolini. The smell of pine trees is fragrant in the air.

Early the next morning I take the subway into the city. From the subway it is perhaps a kilometer walk along the Via Ottaviano to the walls of Vatican City. I pass under an arch, walk through the columns, and stop. For a moment, it takes my breath away: here, I think, is where it all began. Before me, shimmering in the soft morning haze, stands the Piazza San Pietro: the long square leading up to the steep stone steps; the tall encircling columns with sculptures of the Apostles along the top; the great obelisk standing upright in the center; the fountains on either side; and the facade of St. Peter’s itself, beckoning. I think back to the old man on the plane, joyful to be coming home, to the place where he is anchored in the world. In a sense, this is my home too.

I walk down to the Salla Stampa, the Vatican press office, to pick up my press credentials and to catch up on the events of the past three weeks. The synod has been in session since October 1, and will conclude on the 30th. Little reporting on it has appeared in the American secular press. Much of what I know about the progress of the synod comes from the larger diocesan papers; their reports, coming as they do from the NC News Service’s Rome bureau, are descriptive rather than analytical. The National Catholic Reporter has trumpeted the triumph of the cause of women in the Church. The best reporting in the Catholic press is in the National Catholic Register.

Three-quarters of the way through their deliberations on the role of the laity, what have the world’s Catholic bishops achieved? Since this is a congregation of some 230 bishops from all corners of the world, one might expect a diversity of concerns to be discussed. According to the press reports I’ve been reading in the States, however, the role of women has emerged as the central issue before the bishops. The National Catholic Reporter’s Peter Hebblethwaite has approvingly detected a “remarkable” shift in the synod’s agenda: “increasingly for ‘laity,’ one has to read ‘women.'”

More specifically, the issue of women serving in liturgical functions around the altar appears to be in the offing. The question of the ordination of women has been firmly ruled out of bounds. In its place is the issue of: altar girls. Altar girls? Over two hundred bishops gather from all over the world to reflect on the laity, and the flashpoint of the discussion is altar girls? I can’t believe this is true. Yet according to the head of the U.S. delegation, this is precisely what has been achieved. At a press conference the week before I arrived, Archbishop John May strode boldly up to the cutting edge: “a strong consensus” of the bishops, May asserted, believe that “children of both sexes should be permitted to serve at the altar.” May went on to emphasize, in the question-and-answer session which followed, that women who perform the Scripture readings at Mass should be formally installed in a liturgical ceremony. While agreeing that such changes are not allowed by Canon law, May predicted that the synod will ask that the requisite changes be made.

Is Archbishop May correct? Does he have his finger on the pulse of the Synod Fathers? Will the great achievement of this synod be altar girls and installation ceremonies for women lectors? Of course, altar girls and installation ceremonies are most important for their larger symbolic value, for they are seen by many as wedges in the door opening up further prerogatives for women and, ultimately, to their ordination. Further, the women’s issue has political significance for this particular synod inasmuch as it has become identified with the “American agenda.” (In fairness, it should be noted that several European bishops also spoke favorably to the women’s issue in the opening sessions.) This identification was clearly reinforced by May’s press conference remarks.

The linking of the women-at-the-altar issue and the American delegation was also manifest in the circulation at the synod of a picture from the Milwaukee Catholic Herald, Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s newspaper. In its issue of October 1, published on the eve of the synod, the paper ran a large photo of Archbishop Weakland being “anointed” (the Herald’s term) on the forehead by assistant publisher Ethel Gintoft, in order “to invoke God’s blessing on Archbishop Robert [sic.] Weakland’s role at the World Synod on the Laity.”

It is hard to judge to what extent May, Weakland, and like-minded bishops are really at the cutting edge of the synod’s concerns, since so much of the synod’s work is conducted in secrecy. The sessions themselves are closed to the press, and the bishops have been instructed not to give interviews. We are provided with summaries—that is, abridgments, not original texts—of the discussions. One doesn’t know what has been excluded by the persons charged with preparing them; nor can one tell what weight the bishops are giving to the observations and proposals of their colleagues.

During the synod’s first week, and now in the final week, press briefings are frequent, often twice a day. During the middle two weeks, however, when the bishops broke up into the circuli minori, or small discussion groups—it was here that they would hammer out the “propositions,” or substantive proposals, the synod will submit to the Holy Father—the daily briefings were suspended. Consequently, this important segment of the synod was completely hidden to the press.

Now in the synod’s final week, the briefings have resumed. The man who conducts these for the English language group, Msgr. Diarmuid Martin, is a charming and boyishly handsome Irishman. He looks to be in his late thirties or early forties, with neatly cropped dark hair and black glasses. During the briefing he is crisp and businesslike. Sitting at a table on a sort of raised dais at the front of a dimly lit room which resembles a small auditorium, Msgr. Martin deftly fields reporters’ questions with patience, aplomb, and gentle humour. Everyone, of course, wants to know about the propositions over which the bishops have spent considerable time deliberating. In particular, how fares the issue of women?

The substance and tone of some of the journalists’ questions betray considerable frustration at the lack of access to the proceedings and the consequent paucity of information to report. Msgr. Martin’s manner is such that each question seems to elicit a forthright, earnest, and (within the confining rules of the game) thorough answer. But when the briefings are over, he has actually divulged little significant information. In spite of myself I am impressed with his performance. (And, indeed, at the close of the final press briefing, Msgr. Martin is given a goodly round of applause.)

Less frequent are the press conferences, conducted 1.1by the bishops themselves. These can include bishops from different nationalities as well as from a single country. (The American bishops conducted an important press conference the penultimate day of the synod, about which more later.) The format is similar to a presidential press conference: an opening statement is often read, after which questions are taken from journalists. As witness the above-quoted statement by Archbishop May concerning altar girls, surprising news can emerge from these conferences. Still, they are composed of only a very few bishops and necessarily have the character of a report about the synod proceedings.

The bishops are targets of journalists’ inquiries apart from the formal setting of press conferences. A short walk from the Salla Stampa across St. Peter’s Square, through the southern curve of columns, brings me to the entrance to the Synod Hall where the bishops hold their meetings. Flanked by two Swiss Guards, resplendent in uniforms of gold, red, and blue, sword at their side, a high iron gate allows a narrow access to the Hall. Many of the bishops come across the square on foot and reporters try to question them on their way in.

I see Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony and introduce myself. He looks fresh and alert, yet also relaxed. He thanks Crisis for publishing his pastoral letter on the economy. I try to ask him about the progress and direction of the synod; I want especially to know if he shares Archbishop May’s prediction about altar girls. The archbishop is playing by the rules, though. “We’ve been asked not to give interviews about the synod to the press,” he smiles and hurries past the Swiss Guards. Ten yards away I see a bishop from an Asian country being interviewed by a BBC radio reporter, who has a microphone in the bishop’s face. The Asian bishop speaks into the microphone for a good ten minutes.

I return to the Salla Stampa and settle down to read the fat stack of opening speeches the bishops presented in the first two weeks of the synod. Even at 6:00 in the evening the common press room is bustling with reporters hammering on typewriters, or hunched in one of the telephone booths which fill most of one wall, or (very often) comparing notes. Much of the reporting here seems to consist in effect of journalists interviewing other journalists. Snatches of conversations in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English fill the room. Some 250 journalists have been accredited to cover the synod, although only perhaps twenty or thirty are in the common room at any given time. A good number write for daily papers and must therefore file many stories. One fellow writes for five different German newspapers. He is very busy. Indeed, the dominant mood among the journalists here is one of intense seriousness and interest. Can any other religious body command such attention?

The opening interventions of the American delegation raised certain predictable themes. Archbishop Weakland called for immediate steps to open up “all liturgical roles that do not require ordination to women and men, [and] to all laity of decision-making and administrative roles on the diocesan level and on the level of the Roman Curia and diplomatic corps.” He asserted that “the role of women in church and society is perhaps the most significant challenge the church faces today.”

Cardinal Bernardin wished to stress the importance of local bishops’ conferences, and the American practice of issuing pastoral letters on issues of public policy. He emphasized that “direct engagement in the political order [must] be through lay people,” equipped with a knowledge of Catholic social teaching, which knowledge the U.S. bishops have traditionally provided. He asked, “How can bishops articulate a moral teaching that speaks persuasively to the important issues of public policy?” Given his prominent role in the drafting of the letter on nuclear deterrence, the answer he would propose to this question seems not far to seek.

In an especially forceful, and in a certain context surprising, intervention, Archbishop Roger Mahony charged his fellow bishops with the task of “help[ing] laity be laity and clergy be clergy.” In a lucid formulation, he explained:

[T]hough all in the Church perform acts of ministry, perhaps we should reserve the title of “minister” to those who occupy some formal position in Church service, and reject the term “lay ministry” as a contradiction. By way of example, many people teach others, but few are called “Teachers.” Possibly we need to establish offices of ministry in the Church especially reserved to those in full-time Church ministry, formally deputing them to act in the name of the Church community.

(The National Catholic Reporter zeros in on Mahony’s skepticism about the notion of lay ministry, reporting that he is “singing out of chorus” vis-a-vis his brother bishops.)

Archbishop Mahony also favored examining the question of women in ministerial roles, but cautioned (where Weakland did not that participation in these roles must be “in harmony with our tradition.”

The interventions of the other American bishops were more traditional. Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua linked the mission of the laity to marriage and the family. Bishop Stanley Ott called for greater spirituality in the family, parish, and workplace. Archbishop May presented very general remarks on the role of parishes.

Other interventions raise issues in which the U.S. press, at least, seems little interested. In a moving speech, Stephen Sulyk, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Philadelphia of the Ukrainians, noted the heroic efforts of Ukrainian Catholics, and the laity in particular, to keep the faith alive despite continued repression by Soviet police. “The persecution of the Church in the first centuries of Christianity,” Archbishop Sulyk said, “is being repeated today in the Soviet Union. The cruelty of the Roman emperors and other enemies of Christ has been replaced with more refined. . .methods of torture and mistreatment. The vast majority of modern confessors and martyrs today are lay people.” He asked the synod to recognize the witness and suffering of Catholic laity in the Ukraine and under communist regimes in all parts of the world. I have not seen his remarks reported in any major Catholic publication in the U.S.

On Thursday afternoon of the penultimate day of the synod, the American bishops have scheduled a press conference. Prior to this event, several texts of the propositions have leaked, an early version and a later one. The earlier version contained a proposition which stated that “Church offices, even liturgical ones, which are able to be exercised without Holy Orders, ought to be open to women and girls according to their nature.” But in the later, and final, text this proposition has been dropped. The final text does include a recommendation that the Church avoid liturgical language which “unjustly excludes women.” But that is all. There is nothing about expanding the role of women in the liturgy. There is no reference to altar girls. Archbishop May’s synodal consensus on this issue has, seemingly, evaporated. What happened in the interim? A clear and sound defeat for the “American agenda” seems an obvious conclusion. A majority of the world’s Catholic bishops do not believe, pace Archbishop Weakland, that the role of women is the crucial lay issue or, indeed, the most significant issue facing the Catholic Church.

The American press conference is to be held at the North American College, situated on a steep hill overlooking St. Peter’s. The day’s driving rainstorm has lifted, providing a cool relief to the unseasonably hot autumn weather. The lush green lawns of the College sparkle in the subdued afternoon light. Here, high above the city, is a soothing respite from the noise and rush below.

The room in which the press conference is held is rather narrow. Tiers of seats for the press mount up from the front where the U.S. bishops are to be seated. Klieg lights bathe the American delegation in the usual hot glare. (Archbishop Mahony and Bishop Bevilacqua are absent.) The first thing that strikes one as they take their seats is how subdued they appear.

The press conference begins with a prepared statement on the achievements of the synod read by Archbishop May. The concerns of American Catholics are, he says, of concern everywhere. He stresses the need to use the talents and promote the dignity of women. He emphasizes that all Catholics, men and women, are equal by virtue of their co-discipleship. The synod Fathers have been mindful, he says, of the impact on the Church of different cultures, and that therefore the synod’s recommendations must necessarily be of a general nature. The only remarkable thing about May’s remarks is that they are so unremarkable. With, of course, one very large exception: they are silent as regards any specific new proposals concerning women. They are silent on the question of altar girls.

The questions from reporters which follow aggressively press the Americans on this issue. They want to know what happened to the putative “consensus” on the altar girl proposal? Archbishop May replies that the synod Fathers did not wish to go into this topic, that to do so would “trivialize” the synod. This looks like a proverbial case of having to eat crow, but Archbishop Weakland tries to play down the discrepancy. “We didn’t pedal backwards. Altar girls were not on the agenda…we didn’t discuss much about altar girls,” he counters. The bishops treated the question of women in general terms, Weakland explained, adding that the discussion was filtered through many different cultural perspectives. Cardinal Bernardin observes that the synod is a consultative, not a deliberative body—the point being that so specific and “progressive” a recommendation as altar girls lies outside the charge of this synod. He, too, talks about co-responsibility of men and women.

May and Bernardin’s strategy is to distinguish between general principles and their specific application. The principle of equality of women is intact (exclusive of ordination), May said, but the specific implementation will vary in different cultures. The final set of propositions, Bernardin asserts, are not negative on the role of women. But of course the general principle was never in question; certain specific applications were, and it is these that were, in fact, rejected by the synod. If Bernardin, Weakland, and May are trying to represent such options as still being in some sense open, then it is they who are “singing out of chorus.”

For many of us in the press, the performance is unpersuasive. Having staked out a high-profile agenda and portrayed it as enjoying the support of a consensus of the world’s bishops, and notwithstanding the attempt to put a brave face on the result, the American delegation has suffered a decided rebuff from their fellow bishops. The American bishops seem clearly to sense the plausibility of this assessment, for the pervasive tone of their remarks is defensive. Damage limitation is the leitmotif of the press conference.

At the end of the press conference there is a surprising occurrence relating to the leaking of the propositions. An Italian journalist has reported that the leaked documents originated from a “source close to the American bishops.” Of his own volition, the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register, Robert Moynihan, comes forward with the disclosure that he was the source of the journalist’s story. Moynihan makes it clear, however, that while he was given copies of the propositions, these did not come from the U.S. bishops. The Italian journalist drew that erroneous conclusion entirely on his own, without checking with Moynihan. Moynihan had no wish to embarrass the Americans, regrets that the story cast them in such a light, and notes that the Italian reporter will write the appropriate correction. For Moynihan, who will later write far and away the best analysis of the synod for the Register—an analysis that is unfavorable to the American bishops—it is a noble gesture of fair play, and of courage. It provides the coda to the press conference.

The next day’s closing press conference is rather anti-climactic. The presiding bishops are Cardinal Thiandoum of Dakar (Senegal); Archbishop Legaspi of Caceres (Philippines); Archbishop Eyt of Bordeaux (France); and Archbishop Foley of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communication. (Again, Archbishop Mahony, who was scheduled to appear, is absent, having returned to the States to attend a funeral.)

Once more, there are questions about the disappearance of the early propositions regarding women. Archbishop Eyt replies that this concern is present in the final text under different headings. He also notes that, with respect to the question of lay ministry, the paramount role of the laity is in the world. He further stresses that the bishops especially desired to avoid any “hasty multiplication” of ministries. While he implies a need to examine further the notion of “ministry,” his report on the synod’s deliberations on this theme recalls Archbishop Mahony’s warning about speaking too expansively of “lay ministries.”

The synod is over. As the sun sets on a glorious autumn day, I take a long walk down the Via Conciliazione, cross over the Tiber, continue along the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II on past the imposing Piazza Venezia, and finally reach the Gregorian. Across the street I meet a friend from the NC News Service for dinner. We stroll the narrow, winding streets past the Trevi Fountain, comparing notes on the synod. I observe that on the main streets of Rome, the window displays are rather like those in the U.S.: chock full of the latest fashions and modern conveniences. Romans are as interested as Americans in the accoutrements of modernity. “Materialism” is not confined to the other side of the Atlantic.

After a leisurely meal (you can drink considerable quantities of the excellent table wine here without the sock to the cerebrum you get in the States), we walk over to the Piazza del Popolo. The soaring obelisk in the center of the piazza, I learn later, is the oldest in Rome, dating back to about 1300 B.C.. The unimposing little church of Santa Maria del Popolo was built over the tomb of Nero. A short walk takes us to the Piazza di Spagna, or “Spanish Steps,” and the palazzo in which John Keats died. Stand anywhere in Rome and you stand over the accumulated strata of great human deeds stretching down through the Christian and pagan centuries. Rome is a palimpsest.

This synod, too, has turned out to be a kind of palimpsest. Some in the American delegation tried to shape the synod according to their own agenda. That effort was, in the end, overwritten with the broader concerns of bishops outside the American/European orbit. Rome, surely still first among cities, has, I suspect, a way of inducing the long view of things.

The role of the laity, said this synod, is broad and deep; it cannot be confined to the issue of women, certainly not as defined by a small group of bishops from the First World. The Catholic Church extends to every corner of the earth. At this synod, that breadth made itself felt.

  • Terry Hall

    In 1983, Terry Hall became the managing editor of Catholicism in Crisis.

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