By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published September 29, 2005
Pope Benedict XVI presides in October over the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, an assembly that will review liturgical issues, emphasize the importance of Sunday Mass and mark the close of the “Year of the Eucharist.”
More than 250 bishops from every continent, including Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, will attend the Oct. 2-23 synod to discuss the theme “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.” Earlier this year, Pope Benedict shortened the assembly and changed the format to include more group discussion and less speech-giving in response to long-standing criticism of the synod process.
The synod will take an in-depth look at many pastoral aspects of the Eucharist, then formulate conclusions that are passed on to the pope for possible use in a later document. The synod’s function has always been advisory, and many observers will be watching the October session to see if the new pope expands that role or gives the synod additional responsibilities. Archbishop Gregory is one of four U.S. delegates elected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to attend.
Pope John Paul II announced the synod on the Eucharist several months before his death. Pope Benedict has embraced the event, saying it will serve to highlight the Eucharist as “the true treasure of the church.”
The potential topics of conversation are many and varied, ranging from liturgical abuses to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some bishops are expected to zero in on particular pastoral problems, such as the local shortages of priests to celebrate Sunday Mass or the church’s policy against reception of Communion by Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment.
The working document for the synod, which will be used as a starting point for the synod discussions, said that because Christ is truly present in the Eucharist the sacrament must be treated with dignity and shared only by those who hold the same faith. It repeatedly called for balance in how the Eucharist is celebrated and for universal respect for liturgical norms.
The key problem, according to the working document, is that Catholics have a diminishing awareness of the obligation and benefits of attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist every Sunday. In addition, it said, too few Catholics are aware that the Eucharist can only be received when they are in a “state of grace”—which means receiving the sacrament of penance if a serious sin has been committed.
The topic of shared Communion is also expected to be discussed at the synod. The Catholic Church allows eucharistic sharing with some Eastern Christian churches, but not with Anglicans and Protestants under most circumstances. More than 12 non-Catholic observers have been invited to the synod to speak and take part in discussions, but will not have voting rights.
The Eucharist’s connection with evangelization, charity and social justice are likely to be highlighted in synod speeches, too. These were important themes in a 2003 encyclical on the Eucharist written by Pope John Paul.
Pope Benedict opens the synod with a Mass at the Vatican Oct. 2. In the days that follow, bishops and other participants meet in morning and evening sessions in the synod hall, which is closed to outsiders. The Vatican press office provides summaries of individual speeches and briefings to describe the follow-up discussions.
Pope Benedict is president of the synod, but three cardinals will take turns presiding over the synod’s daily sessions: Cardinals Francis Arinze of Nigeria, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Juan Sandoval Iniguez of Guadalajara, Mexico, and Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi, India.
Midway through the proceedings, the synod’s recording secretary, Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, will summarize the major and minor themes in the bishops’ discussion. At the synod’s close, the bishops are expected to vote on a number of concluding propositions, considered confidential and for the pope’s eventual use, and issue a message to the world, which is published.
Beyond the papers and speeches, Pope Benedict has already announced that he will also preside over a more simple event: an Oct. 15 meeting with children who have made their first Communion in 2005. He said he plans to remind parents of their responsibility to bring their children to Sunday Mass, which should be considered a joy, not a burden.
“Without Sunday, we Christians cannot live,” the pope said in June. That is likely to be his main message during the October synod, too.