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VATICAN LETTER (UPDATED) Oct-24-2005 (750 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Now what? As synod ends, will pope be 'all write' with propositions?

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist drew to a close in late October, bequeathing to Pope Benedict XVI something he's probably not eager to receive: the raw material for a new document.

The pope, who said bluntly in mid-October that writing more documents was not the mission of his pontificate, appeared to be stuck with the task this time. Bishops have come to see the follow-up text by the pope as confirmation of their work at the synod.

As the synod wound down, some at the Vatican were whispering the unthinkable: that the pope might choose not to write the usual "apostolic exhortation" on the synod, or that he might offer a brief reflection on a few key issues instead of an all-encompassing summary of every synod theme.

The pope seemed to scotch those rumors when he said, at the close of the synod Oct. 23, that the bishops' reflections and proposals would receive further treatment in a follow-up exhortation.

Post-synodal documents have become so routine that they're taken for granted. After every regular synod, Pope John Paul II wrote one -- encyclopedic tomes that touched all the topics but usually broke no new ground.

It wasn't always like that, however. The first three synods in 1967, 1969 and 1971 ended by submitting written advice to the pope, but there was no follow-up document.

In 1974, Pope Paul VI decided to take things a step further, using the synod's recommendations to write his landmark apostolic exhortation on evangelization, "Evangelii Nuntianti." Ever since then, papal documents have been a post-synod tradition.

There were reasons to think the pope might change that.

Many bishops took note when the pope said in an interview Oct. 16: "My personal mission is not to issue many new documents, but to ensure that (Pope John Paul's) documents are assimilated."

This particular synod may have had even less need for a new papal text: It was preceded by Pope John Paul's encyclical on the Eucharist in 2003 and by a major Vatican document on liturgy last year.

For Pope Benedict, writing about the Eucharist would be covering familiar ground. In 2001, he wrote an entire book on the theology of the Eucharist, and in earlier works he explored liturgical issues in depth.

During the synod, in fact, it was hard to think of a topic of discussion that has not been addressed in detail by the pope in his many earlier writings, including the Eucharist as more than a communal meal, the real presence of Christ (understood not as material transformation but as something "more profound"), Communion in the hand ("perfectly reasonable" if done with reverence), eucharistic adoration as an extension of Mass and not individualistic piety, and the need to recognize that Communion is not for every person at every Mass ("the Eucharist is not worthless if one does not receive Communion").

Pope Benedict's expertise on these questions helped explain why several bishops who addressed the synod quoted his writings on the Eucharist.

Why should the pope prepare another document on the topic?

Father Joseph W. Tobin, superior general of the Redemptorists and a synod participant, said that, despite all that's been written about the Eucharist, there remain unanswered questions that need to be clarified.

And the pope, a teacher at heart, would not want to let that opportunity pass, Father Tobin said.

It was Pope John Paul who added most to the growing list of Vatican documents over the last 25 years. He published his first encyclical less than five months after his election, and within his first year had written three other important documents.

Pope Benedict has yet to publish a major papal document, although he recently completed work on a 46-page encyclical for release in early December. Sources told Catholic News Service that the encyclical was a spiritual meditation focused in large part on "eros" (love) and "logos" (the word) and their relationship to the person of Christ.

In the first six months of his papacy, Pope Benedict has produced far fewer messages and given fewer speeches than his predecessor.

The slowdown in production may allow the Vatican to catch up with the compilation of papal pronouncements, a monumental task under Pope John Paul. As of this fall, the Vatican had published the late pope's complete teachings up to June 2003. They occupy 54 volumes, each averaging more than 1,500 pages.


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