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It seems that the Synod of Bishops has become the first curial body to undergo Pope Francis’ expected and announced reforms. Following the appointment of its new General Secretary, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri in September, Pope Francis fairly soon afterwards announced the first major assembly of the Synod: an Extraordinary General Assembly titled “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”.
Scheduled to take place from 5 to 19 November of next year, the assembly is styled ’extraordinary’ to signify the pressing urgency that Pope Francis attaches to the subject. Unlike the general assemblies, there will be no process of selecting participating clergy: the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences, the heads of the Eastern Churches, the heads of the Curia offices in Rome and three members of religious institutes are the designated participants by canon law. The participants from continental northwestern Europe will therefore be Wim Cardinal Eijk from the Netherlands, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard from Belgium, Bishop Anders Arborelius from Scandinavia, and whoever the future president of the German Bishops’ Conference will be.
Today, Pope Francis selected the Relator General and the Special Secretary for the Extraordinary Assembly, which is only the third such gathering since the Synod of Bishops was created in 1965. The Relator General opens the assembly and gathers the conclusions and results for the final message and ultimately the Post-Synodal Exhortation that Pope Francis will write. This task will be performed by Péter Cardinal Erdö, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. The Special Secretary, who records the proceedings of the Synod, is Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte (pictured) of Chieti-Vasto. He is also a member of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation.
With the next assembly on the horizon we are still expecting the final act of the previous one. The Ordinary General Assembly on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith closed in October of last year and the assumption then was that Pope Benedict XVI would publish its Post-Synodal Exhortation some time in 2014. Now that he has retired, and Pope Francis has begun his papacy, it will be the latter’s task to publish it. In June, he told the General Secretariat of the Synod that he would be writing much of the document in August and that it would be ready for publication before the end of the Year of Faith, on 24 November of this year.
Today, Peter Cardinal Turkson apologised for showing, last Saturday, the Youtube video I share below, to the Synod of Bishops. Many Synod fathers had asked questions about why they were shown this and on whose request. Many objected to its contents, with officials of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe stating that it was based on faulty statistics and premises. They would provide the Synod with accurate numbers on Europe’s population and religious make-up.
It’s not hard to see why many objected. The video is tendentious and populist. It’s use of statistics and official-sounding quotes sounds enticing, but without the sources at our disposal, they’re hard to appreciate for what they’re worth. Coupled with the obvious agenda of the makers, this video should not be taking seriously that easily.
But it is also not hard to understand Cardinal Turkson’s concerns, which undoubtedly lead to him wanting to show the Synod this film. The cold hard numbers are on the Muslim side, but we must still interpret those numbers before drawing any conclusions. There is always a context to consider, and fear is never a good one. A theoretical ‘Islamification’ of our culture is something that we should be prepared to handle, if it were something that was likely to happen. In reality, though, western culture, including the Muslims living in that culture, is far more likely to become increasingly secular instead of religious of whatever stripe.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
As part of the proceedings of the second session of the Synod of Bishops, yesterday, representatives of the five continents (although, for the sake of simplicity, the Americas were suddenly a single continent…) offered a report on the background of the new evangelisation in their respective parts of the world. Representing Europe was Péter Cardinal Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and President of the CCEE, the Council of European Episcopal Conferences.
Cardinal Erdö divides his report in eleven bullet points. Points 1 to 3 discuss the need for evangelisation in the face of the loss of knowledge of the Christian faith and conscious efforts to distort and attack that faith. In points 4 and 5 discuss the effect that this has on the areas of human rights and politics, especially people’s attitude towards these, in Europe. Points 6 to 8, then, discuss signs of hope and opportunity. Points 9 to 11, finally, speak of the progress made in ecumenism. Combined, these points paint a picture of the reality in which the new evangelisation must somehow bear fruit.
While we may recognise much from what Cardinal Erdö says in what we see and read in the news, as a Catholic “on the ground” in Europe, I must admit that I don’t recognise everything in this report. Maybe that is due to the fact that the report discusses general trends in a large area, and the reality in the small area of a parish may be quite different. But, on the other hand, it is in that parish that the new evangelisation must take root.
Point two, about religious education, is as far as I am concerned spot on. With some experience in education, I can say that the standards of RE in secondary schools in the Netherlands are exceedingly low. Few are the schools which undertake any serious Catholic religious education, and for most students, it is indeed “an education in syncretism or indifference”. If everything is equal, everything is equally ineffective and unimportant.
Meeting with bishops from all over Europe in the plenary assembly of the Concilium Conferentiarum Episcoporum Europæ (CCEE), Cardinal Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht, spoke to Vatican Radio about one of the topics that has determined his work as a bishop: clear faith in the face of radical individualism. I have translated some snippets from the original German. You can find the full recording here.
“Modern radical individualism… the individual sees it as his duty to invent himself, his own religion, his own worldview, his own value… making the individual see himself as the centre of the world, and ‘the other’ merely as spectator… this individual is locked within himself and isn’t open to what others have to say, not to mention to any transcendental reality…. This makes it very difficult to return the faith to the people of Europe.
The Christian faith requires a personal decision, a conscious decision, from us for Christ and His Church… When the individual, who is expressive and locked within himself, when he even makes a choice, it needs to be a choice for something that is clear, that is distinct. And perhaps we have made the mistake of describing the faith to children in seemingly vague terms in the hope that many will remain in the Church. And that hasn’t worked, nor can it when one considers the essence of the Church: we must continue the work of Christ here, in this world. Then we should also proclaim His message, His Gospel, very clearly. And when we do, we are also able to give the faith back to people. We see that the parishes where the sacraments are celebrated according to the liturgy of the Church, where the faith of the Catholic Church are clearly proclaimed, these are the parishes which still have vitality, these can still attract people, also young people. And I believe that we should go that path to proclaim the faith fruitfully, also in western Europe.”
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (the CCEE in its official abbreviation), has held a plenary assembly in Tirana, Albania, from 29 September to 2 October. The reason for their assembly was to discuss the new evangelisation so desired by the Holy Father.
A full account of their resolutions is available here, but I want to highlight the section that directly speaks about the new evangelisation (emphasis mine):
The 41st CCEE Plenary Assembly was held in Tirana on the theme of the New Evangelisation. Preparation for this meeting included a major survey: each Bishops’ Conference had responded to a questionnaire, a summary of which was presented to the participants.
From this it emerged that the New Evangelisation is a major concern for European bishops, and that consequently all kinds of work has already taken place: diocesan synods and reflection at the level of Bishops’ Conferences, the publication of documents (in almost every country), and many practical projects.
Evangelisation is the manifestation of the Church’s life and vitality. It should not be understood simply as a pastoral activity, but as the manifestation of its very nature and mission. The New Evangelisation is not only aimed at Christians who have strayed from the faith, but at all. It seeks to proclaim Christ, true God and true man, crucified to bear every human grief, raised from the dead that we might have life. Through their baptism, all believers are called to take part in the New Evangelisation: families; young people who are generally the most open to being missionaries; but also parishes, the movements, and new communities. Places of catechesis and Catholic schools must also be and become ever more places of evangelisation. Finally, the sacraments are the privileged place of establishing this New Evangelisation. There is also question of seeking new ways to evangelise, such as, for example, new technology, the internet, and social networking sites. But all this is only possible if, following the example of the Christians of the Acts of the Apostles, we open ourselves up in a new way to the Holy Spirit: “There will be no new evangelisation without a new Pentecost!”.
The choice of Albania, land of martyrs, was particularly significant for the discussion of the theme of the new evangelisation. It was an opportunity for all bishops present to recall the missionary witness borne by the Albanian Church, and also by all the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches under communist regimes.
Mgr Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation, addressed the meeting. He pointed out that many Europeans today no longer know anything about Christianity, and that while the word “crisis” was currently being much used, this should also be seen as an opportunity for growth. According to him, “the New Evangelisation is an opportunity given to us to read and interpret the current historical moment in order that the Church’s work might become extraordinary. In other words, we are called to live, in an extraordinary way, the ordinary event in the life of the Church, which is evangelisation.” He concluded by recalling the initiatives of the “Missions Metropoli”, which will take place in 12 major European cities during next Lent.
Well, it’s good that virtually all bishops’ conferences are taking the topic seriously. But, discussion is one thing. The new evangelisation still needs to be transformed into reality to a large extent. The 12 Missions Metropoli that Archbishop Fisichella mentioned can play an important role in the first step towards that realisation, but it’s not the end of it. Not even the end of the beginning, I think. There is still much work to do, both on the level of the CCEE, as on the level of individual conferences. But “all believers are called to take part in the New Evangelisation”, which means that this can’t be left to the bishops in their conferences. Now, we must all do it; we must all evangelise, reclaim the continent for Christ, Who is its foundation.
The next major meeting about the new evangelisation will be the Plenary Assembly of the worldwide Synod of Bishops in 2012.
While meeting, the members of the Council also elected a new presidency. Péter Cardinal Erdö, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, was re-elected as chairman, while Angelo Cardinal Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, and Archbishop Józef Michalik of Przemyśl were chosen as vice-chairmen. All three men also chair their respective bishops’ conferences of Hungary, Italy and Poland.
“In 1926 – when in Maarn the first St. Theresia church arose – the Netherlands was still a country that that produced many missionaries. Now we have become a mission country ourselves. All the more do we need Christians, especially priests, deacons and religious, who manage to touch many with the Gospel of Christ through the love of Christ in their hearts.”
The concluding words from the homily that Bishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary of Utrecht, gave on Saturday for seminarians, pastoral workers, staff and members of the prayer group of Ariëns Institute. This follows upon similar words from Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent, given in an interview last week. He said that “Flanders is mission territory, indeed”.
In Tirana, Albania, members of the European Bishops’ Conferences, among them our own Archbishop Wim Eijk, have been meeting with each other and Archbishop Fisichella, head of the new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, to speak about this very issue. I suspect we’ll continue to see this topic appear time and again for the foreseeable future. It certainly seems to be a spear point of this pontificate.