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Synod on the Middle East

The Synod on the Middle East began in Rome on Monday and there have already been a number of interesting interventions. Today the two Muslim observers addressed the Synod: a historic first.Both John Allen at NCR and Austen Ivereigh at America are reporting on the spot, with their accustomed insight and professionalism.Sandro Magister has a transcript of Pope Benedict's Meditation at the opening of the Synod. It begins:

Dear brothers and sisters, on October 11, 1962, forty-eight years ago, Pope John XXIII inaugurated Vatican Council II. Back then, October 11 was the feast of the Divine Maternity of Mary, and by this action, on this date, Pope John wanted to entrust the entire council to the motherly hands, to the motherly heart of the Virgin Mary. We are also beginning on October 11, and we also want to entrust this synod, with all its problems, with all its challenges, with all its hopes, to the maternal heart of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.Pius XI had introduced this feast in 1930, sixteen hundred years after the Council of Ephesus, which had legitimated Mary's title of "Theotkos," "Dei Genitrix". In this great expression "Dei Genitrix," "Theotkos," the Council of Ephesus had summarized the entire doctrine on Christ, on Mary, the entire doctrine of the redemption. And so it is worth it to reflect a little, for a moment, on the message of the Council of Ephesus, the message of this day.In reality, "Theotkos" is an audacious title. A woman is Mother of God. One might say: how is this possible? God is eternal, he is the Creator. We are creatures, we are in time: how could a human person be Mother of God, of the Eternal, given that we are all in time, we are all creatures? So one realizes that there was strong opposition, in part, against this expression. The Nestorians said: one may speak of "Christotkos," yes, but of "Theotkos," no: "Thes," God, is beyond, above the events of history. But the Council decided this, and precisely in this way brought to light the adventure of God, the greatness of what he has done for us. God did not remain within himself: he came out from himself, he united himself so much, so radically with this man, Jesus, that this man Jesus is God, and what we say about him we can always say about God as well. He was not born only as a man who had something to do with God, but in him God was born on earth. God came out from himself. But we can also say the opposite: God has drawn us into himself, so that we are no longer outside of God, but we are inside, inside God himself.

The rest is here.

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It seems to me that the function of "the Synod" as described in the official papers at the Vatican website is at best not clear. The Introduction to the Synod gives various descriptions of "the Synod" or "a Synod", defining it thus:** The Synod, generally speaking, can be defined as an assembly of bishops representing the Catholic episcopate, having the task of helping the Pope in the governing of the universal Church by rendering their counsel."The Introduction tells us a bit of history, including how Paul VI envisioned Synods:"The Synod of Bishops is a permanent institution established by Pope Paul VI, 15 September 1965, in response to the desire of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to keep alive the spirit of collegiality engendered by the conciliar experience."However, I don't think "Synod" meant the same thing to Paul VI as it does to Benedict XVI. The Introduction also says,"Finally at the conclusion of a discourse beginning the last session of the Council (14 September 1965), Pope Paul VI himself made public his intention to establish the Synod of Bishops in the following words: 'The advanced information that We Ourselves are happy to share with you is that we intend to give you some institution, called for by this Council, a "Synod of Bishops", which will be made up of bishops nominated for the most part by the episcopal Conferences with our approval and called by the Pope according to the needs of the Church, for his consultation and collaboration, when for the well-being of the Church it might seem to him opportune.'"Here the members of a Synod are to be nominated mostly by bishops' conferences, which, if I remember correctly, has not been done with the Synods under Benedict.At the end of the Introduction it is said that, " Through the Holy Fathers acceptance of the advice or the decisions of a given Assembly, the episcopate exercises a collegial activity which approaches but does not equal that manifested at an Ecumenical Council."It seems to me these are very strong claims for a group like the present one which presents the views of only a small portion of the whole episcopate, and a regional one at that, and whose pronouncements are only about topics chosen by the Pope. The Introduction continues with what I think is an astonishing statement: " This is a direct result of various factors: the ensured representation of the whole episcopate, the convocation by the Holy Father and the unity of the episcopate, which, in order to be one, requires that there be a Head of the College (John Paul II, Pastores Gregis, 56), who is first in the episcopal order."This tiny little meeting represents "the whole episcopate"??? And there is not only representation but *ENSURED* representation. This is spite of the fact that the bishops at large don't even vote on who will be members. In any ordinary sense of the term "represents" what this text is saying is nonsense. But apparently we are not to fear -- the Pope is still at the top.http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_20050309_docu... I don't understand is how the Vatican can talk such nonsense with a straight face.

The first part of the meditation is probably inspired by books by Cardinal Ratzinger on Marian beliefs. The rest gives a glimpse of Pope Benedict's hopes and worries. He makes a transition from the day's psalm to the false gods in today's world. His list: " the anonymous capitals that enslave man, that are no longer something belonging to man, but are an anonymous power that men serve, and by which men are tormented and even slaughtered"; "terrorist ideologies. Violence is done apparently in the name of God, but this is not God"; "drugs, this power that... stretches its hands over all parts of the earth and destroys"; and "the way of life promoted by public opinion: today it's done this way, marriage doesn't matter anymore, chastity is no longer a virtue, and so on".Then he interprets a text from Revelation: "It is said that the dragon directs a great stream of water against the fleeing woman, to sweep her away... But the good earth absorbs this river... I think that it is easy to interpret ... the river ... is these currents that dominate everyone, and want to eliminate the faith of the Church, which seems to have nowhere to stand ... And the earth... is the faith of the simple, which does not allow itself to be swept away by these rivers". So, the "faith of the simple" will protect the Church from the threats of the modern world: financial markets, terrorism, drugs and unchastity. Quite a laundry list! But all that has little to do with the Synod. I'm not particularly surprised, except by the mention of drugs: how did that concern suddenly make the A-list?

Three separate comments: 1. Pope Benedict's words about "Theotokos" and the Council of Ephesus, God's entry in this world and our entry into the Godhead, are powerful and almost overwhelming to meditate on. 2. The parallel between the birth of Jesus Christ and the birth of Christ's church or Christ in his church seem to demand a nuance of the sort Newman could supply. The unqualified equation of Jesus the Christ and church the Christ has been used to terrible ends. 3. As Claire notes, at some point, the Pope's homily turns to all the false divinities (ideologies) in our world against which stands only the church. There is nothing else true or good or God-filled or Christ-inspired mentioned. I don't think that this dichotomy church/God/Jesus versus false divinities/ideologies/modern world is really posed here in terms of something that Benedict is systematically arguing; it is simply a natural formulation for him. I find this revealing and disturbing.

Actually I had a fourth unconnected observation: Why is it that almost any post on this blog dealing with sex will draw scores of comments but one about a papal meditation opening a synod draws only two before mine? Isn't it because a thick cloud of distrust hangs between many of us and even the most eloquent and moving of papal words? What will make them cease to seem like beautiful and learned filigree?

Peter, speaking for myself, these words do not hold power for me. I think that it's a question of education. The ideas are abstract, the nuances are not concepts I am used to thinking about, some of the words are outside my usual vocabulary, and the mere effort of understanding what he means destroys, for me, the enjoyment that you get from it. In the present case my lack of interest reveals not prejudice but ignorance.But Pope Benedict can sometimes be very accessible, and you have a point. It has happened in recent months that I have felt some first stirrings of being moved but have refused to let myself be carried away by some eloquence that he was deploying. As you are guessing, the reason is distrust. It's not voluntary, and it's not pleasant. I do not know if I am the only one.But the theme for this Sunday's gospel is perseverance. Hopefully things will get better somehow.

"The unqualified equation of Jesus the Christ and church the Christ has been used to terrible ends.."Peter --I don't understand the sentence above. Could you clarify, please. I read some of the Pope's talk. Yes, at his best he makes very basic theological connections that are very enlightening. Here, for instance, he talks interestingly about Mary as the mother of the Church. However, he makes no mention of the specific Churches represented in the Synod and why their problems are so urgent. He dodged the subject of the Synod -- middle eastern Catholic problems.He seems to be at his best when explaining the most basic tenets of the faith, but it's my impression that he gives relatively little attention to the specific problems of the contemporary Church. I fear that somehow he has managed to stay in his ivory tower.As to your third point, I read that this week he has announced the formation of a new dicastery to take on the problems of secularism. Maybe the topic was particularly on his mind. But it seems to me that because his college and university training was all in the old fashioned sort of Catholic seminary that saw only evil in the Enlightenment, he has an inadequate understanding of the intellectual grounds of secularism and little appreciation of its merits or empathy for its very real existential challenges. I think he tends to demonize secularism more than it deserves, and uses every opportunity he gets to down-grade it. This talk was such an opportunity. And, as you suggest, simply trashing relativism, hedonism and despair will not attract anyone to the Church.

Though some to whom I sent the Pope's meditation found it "powerful," others clearly were not equally moved (though Peter evidently found portions "almost overwhelming to meditate on").I think it useful to contextualize a bit.1. The words were a meditation given during Midday prayer which is celebrated at the Synod each day. On subsequent days others have lead/will lead the meditations.2. Hence his "lectio divina" was not meant to be a programmatic introduction to the labors of the Synod, nor to preempt the discussion, which seems to be quite lively judging by the reports from Allen and Ivereigh.3. Its liturgical character means also that he is addressing the faithful gathered in prayer and Synod. Thus the language is different than when he speaks in Westminster Hall (a speech hailed in England, yet also the recipient of benign neglect on dotCommonweal).4. Finally, one reason for the post is to remind us of the terrible afflictions experienced by so many of our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches for whom even a brief reference to the "false gods" of the anonymous flow of capital and terrorist violence have resonances in daily life, that are, perhaps, beyond our imagining. Nor is the Pope's evocation of martyrdom (to use Newman's word) merely "notional." Witness the moving references in the interventions of the Synod participants to the many who have been killed.5. To repeat: Allen and Ivereigh provide excellent coverage of the ongoing deliberations. Here is Allen's summary of the first week: http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/sweeps-week-rome

I think we've had many long threads about matters other than "sex." I do agre that many evocations/meditations get little commentary.I also think in our divided, often polarized world and Church, people are more anxious to talk about policies and rules .It may be that the Pope's evocations often seem too far distant from the daily issues that many people are grappling with.

When I first began reading of some of the issues that were being talked about in this Synod---the issues dealt with some extremely urgent and practical needs, such as the need for more priests in these rites---and, they wanted them to be allowed to be married. If the Rite is Ukrainian Byzantine, for just one example, the parish priest in the Ukraine---may be married----but not in Canada, the US, in Mexico, etc. Eastern Rite priests must follow the celibacy rules of the Roman Rite. This Synod---brought this question up---and wanted to present this to the Pope. But according to what the Pope is saying----what has happened to these very practical concerns---that are facing these Rites---who have even fewer vocations in the Western World than does the Roman Rite?

Re: "Why is it that almost any post on this blog dealing with sex will draw scores of comments?"Answer: Because it has to do with Sex and Religion, i.e., Sex and the Catholic Church. Does anyone share my view that there's entirely too much religion on dotCommonweal. After all, CWL advertises itself as a journal of Politics, Religion, Literature and the Arts.

I'd like more on literature and the arts, but unfortunately literature and the arts generally these days are in pretty bad shape. In recent days I've read at least three articles in the secular press bemoaning the lack of good fiction. How many fiction writers are there whose latest we anticipate? Somebody named Franzen just published a greatly anticipated novel, but not only did it not make the Booker short-list as expected, but it was also panned in some places.I don't know about contemporary music, but the plastic arts are incomprehensible for most of us most of the time, or plain trivial, or thoroughly off-putting like the dead shark installed in a tank that went for a couple of million dollars. Who needs it?

Little Bear, You might be comforted to know that I teach the children of our local Ukrainian Catholic priest here in western Canada and his wife frequently comes to the school. The "national policy" (?) is a little more nuanced than what is implied; seminarians in Canada of the eastern rite follow the Latin norms to a large extent, but married clergy are often imported. To get around the situation, many married Ukrainian Catholics are trained in Europe, then return to Canada.As a latin rite Catholic with some eastern rite family members, I can only hope that both rites continue to grow together and feed off of each other like a marriage. Not with one party dominating the other (mostly latinizations) but still with a symbiotic relationship. I hope the west can reawaken some more formal aspects of the liturgy preserved in the east, especially considering the quality of the liturgy in the west. This morning (my father is a cantor) the Gloria had a decidedly 'All in the Family' "Those Were the Days" feel to it. And whether we are liberal or conservative, young or old, I think we should strive for music that elevates the mind to God and refreshes the soul, not makes the angels' ears bleed.

Mrs. O'Brien Steinfels,I am sorry but I am of the opposite opinion. If I want to read about politics, I read political magazines (The Economist, Times, Macleans). I read Commonweal for specific Catholic insights into our daily secular lives...politics, literature, culture and the arts. Commonweal should not try to compete with those aforementioned magazines on their home turf. http://www.theonion.com/video/time-announces-new-version-of-magazine-aim... agree with Mrs. Olivier about wanting more literature and the arts *in theory*. I suppose that desire is predicated on the belief that there must be some modern literature and art worth discussing. But with so much beautiful music out there...I still have a hard time turning on the radio for some strange reason. Here in Canada we had a 'Canadian content' quota...but I wonder if there isn't also a crap quota.

"I read Commonweal for specific Catholic insights into our daily secular livespolitics, literature, culture and the arts. Commonweal should not try to compete with those aforementioned magazines on their home turf."Adam --I agree about looking for Catholic insights into the secular. But I don't think relating the sacred and profane is a matter of competition, it's a matter of complementarity. Or it should be.About the arts and culture (whatever "culture' is), I see two big problems. The arts these days are not themselves very insightful or inspiring or simply timelessly beautiful, so our cultural landscape is a wasteland littered with artistic schlock, and these days the Chuch itself doesn't understand the arts. See the liturgical cultural wars. If the Church underst00d the relations (plural) between liturgy and the arts there wouldn't be any such wars. There were no liturgical wars in Europe in 1200. I ask: why not? My big question is: what insights, if any, does religion have into the arts that the arts can't see about themselves? Can the arts give us insigts that science -- and theology -- can't? What is art for, anyway? Intense appreciation of sensory form? Well, it's that, but that hardly suffices to produce things with the value of Sophocles or Chartres Cathedral or even of Rumi's off-hand little poems.How do we even go about answering these questions? Is Scripture a help?

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About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is an associate professor of theology at Boston College.