Saturday, October 27, 2012

Last Call In the Aula: At Synod's End, The Pope Shifts Chairs

Even if it doesn't formally wrap up until morning with a closing Mass in St Peter's, the work of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization reached its close today with the assembly's last business session... and a noteworthy comment from the Pope before his final homily tomorrow.

In impromptu remarks to the gathering, B16 announced a small, but significant shift of functions within the Roman Curia, transferring the Vatican's oversight of seminaries – held until now by the Congregation for Catholic Education – to the auspices of the Congregation for the Clergy, while the latter's longtime authority over catechetical programs and materials will be given to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization (PCPNE), which Benedict established in 2009.

The decision is notable on several fronts. For starters, it defies the traditional understanding of the hierarchy of the Roman dicasteries, where – as a general rule – executive authority over matters of the church's internal life is held (and, on a cultural level, jealously guarded) by the nine congregations, while the newer pontifical councils (the so-called "new Curia" established following Vatican II, now numbering 12 offices) do not exercise governance, but instead promote initiatives and conduct dialogue with constituencies that fall outside the Holy See's realm of direct control. (Accordingly, part of PCPNE's competence to date has been and remains the promotion of the now 20 year-old Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal text of its kind since Trent.) The move likewise provides policy reinforcement to a key Vatican message-point of recent years: namely, that seminaries aren't just schools that happen to produce priests, but institutes whose mission must be permeated by the unique goal of the formation they're tasked with providing.

Perhaps most pointedly, though, while the decision to entrust oversight of catechesis to the New Evangelization arm helps to further define the raison d'etre of an office whose mission – much like the concept it covers – has largely become interpreted in the eye of the beholder, the desk-shuffling is likely to fuel a long-standing criticism voiced by some top prelates: namely, that official efforts toward a fresh evangelization push end up placing their emphasis on a re-proposal of church teaching at the expense of a primary focus on the "living encounter with Christ."

In a 2007 comment – made before Benedict called him to Rome as head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – the Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson lamented the evolution of the European church on precisely that point, likewise terming it a "caution" for the booming African flock.

Himself the son of a Methodist minister, Turkson said that "Christianity in Europe started on an evangelistic base then developed a catechetics base. And it never found its way back to being evangelical.

"The early years of the church were all based on evangelisation. When the [institutional] structures began to evolve and develop it became catechetical, notional – you teach people certain things, they can repeat them, then you baptise them. The emphasis on the thrust of evangelization – provoking conversion in people – and helping people find a real relationship with a personal God – that gradually was missed out."

Another lead exponent of the theory – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin – has been characteristically more blunt.

In an assessment likely applicable to much of the Western church, Martin said in a 2011 lecture in Washington that "young Irish people are among the most catechized and the least evangelized."

"Unless we address" the divide, Martin warned that "we're not going to have a next generation of young Catholics."

At least in the past, Benedict has conceded as much himself. 

In his first address to the newly-formed PCPNE in May 2011, the reigning Pope reprised the stirring summons from Paragraph 41 of Paul VI's charter document on evangelization, 1976's Evangelii Nuntiandi: "It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the church will evangelize the world: in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus – the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world; in short, the witness of sanctity.”

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Elsewhere in his brief Synod talk, the Pope took the unusual step of explaining his rationale to elevate six new cardinals next month, making 2012 the first time since 1929 that two consistories will take place in the same calendar year.

Acknowledging the raft of criticism over the composition of the last two intakes into his "Senate" – both featuring what were widely perceived as "excessive" blocs of Italians or Europeans in general, with a disproportionately high Curial contingent – Benedict said that calling the 24 November rites with a list devoid of any European designates was intended to "complete the Consistory of February, in the context of the new evangelization, with a gesture of the universality of the church, showing that the church is the church of all peoples, she speaks in all languages, she is always a church of Pentecost; not the church of one continent, but a universal church."

While the fifth consistory of this pontificate – the smallest since 1977 – is indeed heavily weighted toward the East with the elevation of two heads of self-governing Oriental churches, it bears noting that another of the group who's been a lead voice at this Synod was conspicuously left off the list: the de facto patriarch of the largest Eastern fold, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev, head of the world's 6 million Ukrainian Greek-Catholics.

Elected to the post in a stunning decision early last year by his church's own Synod, much as it's indeed true that Shevchuk's predecessor still enjoys a conclave vote, the titanic Cardinal Lubomyr Husar "ages out" on turning 80 early in 2013. 

Then again, even for the Ukrainian church's high profile, it's not as if Benedict's under a pressing time-constraint: while the head of the India-based Syro-Malankara church, Cardinal-designate Baselios Cleemis, will become the youngest red hat at 53, Shevchuk doesn't turn 43 until next May, and is bound to become the first papal elector born after Vatican II in the not-too-distant future.

For purposes of context, the American hierarchy has yet to see the "1970 barrier" broken by any bishop, let alone the leader of the bench.

Regardless, as yet another sign of his continually rising stock, Shevchuk got a prominent nod from the Aula at this Synod's close, earning a spot on the 15-prelate General Council that'll continue the gathering's discussions and work following the event's close.

Other members elected to the top-shelf group include Cardinals Donald Wuerl of Washington (this assembly's lead spokesman), Timothy Dolan of New York, Christoph Schönborn OP of Vienna and George Pell of Sydney, the now officially omnipresent Cardinal-designate Chito Tagle of Manila, and two key Italian archbishops: the star theologian Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto and Rino Fisichella, the PCPNE president, and thus the Vatican's chief full-time hand on the New Evangelization project.

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Lastly, as ever, one Synod's end portends thoughts of its successor. 

As the gathering on the New Evangelization was announced at the close of the last gathering of the world's bishops – the 2010 regional assembly for the Middle East – there could be some news on the next Synod tomorrow. Or, perhaps, not. 

For now, don't bet the house either way. Still, as this has been the fifth Synod of Benedict's seven-year pontificate, however, perhaps it's a good moment to recall its predecessors: 2005's on the Eucharist (albeit largely arranged under John Paul II), the Word of God in 2008, Africa in 2009 and the MidEast the following year – in other words, three focused on general topics, two dedicated to geographic areas. 

As it's no secret that the current pontiff takes his Synods with a particular sense of seriousness, even as the winds are tilting toward another region-based choice, whatever B16 decides will speak volumes on the Pope's mind and emphases for the mid-range future... and, by extension, those of no shortage of the church he leads.