The 21st Synod of Bishops, which runs from Oct. 2 to Oct. 23 is dedicated to the theme of the Eucharist. It may be worth recalling that historically, the first week and a half is often the most interesting period during a Synod of Bishops.
In the early days of the synod, when participants can talk about anything they like, they have the chance to start conversations, to break taboos and to send signals to the wider church, the impact of which may far outlive the synod itself.
Sandra Magister at chiesa.com offers a diary of the topics discussed at the first nine days of the Synod:
Taking the Eucharist as a defining image of the Church – as also happened for early Christianity, in the eyes of pagan observers – some of the synod fathers have found positive signs in it, and others negative. Cardinal Edmund Szoka, for example, went so far as to decry the fact that “some of our priests, and even some bishops, have lost their faith in the Holy Eucharist, an celebrate Holy Mass as if it were simply a professional duty.”
The result, as other European and Western synod fathers in particular have complained, is a dramatic decline in Mass attendance.
But others have said that there is a very lively celebration of the Eucharist in their respective countries.
Cardinal Telesphore Placidus Toppo of India has attributed to the Eucharist, celebrated with great participation, “one of the best success stories of the Catholic Church's mission. In just 130 years, [my] archdiocese of Ranchi has given birth to 12 dioceses, and produced 23 bishops, hundreds of priests, and thousands of religious.”
The Eucharist, he explained, has an extraordinarily liberating effect: “Our Christian tribals today have full confidence that Jesus' saving death and resurrection has stripped the sovereignties and ruling forces of the universe and destroyed their power (Col 2:14-15). In this faith experience of our people, the Eucharist has brought about a paradigm shift from their former blood-sacrifices with which they tried to placate so called evil spirits, and reoriented them to the new and eternal covenant established in Jesus Christ.”
In Vietnam, bishop Pierre Tran Dinh Tu said, “about 80% attend Mass on Sundays, and 15% during week days. On important feasts, such as Christmas and Easter, the number may reach 96%.
But cardinal Cláudio Hummes of San Paolo in Brazil said he was more concerned: “The number of Brazilians who declare themselves Catholics has diminished rapidly, on an average of 1% a year. In 1991 Catholic Brazilians were nearly 83%, today and according to new studies, they are barely 67%. We wonder with anxiety: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?
Without a doubt, the number of priests has fallen. In 1978, the first year of John Paul II’s pontificate, there was one priest for every 1,797 faithful in the Catholic Church. In 2003, there was one for every 2,677.
Various persons on various occasions have suggested that the shortage of priests be addressed by ordaining married men in the Latin Rite Church, as is already done in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. However, only one bishop raised this hypothesis during the first nine days of this synod: cardinal Angelo Scola, who brought it up during his introductory address to the synod.
Instead of the ordination of married men, Scola suggested “a more adequate distribution of the clergy throughout the world.” During the discussion, many of the bishops supported this proposal, while a generic suggestion to reconsider the discipline of clerical celibacy was advanced by just a few bishops from Great Britain and New Zealand.
Curiously, the most serious criticisms of ordaining married men came from exponents of the Eastern Rite Churches, in which married priesthood is the norm. Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronites of Lebanon, said:
“Half of our diocesan priests are married. However, we must admit that the marriage of priests, even if resolving one problem, also creates other serious problems. A married priest has the duty of taking care of his wife and children, to ensure their education, to secure for them a certain social standing. The priesthood was also a means of social promotion in Lebanon. Another problem arises for a married priest, that of not having misunderstandings with the parishioners. Despite this, it can be the case that the bishop cannot transfer him, due to the impossibility of his family to move with him.”
In some countries, the impediment to communion concerns a large number of the faithful. In the United States, for example, it is estimated that there are between 6 and 8 million divorced and remarried Catholics. Of these, about 10 percent have had their first marriage recognized as invalid. So those in an irregular position, those unable to receive communion, would number between 5 and 7 million.
Last July 25, while speaking to the priests of the diocese of Aosta, Benedict XVI said he wanted to reconsider the case of those who married in church without actually believing, and then, having been separated and remarried, have come to the faith. If their first marriage were recognized as invalid, the pope said, they would no longer be in an irregular condition, and so there would no longer be an impediment to communion.
Another question discussed at the synod is that of “intercommunion,” or the sharing of the Eucharist between Catholic Christians and those of other denominations, which is generally permitted only in exceptional cases.