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Talk of new council hits Italian papers

NCR Staff

A provacative question has coursed through the Oct. 1-23 European Synod in the wake of a speech by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan: Is the church ready for Vatican III?.

Martini is a perennial front-runner in the undeclared race to be the next pope

Other key synod themes have included new religious movements and ecumenism in Eastern Europe.

Invoking the spirit of Vatican II, Martini, 72, told the synod he thought the time was ripe in the next decade for “a collegial and authoritative consultation among all the bishops.” Many observers inferred that Martini was calling for a new ecumenical council, and this interpretation was splashed across the front pages of Italian newspapers.

In an exclusive interview with NCR, however, Martini said this was not his intent. “I was not calling for a general council,” Martini said. “I was calling for a way to act collegially in the day-to-day life of the church.”

“I was not talking about anything specific. I was talking about the way the church should be run in a general sense.”

Regardless, many observers believe Martini’s intervention will be remembered as the defining moment of this synod. Even if he was not proposing a new council, he gave voice to what many bishops say only privately: that under this papacy, too much power has flowed into the Vatican and away from the local churches.

The church needs space “where issues can be faced with freedom, in the full exercise of episcopal collegiality, while listening to the Spirit and protecting the common good of the church and all of humanity,” Martini said.

Though the Vatican press office issues only brief summaries of each speaker’s intervention, NCR obtained the full text of Martini’s address.

Despite his denial, many synod observers remain convinced that Martini was floating the idea of a council to see what sort of reaction it might generate

As the synod breaks into small groups over the next few days, reactions to Martini’s suggestion may begin to surface. If it comes up, however, it will do so outside the official topics proposed for discussion by Spanish Cardinal María Rouco Varela, the synod’s relator.

Varela, appointed to his task by the pope, is charged with distilling the key themes from the synod’s interventions. He offered 17 points for consideration in the groups, but collegiality did not make his list.

In the groups, however, participants are free to raise other issues.

The only public comment related to Martini’s argument came in a news conference two days afterwards. Archbishop Józef Miroslaw Zycinski of Lublin, Poland, was asked about proposals to reform the synod to make it more collegial.

“I am skeptical that the solution to how to preach the gospel message could be found on the level of new church structures,” Zycinski said. “Often these suggestions create great publicity and bring many sensational comments … but it seems a little bit closer to magic than theology.”

In the rest of his intervention, Martini outlined what he sees as challenges facing the church.

“In general, the key task is the deepening and the development of the ecclesiology of communion of Vatican II,” he said. “Another is to address the deficit — in some places quite dramatic — of ordained ministers and the growing difficulty for bishops to ensure the care of souls in his territory through a sufficient number of ministers of the gospel and the Eucharist.

“Others include the position of women in society and the church, the participation of the laity in some ministerial responsibilities, sexuality, the discipline of marriage, the practice of penance, the relationship with the sister Orthodox churches (and in a more generalized manner, the need to revive ecumenical hope), and the need to work out the relationship between democracy and values, between civil laws and moral law,” Martini said.

Aside from the buzz over Martini, an interesting current has emerged in the form of tensions between the “new ecclesial movements,” such as Focolare, Communion and Liberation and the Neocatechumenate, and established religious orders, especially of women.

Several bishops have pointed to the movimenti as a sign of hope in a secularized and fatigued European church. Some leaders of religious communities have objected to the relative lack of attention to their institutions.

“You are treating religious life like a very ill patient,” Sr. Marie Noëlle Hausman, superior of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary in Belgium, told the bishops in her intervention. “For too many, this long tradition is now regarded as just another movement.”

Hausman called on the synod for a stronger affirmation of religious life.

Disparate conditions in the churches of Eastern and Western Europe also continue to generate discussion. A dramatic moment along these lines came during an intervention by one of the “fraternal delegates” (invited guests from other Christian churches), Archbishop Iosif, who represents the Romanian patriarch.

In an unexpected gesture, Iosif asked forgiveness for the suffering endured by Eastern-rite Catholics at the hands of the Orthodox churches, which sometimes made common cause with the communists against Eastern Catholics in union with Rome. Iosif said he had not been commissioned to issue an apology, but felt as a bishop that he had to do it.

The Eastern-rite churches (also called “Uniate” churches) date to the 16th century. Under the terms of their affiliation with Rome, the Vatican allowed them to maintain an Orthodox liturgy while professing loyalty to the pope.

Under communism, the Uniates were distrusted because of their link to the West. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, they have become an obstacle to ecumenical progress between the Vatican and the Orthodox churches, many of which still see the Uniates as a beachhead for Catholicism.

Auxiliary Bishop Lubomyr Husar of Lviv in the Ukraine, where the largest number of Greek Catholics live, called on the synod not to forget or look down on the Eastern Catholics. “The West should see us as sister churches, not as hindrances or poor cousins,” Husar said.

Others have challenged the synod to be more daring on issues of ecumenism. John Hind, the Anglican bishop of Gibraltar, objected that the synod seemed to be treating ecumenism as a means to evangelization.

“We must avoid a purely utilitarian view of ecumenism. Jesus prayed ‘ut unum sint’ not only ‘so that the world may believe’ but also ‘as you, Father, and I are one.’ ”

Other themes identified by Rouco Varela included liturgical renewal, the sacrament of reconciliation, the dialogue with culture, marriage and the family, and how to foster lay participation in public life.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 1999