On Sunday, November 16, the first Synod of the Bishops of the Americas began. This meeting is confronting the challenges, the lights and the shadows that face the Church at the threshold of the third millennium. Cardinal Jan Pieter Schotte, general secretary of the Synod of bishops, reveals in this interview, which he granted to the Italian magazine, Mondo e Missione, the manner in which this summit meeting of hope for the Catholic Church of continental America came to be a reality.
Q: The organization of the Special Assembly for the Synod of the Americas has required time and effort. What have been the major obstacles found in its preparation?
Cardinal Jan Pieter Schotte: The initiative of the Holy Father in convoking a Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops has been received positively by the entire Church of the continent. At first, many thought that a continental gathering would try to unite too many different realities in the hopes of establishing a fruitful dialogue upon common bases. In fact, when there is a discussion about continental America, frequently, the cultural, social, and economic differences among Central and South America, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada are the principal themes mentioned.
However, experience has shown that the Pope's general intuition was right. The process of preparation affirms with constantly increasing amounts of evidence that beyond the apparent differences, there are many points of interest in common. This makes up what we could call "the religious identity of America," a concept that includes three fundamental elements: the common Christian roots with their different shadings, the vitality of a young Church extended throughout the Western Hemisphere, and the multiplicity of cultural expressions.
Q: By the first of April, the general secretary of the Synod was to have received the responses from the Episcopal conferences of the different countries to the questionnaire. How has the response been?
Schotte: Twenty-three of the twenty-four episcopal conferences of the Americas responded before the text of the working document was printed-- that is 96 percent. Today we can affirm the response to be 100 percent, because the responses that the conference lacked arrived soon after the publication of the working document (the "Instrumentum Laboris"). In this way we have attained a higher level of response than at any of the preceding Synod assemblies. The interest that the local churches have manifested is evident, not only by the high percentage of responses, but also for the quality of the responses themselves, which reveal, with a balanced realism, the lights and shadows of the reality of the Church and of society in the Americas. Also, the Secretariat has received various commentaries and reflections from different institutions and other persons involved in the Special Assembly. These reactions, although they do not hold an official character, have been of great use to the redaction of the "working document".
Q: What are the themes to be discussed?
Schotte: The themes to be debated in the assembly are listed in the working document. They are summarized in the theme of the assembly: "Encounter with the living Jesus Christ, the way of conversion, communion, and solidarity" in the Americas. It's important to keep in mind that the Synod is an ecclesial reality and in particular an experience of faith and of the collegiality of the bishops under the guidance of the successor of Peter. For this reason, the central theme of discussion cannot be other than Christ, and all the other themes which occupy the Church in America will be seen and analyzed in light of the faith in the Son of God and in the mission of the Church, which consists in being the sign and instrument of salvation.
Certainly there are many other problems which preoccupy contemporary man in America and which therefore constitute a challenge and goal for the Church in these continents: for example, the problems of justice and international economic relations, the social question, and in particular the theme of poverty, the political tensions among the more developed sectors and those who are in the path of development. But we can't forget that for the Church, all these situations are challenges for the New Evangelization and will be dealt with always from a pastoral dimension, and not merely from a human or social one.
Q: Are you in agreement with those who consider that a general indifference exists towards this special assembly?
Schotte: The most decisive proof of the interest created by this assembly of the synod has been the active local participation in the preparatory process. In many episcopal conferences special activities have been organized (study seminars, conferences, task forces), which ensure that the responses to the questionnaire for the redaction of the working document would be a faithful reflection of the realities of the local churches. If in fact this local participation, as is natural, has been more active in some cases than in others, still we can agree without doubt that in these last three years of preparation the whole Church of the Americas has been "in Synod", praying in common, reflecting, and meditating in the light of the Word of God on the priorities for the new evangelization now on the threshold of the third millennium.
Q: The Synod of Africa has already raised hopes and expectations. Don't you think that this multiplication of synodal assemblies could provoke a loss of interest for this class of events?
Schotte: The results of the Special Assembly for Africa, faithfully reflected in the apostolic exhortation "Ecclesiae in Africa," have met and gone beyond all our expectations for the hope which the people of God in this continent have placed in the Synod. The synodal document has been received favorably and is producing excellent fruits on different levels. All this invites us to hold other synodal assemblies on a continental level, as the Pope proposed in preparation for the Jubilee in the Apostolic Letter "Tertio millennio adveniente." The results gained so far confirm with ever greater strength the validity of this pastoral method which passes through the synodal collegiality.
Q: At the close of this century, will there be a re-strengthened cooperation among the episcopates of the Americas?
Schotte: The method of work followed in the organization of all synodal assemblies is based on the notion of collegiality, which characterizes the synod's process in all its stages. The Synodal Assembly for America is being developed according to this methodology, and is already producing really positive results. The climate of communion and dialogue will certainly always remain a key element to the developing synodal sessions. So it would seem logical to think that the communion and solidarity among the pastors of the People of God in America will be reinforced and grow through this experience of collegiality.
I would like to finish by recalling that the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops will be a privileged occasion not only to reinforce the links of communion and cooperation among the bishops, but also with the successor of Peter.
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