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VATICAN LETTER Jul-8-2005 (850 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Fine-tuning synod: New procedures, but bishops won't make decisions

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Whether suggesting fine-tuning or lobbying for a major overhaul, most bishops around the world agree that something has to be done with the Synod of Bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI -- who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger participated in 15 of the 20 general, special and regional synod assemblies held since 1965 -- has demonstrated that he, too, thinks changes are needed.

However, bishops and others who hoped the synod would become a decision-making body rather than an occasion for offering advice to the pope may be disappointed.

The Oct. 2-23 synod on the Eucharist will feature procedural changes reflecting not only the ideas of the new pope, but also the leadership of a new general secretary for the synods.

Croatian Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, general secretary, outlined the changes at a July 7 press conference, saying synods would keep the bishops in Rome for less time, reduce the length of the speeches they have to listen to and give them more time for discussing issues with the entire synod body.

The October gathering will be the 11th general assembly of the Synod of Bishops since the Second Vatican Council. At three weeks, it will also be the shortest.

The longest synod on record was the 1971 gathering, which lasted just more than five weeks but tried to tackle two major topics: the ministerial priesthood and justice in the world.

Since then, the general assemblies have run just more than four weeks and have focused on one issue: the laity, priestly formation, consecrated life, the role of the bishop, catechesis, the family or penance and reconciliation.

Archbishop Eterovic said the pope did not just shorten the synod, but asked for "modifications to the synod assembly's procedures to focus the work and promote its collegial and synodal aspects even more."

The first change, he said, is a direct result of the reduced synod length: At the 2005 synod, each bishop will have only six minutes to address the assembly rather than eight minutes, which was the practice in the past.

The second change is the addition of one hour of open discussion at the end of each of the days on which formal speeches are made.

"This will permit the members to ask for and obtain more information from the synod fathers who have spoken in the hall," he said, as well as fostering "an open exchange of opinions and experiences."

The final change is that each bishop will be "strongly urged" to focus his six-minute speech on only one of the four main parts of the synod's working document: the Eucharist in today's world, in the faith of the church, in the life of the church or in the mission of the church.

Archbishop Eterovic said he hoped all the bishops wanting to speak about a topic from the first chapter of the document would sign up to speak first, but said it was not likely that the synod would be that organized.

The focus on one theme, he said, "should make the speeches more articulate and, in that way, make the discussion about individual themes more fruitful."

At the end of the last general Synod of Bishops, held in 2001, participants formally asked Pope John Paul II to consider calling an "extraordinary assembly" of bishops to discuss how the process could be improved.

The ordinary synods bring together close to 250 bishops, plus experts and guests, almost all of whom can make formal speeches during the first half of the synod's period.

In addition to the potential aural overload of so many speeches, many bishops complained that the first-come, first-up selection of speakers meant that the content bounced from one topic to another and back again with no chance for follow-up, comment or development.

Pope Benedict's changes should help resolve that problem.

During the 2001 synod, several bishops also advocated modeling the synod process more closely on the synods of Eastern Catholic churches. Unlike their Western counterpart, which has a purely advisory role, Eastern synods make concrete decisions for their churches.

However, strengthening the decision-making power of the synod was not one of the changes Archbishop Eterovic announced.

In his 1988 book, "Church, Ecumenism and Politics," then-Cardinal Ratzinger included an essay on the synod's structure and task, outlining why he believed the synod should not be a decision-making body.

The College of Bishops makes decisions only when it acts as a whole, for instance, during an ecumenical council, he wrote.

Although most synod members are elected to represent their national bishops' conferences, an individual bishop cannot delegate his decision-making authority to a representative, the essay said.

"A fundamental task of the synod is without a doubt an exchange of information," strengthening the bonds of communion between bishops and, therefore, helping them better exercise their authority in their dioceses while recognizing their obligation to be concerned about the universal church, he said.

In addition, he said, making the synod a decision-making body would further centralize the church, something most advocates of greater collegiality would oppose.


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