Bishops Synod on the Eucharist
Posted Monday, Oct. 10, 2005 at 11:30 a.m. CDT

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Coverage of Bishops Synod on the Eucharist

Report #8:
Inculturation of liturgy sparks debate at this and past synods of bishops


John L. Allen Jr.


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By John L. Allen Jr.

It’s not often that someone “lifts the curtain” to expose the behind-the-scenes politics that go on at a Synod of Bishops, but Saturday afternoon offered one of those rare glimpses behind the scenes -- though not with respect to the current synod, but a previous one.

On Saturday Oct. 8, the synod took a break from regular business to mark the 40th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops, created by Pope Paul VI in 1965. After overviews from both a theological and canonical point of view, seven bishops offered reviews of the regional synods held over the years (for Holland, Lebanon, Africa, Asia, Oceania, America and Europe).

Undoubtedly the most intriguing was the summary read by Archbishop John Atcherley Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, on the 1998 Synod for Oceania. Dew was presenting a text prepared by Cardinal Tom Williams, the emeritus archbishop from Wellington, New Zealand.

Williams is not present at the synod on the Eucharist.

For one thing, Williams’ text revealed, the synod for Oceania almost didn’t happen. In John Paul II’s original 1995 plan for regional synods, Oceania would have been collapsed into Asia. Dew said that the cardinals from Oceania made an appeal at a 1995 consistory for a separate event, which was granted.

Williams said that to achieve a “balanced” membership in the synod, given the smaller number of bishops from Oceania, John Paul II also accepted a recommendation from the planning group to reduce the representatives from the Roman Curia from 23 to 14.

Oceania, Williams said, is home to just 0.6 percent of the world’s population, but has more than 25 percent of the world’s languages. Given that diversity, inculturation is a high priority in the region, and the clash between sensitivities on the issue in Rome and out in the trenches was quickly apparent.

Read more NCR coverage of the synod on the Eucharist
  • Report #17: Final draft rebuffs Latin Mass; priest shortage, divorce squarely on church’s pastoral agenda Posted Oct. 20, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #16: Gregory: Little change expected but synod had honest talk of pastoral realities Posted Oct. 19, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #15: Draft propositions do not recommend changes in church discipline Posted Oct. 18, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #14: Women’s voices heard through interventions of 12 synod auditors Posted Oct. 17, 12:15 p.m.
  • Report #13: Statement on married priests likely in final list of proposals Posted Oct. 17, 12:00 p.m.
  • Report #12: Outreach to Latin Mass Catholics proposed for final message Posted Oct. 15, 9:32 a.m.
  • Report #11: Problems acknowledged, synod bishops seek middle ground solutions. Posted Oct. 13, 1:15 p.m.
  • Report #10: Despite frank talk, few breakthroughs expected from synod. Posted Oct. 12, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #9: Key synod themes seem clear, but consensus may be elusive. Posted Oct. 11, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #8: Inculturation of liturgy sparks debate at this and past synods of bishops. Posted Oct. 10, 11:30 a.m.
  • Report #7: Bishops of Global South link Eucharist and justice, local cultures. Posted Oct. 8., 9:52 a.m.
  • Report #6: Discussion of celibacy and marriage clergy continue to hold center stage. Posted Oct. 7, 10:21 a.m.
  • Report #5: Environment, social justice emerge as eucharistic themes. Posted Oct. 6, 10:30 a.m.
  • Report #4: Divorced, remarried Catholics topics of frank synod discussions. Posted Oct. 5, 3:00 p.m
  • Report #3: Priest shortage continues to roil synod of bishops. Posted Oct. 4, 2:01 p.m.
  • Report #2: Movements appeal for changes to make Eucharist more accessible. Posted Oct. 4, 2:00 p.m.
  • Report #1: Priest shortage takes center stage on synod's first day. Posted Oct. 3, 3:04 p.m.
  • Read The Word From Rome columns
  • The final set of propositions; The case of viri probati; Some worry the synod lacked theological heft. Posted Oct. 21, 2:07 p.m.
  • Latin Mass a non-issue; Interview with Bishop Skylstad; Scola's 17 questions to guide the synod. Posted Oct. 14, 10:46 a.m.
  • The synod so far; How to report on a synod; A view from Moscow; Document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban; Catholic left and right square off. Posted Oct. 7, 11:55 a.m.
  • Preview of the synod on the Eucharist. Posted Sept. 30, 8:05 a.m.
  • “The synod commenced with the impressive opening Mass in St Peter’s Basilica,” Williams recalled. “It included the dancing and singing which are an intrinsic part of major liturgical celebrations in the Pacific.”

    “That some curial officials took exception to the sight of tattooed Samoan men in traditional dress dancing in the basilica was perhaps indicative of the gulf which can exist between those striving for inculturation in the liturgy and those making judgments on it from outside the culture and from within their own cultures,” Williams said.

    Williams also said that the synod avoided some contentious topics, even if they had broad support, such a change in the rules on mandatory celibacy for priests.

    “There was the inevitable dilution of heartfelt appeals and prophetic insights voiced by individual bishops in the plenary sessions, as consensus propositions were formulated in the circoli minori,” Williams said.

    “The desire to speak with a united voice ruled out putting to the vote proposals which enjoyed considerable general support, but in regard to which some did not wish to ‘rock the boat’... on the ordination to priesthood of viri probati, for example, to remedy the situation in some parts of Oceania where the Mass, as some bishops phrased it, has become for the faithful a rare privilege rather than a right.”

    Though the current synod has repeatedly engaged the question of priest shortages, Williams’ Saturday address marks the first time a participant has specifically invoked the phrase viri probati since the opening address by the relator, Cardinal Angelo Scola, who mentioned that some of the pre-synod suggestions had spoke in favor of ordaining tested married men, even if Scola personally appeared to cast doubt on the idea.

    Williams said that the synod affirmed the special role of Catholics in Oceania as agents of social justice.

    “The local churches of Oceania -- a goodly number of them, at least -- take their place in the church universal as ‘wounded healers,’” Williams said. “Their small size makes them almost invisible and therefore very vulnerable players on the world stage.

    “Colonial powers have used the region for nuclear testing and for dumping nuclear waste. Militaristic powers value the region as a location for strategic bases. Economic giants over-fish its waters, despoil its forests, pillage its mineral resources, pollute its rivers, and threaten the rights of its indigenous peoples,” he said.

    “The social teachings of the church are not for Oceania the stuff of textbooks, but engage and challenge its peoples in their everyday lives.”

    Williams said that the church in Oceania has been “greatly heartened” by the sections of the John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation that encouraged them to continue this work.

    One interesting footnote is that Williams’ text did not appear in the official English summary of Saturday’s talks issued by the Vatican press office, where it was replaced with a duplicate of the summary of Cardinal Jozef Tomko’s speech on the theological foundations of the synod. It did appear in full, however, in the multi-lingual edition of Saturday’s proceedings.

    In other synod business Monday, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine posed a provocative rhetorical question: if Catholics and Orthodox are in agreement on the Eucharist, on the validity of one another’s ministries and on apostolic succession, why are we not unified? If the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of Christian life, in the words of the Vatican II document on liturgy, why is this not enough?

    Husar proposed to Benedict XVI that the next synod be devoted to the Oriental churches, with representatives from those churches.

    Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, issued a stirring defense of inculturation in the African church, urging the synod to focus less on abuses than on accomplishments.

    “Solemnity and sacredness can be expressed not only in plain chant and the organ, but also the gong, the xylophone, and the tam-tam,” Onaiyekan said.

    Onaiyekan also appeared to call for some degree of decentralization in governing the process of inculturation.

    “The role, right and responsibility of the local bishop as the primary mystagogue in relation to the Eucharist need to be recognized and upheld,” he said.

    Bishop George Cosmas Zumaire Lungu of Zambia largely seconded Onaiyekan’s point about the desirability of inculturation.

    Critiquing suggestions in the Instrumentum Laboris for wider use of traditional modes of liturgical expression, Lungu said, “I find this part of the document to be over-optimistic about the organ, Gregorian chant and even the use of Latin at international meetings in an attempt to meet the needs of the people of all time and places.”

    “My proposal is that we should not go back to making these instruments of worship universal. … Communication and participation is vital in every liturgical celebration including the Eucharistic celebration. Our hope lies in the future and not in the past,” Lungu said.

    Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, master general of the Jesuit order, offered two theological reflections.

    First, Kolvenbach said, ecumenical conversation with the churches of the Reformation might be helped by referring to the Mass as a “sacramental sacrifice,” that is, a sacramental re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Protestants have sometimes criticized Catholic Eucharistic theology for seeming to assert that Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is “repeated” on the altar.

    Second, Kolvenbach suggested that seeing the moment of consecration in the Mass not as a matter of a physical instant in time, but a “sacramental time” in the eyes of God, could help overcome traditional Catholic/Orthodox debates over whether the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during the recitation of the words of Christ from the Last Supper, or the epiclesis, meaning the calling down of the Holy Spirit over the gifts.

    Bishop Bosco Lin Chi-Nan of Tainan (Taiwan) warned that the lack of religious freedom in China aggravates divisions in the church, in part an apparent reference to the split in China between an above-ground recognized church and a below-ground church tenaciously loyal to Rome.

    “We must only worry about one thing: the lack of religious freedom, by which the church risks division,” Chi-Nan said.

    John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

    October 3, 2005, National Catholic Reporter

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