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The Synod on New Evangelization: An Opportunity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 19, 2012

The Synod for the New Evangelization has an interesting set of problems to consider. Reading the instrumentum laboris for the Syno (The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith) is an illuminating exercise. This document is generated from the responses of bishops around the world to the lineamenta—the original set of questions circulated before the Synod. The instrumentum laboris organizes, summarizes and highlights the areas of concern most often expressed in these responses as critical to the Synod’s work.

The document is organized into four chapters, but several problems crop up in more than one chapter, so it can sometimes be difficult to see the big picture. I noted down about twenty highlighted issues in sequence, realized that some of them were very closely related to others, and reorganized my notes around three key themes. I suspect (and very much hope) that these themes will end up absorbing the bulk of the Synod’s efforts.

The first theme is the credibility of the Church in the face of the apparent imperviousness of modern culture to religious faith. This imperviousness is not a characteristic of every world region, of course, but if we mean by “modern” culture the influence of the highly sophisticated and affluent modern West, then this imperviousness is a huge problem which bishops from around the world have apparently recognized in their responses. The Church knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the deepest human aspirations are fulfilled by Christ, and so she expects that people today, given the right opportunity, will respond favorably to Christ and His Church. And yet this has not been the case for a long time, as a general rule.

The Instrumentum Laboris notes the prevalence of consumerism, hedonism, nihilism and the closure of the human mind to transcendence throughout the “modern” world. Meanwhile, within the Church herself, the bishops frequently lament weakening of faith, diminishing respect for authority, declining religious practice, increasing individualism, and a growing unwillingness to transmit the faith to the next generation. We can see the close connections among all these things, and we can also blame a great manyh recent bishops for being far too slow to recognize these connections during their long and painful romance with modernity in the second half of the twentieth century. But few would deny that the evil genie is out of the bottle, and few really think that corralling the genie will be a quick and easy task.

As a result, the bishops are asking themselves—legitimately, in my opinion—to what degree this cultural imperviousness is a sign of the times which the Church is called upon to endure and to what degree there is something about the modern Church herself that causes her to lack the necessary credibility to break through. Has Catholic spirituality failed to develop in important ways that are critical to our time? (Pope Benedict, I think, would argue that the lack of a proper reception and implementation of the Second Vatican Council shows that the answer is “yes”.) Does the Church lack the deep sense of community which may be the best antidote to the rootlessness and desperate individualism of modern life? Is the Church rather dominated too much by bureaucratic structures and methods which cannot touch the human soul? (Be careful how you answer: Some bishops applied this question to administration; others to excessively formal liturgies.)

I am not short of opinions on these issues, but this is neither the time nor the place. Let us instead proceed directly to the second grand theme. I concerns the changes the Church should make, presuming something can be done, to effect a renewal that will actually make a difference. This is no idle discussion. There has been a lot of playing with concepts and words over the past couple of generations, with admittedly very little net positive change.

Among specific questions surrounding this theme are the following: Given the shortage of priests and the dignity of the laity, should the Church develop and emphasize new models of priestly-lay collaboration? (After all, the priest is essential sacramentally but not catechetically or even evangelically; a stable ministry of “catechist” is definitely under review.) Should the Church build her life more around the Sacrament of Penance? (Not to replace the Eucharist, of course, but with a key connection to worthy reception and a consequent more grace-filled building of the community.) How can the Church best provide for both the charismatic and the hierarchical gifts?

The third theme is the identification of those aspects of Catholic faith and life which clearly need corrective action and which, if properly renewed, are already known to promise immense benefits to the New Evangelization. These crop up in various places in the instrumentum laboris. I will enumerate three of the most important items:

  • The parish must be not just a center of liturgical life but a “community of communities”, the center of a vibrant Catholic society which encompasses all of life, the locus for the Christianization of human culture as a whole, anchoring a deep sense of community.
  • Christian identity consists in a combination of the baptismal identity and the vocational identity. The sense of personal vocation is in deep crisis today (witness both the preisthood and marriage). It is essential to develop a deeper sense of Christian identity, in both its baptismal and vocational aspects, as the guiding principle of a significant and fulfilling human life.
  • As Pope Benedict has pointed out, the Catholic Church in the midst of modern culture faces an “educational emergency”. Increasingly committed Catholics must find ways to extend an authentic Christian education, at every level, far beyond the current small pockets where it currently thrives (though these pockets do offer proof that it is still possible).

With themes and questions like these before the Synod—along with a palpable sense of frustration with the Church’s lack of effectiveness in the recent past—it is an exciting time to observe the universal Church in action. We could, of course, end up with another torrent of Catholic words, especially since synods are in some ways simply very large committees. But there is a certain logic to the Synod process. Sometimes a broad consensus—even a sort of common inspiration—emerges on key problems and solutions. Following the Synod, the Pope always shapes a document which seeks to encapsulate and direct the resulting insights, and sometimes he makes administrative changes. These things take time to work themselves out, but they always contain the historic possibility of reaching critical mass.

I believe the Church’s episcopate is slowly approaching a tipping point: less culture-bound, more Catholic, more courageous. At the Synod on the New Evangelization, we are observing a significant moment of opportunity for the Church.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: joecober6835 - Nov. 06, 2012 11:25 AM ET USA

    Every church should have a cross or statue outside. Or at least a cross against outside wall 2 m. above ground,with sign "Whether glad,sad,or wary,stay a while,say a Hail Mary". Each parishioner praying there at least once a year. Evangelize.I started procession alone,walking around 4 streets,praying,rosary in hand. The 7th time(2005) a mother and son joined me.In 2008, lady took over(I was 88),fine procession 50 people praying,singing,carrying Mary-statue to church for crowning

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 20, 2012 8:31 AM ET USA

    Father Solanus Casey gives a model to consider. Many married men are out there faithful & previously ordained. Why can't these men carry out their ordained vocation as a "Priest Simplex"? Remainder of Sacramental celebration may be left to celibate Priests. Don't read into this married priesthood is veiled to be "the" answer. All of the men who left the clergy are not suitable for the approach. But why not make use of God's gifts given his Church? Fear of confusion by the faithful - really?

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