A much discussed Catholic Synod of Bishop, convened to address the issues and concerns of the new evangelization, took place in Rome between October 7–28. This synod was not, in and of itself, a hot item in the global news cycle. One reason is because few of the initiatives that will come from this dialogue will lead to political and social changes that most people care about. For me the exact opposite is the case.
John L. Allen, Jr., a keen observer of the Vatican, summarized this synod at the mid-way point (October 17) by writing the following on the National Catholic Reporter web site (October 19):
The Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization reached its halfway point Wednesday, with the “report after the discussion” by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., who’s serving as the relator, or general secretary. If nothing else, one has to give Wuerl credit for brevity — these reports are often sprawling, but he managed to summarize the discussion to date in a crisp 4,000 words.
The purpose of the relatio post disceptationem is to guide the small working groups that will now begin to suggest propositions, not to anticipate their results. Nevertheless, looking at how Wuerl framed the issues, it seems clear what some of the synod’s big-picture conclusions are likely to be:
- A strong accent on the laity as the front-line carriers of the new evangelization.
- Small Christian communities, sometimes called “base communities,” as a valuable pastoral model. (Wuerl described them as “living centers of evangelization.”)
- A push for more effective catechesis, perhaps including an office of “catechist” as a formally recognized ministry.
- The notion that new evangelization should be carried out in an ecumenical key. (If the aim is principally to reach out to lapsed Catholics, then it’s not about fishing in somebody else’s pond — and today, many synod participants said, all Christian denominations find themselves facing the same struggles in regards to secularism.)
- A call for more effective use of social communications and digital media.
- Spiritual renewal, including strengthened sacramental practice and personal conversion.
- Stressing the church’s social justice teaching and its works of charity as a valuable aid to evangelization — as Wuerl put it, they are “a sign for others to recognize the presence of God working in our world.”
- Strong emphasis on both the family and the parish as the ordinary venues in which most people meet the faith and grow in it, and therefore as privileged settings for new evangelization.
What Allen did not report, and what profoundly interests me, is the interchanges and input given to this synod by Protestant evangelical voices who were invited as special guests. This reality is, in terms of missional-ecumenism, a significant step forward by the Catholic Church. It portends of much greater blessings as the church, all of it, realizes John 17:21 and enters into gospel evangelism around the planet. Below is one visitor’s address given to the delegates. This one was given by the president of the American Bible Society, Dr. Lamar Vest. (I have the distinct privilege of serving on the board of the historic Chicago Bible Society, a long-time sister organization to the American Bible Society.) Dr. Vest said:
This is a wonderful moment to be celebrated. Today the American Bible Society, the global Fellowship of United Bible Societies and the Roman Catholic Church are well joined. Working side-by-side, we have made important strides – new Bible translations, new programs of biblical investigation and global renewal for the practice of Lectio Divina. Together, we have produced 10 languages for Missio Metropolis evangelization events, held in 10 major European cities. Together, we have embraced the central and fully animating roles of God’s Word for renewed mission in the world.
Our hopes, our prayers and our desires are to join with you in a rediscovery of the heart of evangelization: the experience of Christian faith – the encounter with Jesus Christ, God the Father’s Gospel to humanity – which transforms us. That mission lies at the heart of the Bible Society cause.
My prayer for you and for us in this fresh season is new boldness and new listening – evangelization inviting new methods and new means. But this remains ever the same: the transmission of faith rooted in an encounter with Christ by means of Sacred Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. At the deepest level of our commitment to the Christian faith, we all agree that the Word of God is the foundation of our common work – the witnessing for Christ in our world.
This I also know: as much as our world changes, the big, sweeping narrative of the Bible remains our largest hope and aspiration. It is here that the powerful exhortation of your last Synod continues to resound with me as I recall the declaration of Pope Benedict XVI, that any “personal and communal relationship with God depends on our growing familiarity with the word of God” (VD 124).
May the Lord, the Source of All Life, grant us all the grace of being His faithful messengers.
You can see Dr. Vest’s further reflections, beyond what is quoted above, on a brief Vatican video. This insightful video should thrill you if you love Christ’s mission.
It is interesting to think about how we got from the “fearful” past to the present openness to one another as Catholics and evangelicals. There should be no question that the key figure on the evangelical side is Billy Graham.
My prayer for this synod, and the response that will prayerfully follow, is for a “new boldness and