By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published October 15, 2009
Archbishop Gregory sent his column from Rome, Italy, where he is participating in the Synod of Bishops for Africa as a member chosen by Pope Benedict XVI.
This is the third Synod of Bishops that I have attended, and I believe that I have begun to understand the typical dynamic of this collegial exercise of pastoral authority. First of all, I am amazed that the Holy Father is able to attend the vast majority of the sessions. He is the presider at every synod, and he convenes them. Yet his appointed leaders for the synod conduct the day-to-day business. The pope listens very carefully to the discussions and never interrupts the interventions. He truly wants to hear what the people of the Church have to say on the given topic. And although the bishops comprise the vast majority of the participants, there are always others who engage in the conversation.
This particular Synod for Africa has welcomed ecumenical guests, experts from the United Nations, religious provincials and superiors general of men’s and women’s communities, university professors and research scientists. The synod hall hears the voices of men and women of faith who speak to the topics from a wide variety of backgrounds.
There are two types of Bishops’ Synods: ordinary synods that treat universal Church issues—the sacraments, catechesis, Scripture, functions and roles in the Church, etc.—and then there are regional synods that gather bishops and experts from a particular part of the globe. Each synod has two parts: the general sessions where we are all together in the synod chambers of the Paul VI General Audience Hall and the small language discussion groups—the “little circles” that allow for much more interactive and free-flowing conversations. In each setting, the laity and religious are invited to engage in the conversation and offer their wisdom. The bishops of the synod listen very attentively to that perspective (perhaps even more attentively than we do to each other’s interventions!).
There is a dynamic to each synod—first, there are the formal presentations of the bishops and special delegates (five minutes in length) on the themes of the synod within the full assembly, and then there are the conversations that take place in the small group settings. Over the course of time of each synod, the discussions always seem to settle on a number of significant issues.
The Second Synod for Africa is beginning to follow that same dynamic. The pastoral issues that confront the great African continent are beginning to be ranked and highlighted—the challenge of political instability and corruption and tribal and ethnic violence, the ecological crises that threaten this land so rich in natural resources, the devastation of HIV-AIDS on the population, the rampant poverty that people face in spite of the great material wealth that is available, the threats to traditional African morality and customs because of the intrusion and influence of Western secular values and communication dominance, and the role of women in African society. Over and over again these themes have been highlighted in the interventions. While the small language discussion groups (French, English, Portuguese and Italian) have only met once (to select the moderator and secretary (relator) of each group), I have every reason to believe that these topics also will be the focus of these smaller discussion groups.
Each small group will be asked to distill their conversations into several recommendations that all the bishops then will vote upon and these will thus become the basis for the final proposals from which the Holy Father will craft the Apostolic Exhortation that will be the final document from the synod. There is great respect shown for the opinions of others and the type of give-and-take that results in a shared process.
As a bishop from the United States of America, I have the great privilege of listening to the pastoral concerns of the people of the African continent. I also have the duty to assure them of the support and the affection of the people of our nation. I have the distinction of seeing how Pope Benedict listens to the voices and hearts of the people of the Church in order to lead, guide and strengthen us in that unique office that he holds from the perspective of the Chair of Peter.