19 October 2015, The Tablet

Reflections of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, at commemoration of 50th anniversary of Synod of Bishops


Most Holy Father, Your Eminences, your Excellencies, Reverend Fathers, Sisters, Ladies and Gentlemen; brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is an honour to speak to you about the Synod of Bishops from a European perspective and in relation to the impact of the Synod of Bishops on Europe. Some of you may well be asking, 'Why is someone from that offshore island speaking on behalf of this great continent?' For an answer you have to ask His Eminence Cardinal Baldisseri.

i) Collegialitas Affectiva

I will begin in a very personal manner. I started my seminary formation in 1963. In September of that year, at the age of 17, I arrived in the Venerable English College, here in Rome,shortly before the Second Session of the Second Vatican Council. For these meetings of the Council all the bishops of England and Wales resided in the English College. For a young 17 year old, the sight of so many bishops was a wonder to behold! I had never seen anything like it. I have become more accustomed to it now! But it was there that I learned my first lesson in the meaning of Episcopal Collegiality, 'collegialitas affectiva'.

If I remember correctly, during that second session, each morning the bishops came down the College staircase, one by one, and were collected at the door, individually, and brought by car to St Peter’s Basilica for the day's proceedings of the Council. It was the prince bishop escorted fittingly to his important task.

By the third and fourth sessions of the Council, however, the scene had changed. Now the bishops came down the stairs together, walking out of the doors of the College and on into the Piazza Farnese where they all entered a bus and travelled together for their day’s work. Now they were brothers in the Lord, bound together in the challenge of a shared task, being fashioned into an affective college in a new spirit flowing through the Church. The Synod of Bishops, created in 1965, was a key way in which that spirit was to be expressed and strengthened. Without doubt, it has fashioned strong and enriching relationships between bishops and between bishops and the Holy Father which would have been unimaginable before the Council.

ii) Eurocentrism

My task however is to reflect on the Synod and Europe. In doing so, I ask you to remember that in the course of the 20th Century, Europe was possibly the most clearly divided of all the continents. Two great wars and a long period of 'cold war', two powerful atheistic ideologies, had rendered the continent and its people into powerful warring factions, wars that had cost millions of lives and fashioned inflexible attitudes and stereotypes in the minds of all. Europe was not only deeply divided but also absorbed within itself.



Slowly, the meetings and the work of the Synod of Bishops have contributed to the dissolving of our Euro-centric vision not only of the world but also of the Church. Some may speak of it as the internationalisation of the Curia. But it goes deeper than that.

It has been to do with the profound discovery that the riches of the Church are to be found well beyond its European heartland and the European-led missionary endeavours of the last century and before. For example, here in this Aula, I first came to appreciate the perseverance of the missionary endeavour of the Church in Japan which over a hundred years has born little explicit fruit and yet is continued to this day. The struggles and heroism of the Church in China have been eloquently expressed here simply by the enforced absence of Chinese bishops from this hall. The conflicts faced by the Church in parts of Africa and the vitality of the theological traditions of the Church in South America have all been presented here and shared with us European bishops. We now appreciate particularly that the 'resourcing' of the life and thought of the Church comes from many places, thanks be to God.

For me, one of the most exhilarating moments was during the 1998 Special Assembly of the Synod for Oceania. Mass was celebrated in the St Peter’s Basilica to the sound of conch shell horns and enriched processions and great garlands of flowers evoking the space, beauty and freshness of remote Pacific islands where Christianity was still in its first generation of disciples. How well I remember the joy of bishops from those islands, some of whom had travelled for a week in order to arrive in Rome. They had never imagined that such an embrace awaited them here in Rome. I thank God for the rich variety of Catholic life that the Synods have brought to us all, dissolving for ever the Europe-centred imaging of the Church which can so inhibit our discussions.

iii) Synods of European Bishops

The contribution made to Europe by the institution of the Synod of Bishops is, I suppose, most clearly seen in the two Special Assemblies for Europe of the Synod of Bishops which have been held, the first in 1991 and the second in 1999. The memory of these two Synods brings to mind some of the great figures who have held leading roles here: in 1991 Cardinal Lustiger of Paris, Cardinal Glemp from Krakow, Cardinal Vlk from Prague and Cardinal Ruini as Relator. In their lives they embodied some of the great themes of the Church in Europe: relations with Judaism in the light of the Holocaust; the battle for hearts and minds of the Church in Poland; the virtual imprisonment of the Church in Czechoslovakia where for so many years Cardinal Tomasek, Cardinal Vlk's predecessor, had his every move monitored by government observers, both through the windows of his residence and from within. Yet, he was a rock, or, as was told to a friend of mine, he was held by the people, living under the hammer of communism, to be, and I quote, 'the father of our nation.'

That first Synod was intended in the mind of Pope St John Paul II to get the Church breathing with both lungs, both Catholic and Orthodox, even though the first attempt that was needed was to get West and East to breath together. I have to say that, from many points of view, this Special Assembly did not fully live up to those expectations. Suspicions ran too deeply. The language that was used was that of the ‘exchange of gifts', the East having the gifts of strong tested faith and martyrdom and the West being seen as decadent and affluent. For some the ‘exchange of gifts’ became a request for financial support in return for the holiness of heroic faith. The level of self-criticism among us all was not profound. We, from the West, knew something of the challenges we were facing, of secularism, humanism and a culture of indifference, but were still far from facing its depth. Some from the East, in 1991, were looking for a return to a past position of social strength, if not dominance.

There was no final document from this Synod. The distance between East and West was greater than had been realised and the wounds from seventy years of submission to the Soviet Union still hurt too much.

Eight years later the Second European Special Assembly of the Synod contributed to a fine Papal Exhortation, 'Ecclesia in Europa' (28 June 2003). At this Synod there was much more mutuality. In the West we were learning about the real depth and radical nature of the challenges we were facing and were beginning to find a focus on the task of the New Evangelisation, in countries in which socialisation had been accepted as also providing essential Evangelisation. But culture and Gospel were pulling apart rapidly. And the Churches of the East were finding that with their new openness what flooded in most powerfully were the materialistic centred philosophies and cultures of the West, dissolving the religious resolve of many, which for some had been intertwined with heroic resistance to a foreign occupier. Our problems were finding common ground and our encouragement and inspiration, one for another, becoming much more mutual. Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, as envisaged by Pope St John Paul II, was becoming more of a reality, but not a Christian or Catholic reality as might have been hoped.

iv) Other expressions of Collegiality in Europe

It would be amiss of me not to include in this reflection the emergence and work of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences. Although there have been times of tension around the institution it has, without doubt, continued and complemented the work of the European Synods of Bishops and effectively served the collegiality enjoyed in this continent. Its Presidents have included some of the great leaders of European Catholic life: Cardinal Martini, Cardinal Hume, Cardinal Vlk and its present President, Cardinal Erdö. The annual meetings of the Presidents of every Bishops' Conference in Europe, which have taken place every year since 1996, are vital exchanges of the joys and trials in which both common ground and differences of perspectives are now more easily understood and readily embraced. So too the three great European Ecumenical Assemblies organised by CCEE have made a significant contribution especially to the faith and enthusiasm of the many young people who attended them.

In these ways the work of the Synod of Bishops has been carried forward in Europe.

v) Challenges

There are, of course, challenges facing the Synod itself:

* It is difficult to measure the impact of the Post-Synodal documents. Some stand out:Familiaris Consortio; Christifiledes Laici, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Sacramentum Caritatisand Evangelii Gaudium.Others have had less impact.

* Relationships with the media, especially in western European countries, are always delicate, as a free, investigative press and a desire to control the flow of information are always going to clash.

* Patterns of consultation prior to these  Synods on the Family have been invigorating but also frustrating, partly because the questions were fashioned in a manner not conducive to a widespread response and partly because a public consultation carries with it responsibilities of accountability which we have been asked not to fulfil.

* Also, I must confess, that the methodology of the Synod meeting itself demands much stamina! But despite shortfalls, the Synod of Bishops is a transforming gift in the Church, with even more potential yet to be realised.

vi) The present moment

Now the world has changed. Europe is not what it was even in 1999. Any parish in the Diocese of Westminster, for example, will have parishioners from 30 or 40 different nations. As we know too well, the migration towards Europe of peoples from wars, violence and poverty in Arab States and from elsewhere is challenging our European sense of presence and status in the world. The European Union is facing critical questions and tensions, especially the temptation to remain a fortress, protecting itself and its material benefits and comforts, which, of course, have been drawn from the world over. Each country has its own challenges and difficulties. Europe has its enemies and must act with vigilance. But, and I quote, 'It is right that we should be silent when children sleep, but not when they die.'

The last meeting of the Presidents of European Bishops' Conference took place a few weeks ago, in Jerusalem, in the presence of the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Not only were we able to give encouragement to our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, but we could also see some of our common challenges. Among them, perhaps first among them, were the challenges facing the family today and the strength which the family brings. We spoke of the cultural tsunami of 'gender theories' sweeping through sections of our societies. At the same time, we recognised together that the family is the first witness to the faith in society, the first workshop in the faith and the backbone of every parish, the first tutoring in humanity for every person. Europe knows clearly now this challenge and the need to find ways of holding before people the full invitation of marriage in the Lord, its faithfulness, its fruitfulness and its witness. We bishops of Europe, now together, are ready to play our part in this Synod. We thank God with full hearts for all that we have received in this Aula since the institution of the Synod of Bishops fifty years ago and all that we are receiving in these days and those still to come.

Dixi. Gratias.

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