The 2015 Synod on the Family finished its work last week and published its final document, released in Italian, the official language of the Synod, on 24 October.
The English translation should be available on the Vatican website soon. Bishop John S. Cummins, retired Bishop of Oakland and holder of the Nathaniel and Marian Seefurth Chair of Catholic Thought at the Institute named in his honor at Saint Mary’s College, has written a reflection for our community on the meaning of the recent Synod. Bishop Cummins places its work and results well within an ancient collegial tradition.
An Old Tradition and a Blessed Inheritance
by Bishop John S. Cummins
The close of the synod in Rome on the family finds me in the ranks of the satisfied. The mere procedure is noteworthy and has far reaching implications, a pattern issued from the Second Vatican Council but deep in our in our tradition from decision and direction in the church evidenced by the role of St. Peter gathering the apostles in the early generation.
The Vatican Council restored the pope with the college of bishops as authority in the church with each bishop sharing responsibility for the universal church. The congenial exchanges at the Second Vatican Council led bishops from east and Southeast Asia, with the blessing of Pope Paul VI, to organize a federation of twenty countries to maintain the appreciated conversations and dialogues. Pope Paul VI likewise set up the synods of bishops to meet every two or three years to bring him priorities and advice for pastoral response. The Vatican Council brought consultation to much lower levels to a council of priests in each diocese as well as councils of people in each parish community.
I once heard echoes of this kind of discourse at the Haas School of Business in Berkeley. The emphasis on consultation and community for business leadership drew my attention. It was dialogue elevated to a sophisticated level.
But consultation in the church is religious. It has theological foundation expressed in the easily grasped notion of “the people of God”. Our people understand the Vatican Council’s call to holiness. They are right to expect the spiritualities in the church that is their inheritance that leads them to mature responsibility for health and life of the church as well as witness and example to the world at large. At its heart is the dialogue of each person with the Holy Spirit that brings both institutional as well as individual charismatic insight.
Pope Francis speaks knowingly of openness and conversation so as not to miss the inspiration of the Spirit. Experienced with the Latin American bishops in a continental wide conference (CELAM) established before the Second Vatican Council he took a leading role at the last meeting in Apareceda in Brazil. It followed from two earlier gatherings of those bishops at Medellin in Colombia and Puebla, Mexico explicating the role of the church in contemporary times. The bishops followed the observation of Pope John XXIII that the deposit of faith remains the church’s heritage but its preaching must be suited to contemporary times. The synod as well brought out the church’s cultural and international dimension. The bishops from Africa could speak, encouraged by the Pope, to bring in their insights and further, with others to form themselves in regional groups.
But a synod is not a parliament, said the Pope. It is an opportunity to listen to the Spirit. This capacity has to be learned. Shadows of political tactics came in reports about the synod, but these might be cautiously interpreted in the light of journalistic taste for conflict.
At the diocesan level, we all had to learn. The influential model inherited was of course the political one, the struggle for one’s own point of view and the winning of argument. In time, our council of priests stopped dividing into each preferred group. Parish councils grew as well. By the time we formed a diocesan pastoral council we had learned much. Bishop Allen Vigneron would report at his first meeting with the diocesan pastoral council, “This is a mature group.” Religious congregations of women and men especially were leaders by example in their establishing directions and developing consensus in their communities, acknowledged by Pope Francis in these recent months. The synod of 2015 provided an example as well.
We may think of this style of authority as something new. Perhaps it has merely been brought up to date. It is an old tradition and a blessed inheritance.
Photo of Bishop Cummins, SMC Archives Photo of Lambach Library fresco by Brother Charles