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What Not to Expect from Synods

I was in England for a couple of weeks in June (a working trip, not a vacation) and lodged in modest circumstances at the base of a hill. Halfway up the hill was a convent recently occupied by sisters from the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. These are nuns who formerly were Anglicans.

Call it seredipity or Providence, but I discovered that the Ordinariate nuns were having a visitor for a few days–none other than my dear friend Rosalind Moss, who now is a Benedictine sister with the religious name of Mother Miriam.

What a delight to meet up with her! It had been far too long since we had seen one another, and over two days we spent several hours together, catching up. I won’t share information about her here, except to say I don’t know when I’ve seen her more radiant and more at ease in the faith.

On the second day we got together we were joined by an acquaintance of mine, a Canadian laywoman who was lodging where I was. Talk got around to people she and I had known–in particular, to two British scholars who have been considered among the top experts in catechesis and evangelization.

A few years ago, during the reign of Benedict XVI, these scholars, a man and a woman, were appointed by the Vatican to high posts connected with a then-current synod of bishops. Working closely with the bishops both before and after they came to  Rome and with the Roman authorities who arranged for the synod, the pair discovered something surprising: most bishops who come to synods are unprepared to teach anyone much of anything.

You, like me, probably think the role of a synod is for bishops to think deep thoughts and to conclude their gathering with published findings and marching orders that go out to the world’s many dioceses. That may have been what Rome had expected when synods began to come into regular use some years ago, but realities “on the ground” have upended those expectations, according to the two scholars.

What the Vatican discovered is that the world’s bishops–not all of them, but most of them–simply haven’t done their homework. At this previous synod, it turned out that most of the bishops showed no knowledge of the writings of Benedict XVI or of his predecessor, John Paul II. Many of them hadn’t even read the documents of Vatican II! (This was more true for bishops from Third World countries, but it applied to bishops in Europe and North America too.)

How could such unprepared men expect to know the depth of what Benedict and John Paul had been teaching if they never read those popes’ encyclicals and their other writings? How could these bishops maneuver well in the modern world if they hadn’t even become familiar with what was promulgated at Vatican II?

It proved to be an awkward realization for Rome. The men who were expected to go out and spread the word didn’t even know what the word was. And so the synods quietly have become something else. Instead of being sessions at which learned bishops issue teachings for the masses, they now are sessions at which the bishops themselves are taught the teachings.

There are multiple implications here. One is that we shouldn’t expect a “new direction” from the bishops’ synod that will occur later this year–not if many of the bishops aren’t even up to date on the current direction as adumbrated by John Paul and Benedict. That is, there’s no reason to worry that the synod will result is some novel teaching, no matter what pundits predict.

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