As this report goes to press, the tenth Synod of Bishops was still in progress in Rome. The Synod's theme concerns the exercise of the office of bishop. Following its conclusion, a document will be published, embodying the results of the Synod's deliberations.
On 30 September, in St Peter's Basilica, Pope John Paul II presided over a solemn opening Mass with 247 bishops from around the world, for the inauguration of the 10th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The Synod took place from 30 September to 27 October, with the theme: "The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World."
Previous meetings of the Synod have dealt with topics such as the family (1980), the role of the laity (in 1987), the priesthood (1990) and consecrated life (1994).
The Synod of Bishops was established towards the close of Vatican II, on 15 September 1965, when Pope Paul VI accepted a recommendation that a body of bishops meet regularly on a consultative basis.
During the Synod, each of the 247 bishops gave an eight-minute presentation to the general assembly, after which, participants were divided into smaller working groups for more in-depth discussion of the major themes. Their conclusions are to be embodied in a final synodal document.
On 12 October, a summary of the major themes covered by the presentations was released. Divided into four sections, it covered a bishop's relationship with God, the universal Church, his diocese and the general community.
The longest section was devoted to a bishop's role in his own diocese: as a "teacher of prayer," a comfort to the poor, a leader for priests, an administrator of parishes, and an educator of the laity. This section noted a "grave problem" regarding the shortage of priestly vocations.
Indeed, the most striking contributions - particularly from the viewpoint of Catholics in Western countries - dealt with a bishop's specific responsibilities in his own diocese. The following are a few representative examples.
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, referring to a bishop's duties "as teacher, sanctifier and shepherd," said these included "guidance" for "teachers of religion in Catholic elementary and secondary schools ... in diocesan and parish programs for children, youth and adults" and for "professors of theology on the university level."
To be a "truly powerful teacher of the faith", a bishop needed not only to ensure he had an "excellent seminary education for his priests", but "to know who is intellectually and spiritually forming his future clergy, what they are teaching, and whether they are performing their assigned tasks."
Another "essential duty in our ministry as sanctifiers of the faithful," said Cardinal Egan, was "seeing to it that the liturgies in our churches and chapels are in harmony with the norms and practice of the Church and carried out in a spirit of true devotion."
Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne argued that the world is facing a crisis of secularisation, caused largely by the failure of Church leaders to speak out clearly. "There are many bishops", he said, "who do not recognise the gravity of the situation." Strong bishops were needed: "The bishop is no longer a pious private believer, but a public witness. He must confront the problems present in the ecclesiastical world, not only to save himself, but also to defend the faith, to correct errors and to deepen reality ...".
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, President of the Conference of Bishops of Great Britain, said he was "increasingly aware that it is necessary not only to keep the faith, but also to deepen it among priests and people." This was the case, since "the consumerist culture attenuates faith, making commitment to both teaching and practice more difficult." He suggested a bishop should "initiate a plan aiming at the spiritual and pastoral renewal of his people."
Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, emphasised the bishop was "above all the teacher of the doctrine of the faith", who needed "to keep watch over theological ideas on inter-religious dialogue in his area".
Bishop Paulinus Costa of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, also noted that "the bishop is the first teacher of the faith" and the laity had "the right to know the teachings of the Fathers, Vatican II and the recent popes on delicate matters of moral and family life."
Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, spoke of the need for sound formation of priests: "It would be useful to underline the bishops' responsibility in having the right formators in seminaries, who can be distinguished by their excellent priestly and human virtues, for their faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church ... We should also recall the necessity of safe-keeping the specific configuration of the seminary, as an institution that truly forms priests, that acknowledges their identity, their own spirituality, their own responsibility, their high and irreplaceable mission."
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, cited the fundamental importance of the selection of strong bishops: "The bishop dominated by fear will be neither a man of the Gospel nor a man of hope. Fearful in the face of public opinion, he will not preserve the faith with the appropriate correction."
He suggested: "We could present to the Holy Father, among other respectful propositions, one which permits the request, in the choice of candidates to the episcopate, those gifts which assure the Church, placed in confrontation with secularism, practical apostasy and the degradation of customs, bishops who guide them with courage, [including] part of the spiritual make-up of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Eusebius of Vercelli, Borromeo, Faulhaber, and those who, beyond the Iron Curtain, defended and maintained the faith."