Bishops Synod on the Eucharist
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005 at 11:00 a.m. CDT

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Coverage of Bishops Synod on the Eucharist

Report #16:
Gregory: Little change expected but synod had honest talk of pastoral realities

John L. Allen Jr.


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By John L. Allen Jr.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who guided the body through the most intense period of the sexual abuse crisis, feels like he’s dodged a bullet this October -- and he’s not talking about anything having to do with the Synod of Bishops.

When the Atlanta Braves were knocked out of the National League playoffs earlier in the month, it meant this child of Chicago’s South Side would not face a potential World Series test of loyalties against the White Sox.

Now, Gregory is free to cheer for the Sox with a clear conscience.

Gregory sat down with NCR for an interview about the Synod of Bishops Oct. 19 at the North American College, the American seminary in Rome.

Read more NCR coverage of the synod on the Eucharist
  • Report #17: Final draft rebuffs Latin Mass; priest shortage, divorce squarely on church’s pastoral agenda Posted Oct. 20, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #16: Gregory: Little change expected but synod had honest talk of pastoral realities Posted Oct. 19, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #15: Draft propositions do not recommend changes in church discipline Posted Oct. 18, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #14: Women’s voices heard through interventions of 12 synod auditors Posted Oct. 17, 12:15 p.m.
  • Report #13: Statement on married priests likely in final list of proposals Posted Oct. 17, 12:00 p.m.
  • Report #12: Outreach to Latin Mass Catholics proposed for final message Posted Oct. 15, 9:32 a.m.
  • Report #11: Problems acknowledged, synod bishops seek middle ground solutions. Posted Oct. 13, 1:15 p.m.
  • Report #10: Despite frank talk, few breakthroughs expected from synod. Posted Oct. 12, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #9: Key synod themes seem clear, but consensus may be elusive. Posted Oct. 11, 11:00 a.m.
  • Report #8: Inculturation of liturgy sparks debate at this and past synods of bishops. Posted Oct. 10, 11:30 a.m.
  • Report #7: Bishops of Global South link Eucharist and justice, local cultures. Posted Oct. 8., 9:52 a.m.
  • Report #6: Discussion of celibacy and marriage clergy continue to hold center stage. Posted Oct. 7, 10:21 a.m.
  • Report #5: Environment, social justice emerge as eucharistic themes. Posted Oct. 6, 10:30 a.m.
  • Report #4: Divorced, remarried Catholics topics of frank synod discussions. Posted Oct. 5, 3:00 p.m
  • Report #3: Priest shortage continues to roil synod of bishops. Posted Oct. 4, 2:01 p.m.
  • Report #2: Movements appeal for changes to make Eucharist more accessible. Posted Oct. 4, 2:00 p.m.
  • Report #1: Priest shortage takes center stage on synod's first day. Posted Oct. 3, 3:04 p.m.
  • Read The Word From Rome columns
  • The final set of propositions; The case of viri probati; Some worry the synod lacked theological heft. Posted Oct. 21, 2:07 p.m.
  • Latin Mass a non-issue; Interview with Bishop Skylstad; Scola's 17 questions to guide the synod. Posted Oct. 14, 10:46 a.m.
  • The synod so far; How to report on a synod; A view from Moscow; Document on homosexuals in seminaries will not create an absolute ban; Catholic left and right square off. Posted Oct. 7, 11:55 a.m.
  • Preview of the synod on the Eucharist. Posted Sept. 30, 8:05 a.m.
  • On Wednesday, the 12 small groups organized by language met to debate the draft set of propositions submitted to the synod yesterday.

    In general, sources told NCR that nothing emerging in the small groups seemed likely to significantly reshape the draft. One small nuance emerged when Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, Brazil, asked that proposition 11, on the viri probati, be amended to read that “some” of the small groups were against the idea. In its current form, proposition 11 asserts that the small groups discussed the idea of ordaining tested married men and concluded it is not “a path to follow.” In fact, as reported by NCR, at least four of the 12 groups had been open to further study on the question.

    NCR: If the final propositions resemble the draft presented yesterday, it would seem that the synod has largely reaffirmed existing discipline on matters such as celibacy, divorced and remarried Catholics, and inter-communion. Some might say that you came all the way to Rome for three weeks to finish where you started. Is that a fair perspective?

    Gregory: I suppose that would be a fair perspective if I didn’t have the experience of seeing it from the inside. From my perspective, I would say there was an awful lot of honest give and take in the synod. The results may appear not to have been the result of an honest debate, but that’s not the case. There was some hard discussion. People expressed their opinions and their pastoral experience. At the end of the day, given the diversity of the church’s contexts, where it lives throughout the world, respecting this cultural diversity, respecting the difference between the church in established locations and in missionary communities, and so on, this was the best we could do right now.

    Perhaps one thing this synod will be remembered for is its clear acknowledgment of the urgent problems created by the priest shortage.

    Yes, if you take that in all its complexity. In some parts of the church, there is no priest shortage. The fact is, of course, that in many places there is a shortage, which is more acute in some areas than others. At the same time, there are places where there is a surplus. Both of these situations have to be dealt with -- neither can be avoided. We have to look at the pastoral realities that flow from that.

    Do you really mean to say there’s a ‘surplus?’ If we’re talking about India and Africa, for example, in both places seminaries are full, but the Catholic population is also growing dramatically.

    If the witness of some bishops is to be believed, there are places where the seminaries are overflowing, and they have the capacity to offer some priests to other parts of the world. To be honest, I’m not familiar enough with what their pastoral needs may be 10 or 15 years down the line in relation to population growth to know what the situation really is.

    In light of this reality, some bishops have talked about a “redistribution” of priests. Is that a realistic solution to the priest shortage?

    I don’t know. Priests from other cultures face a tremendous challenge in becoming missionaries, and it’s far more complex than language. Learning the language is the first, hardly the last, step for a priest from one culture and socio-economic background to conquer before he can be an effective minister in another place. In the United States, earlier generations of priests from overseas, such as the Irish or the Italians, generally followed their own people. It’s a very different challenge in today’s cultural context. Today, even priests from the same nationality and language who come to minister to immigrants who are in the third or fourth generation in America find they’re dealing with a completely different cultural background.

    Has the synod identified any other new ideas for dealing with the shortage?

    I think there’s a clear call for a new and concerted effort at vocational recruitment. This isn’t exactly new … in the United States, we’ve been working at it for a while. But I think the universal recommendation from the synod on this point is new. Some of this is a matter of basic effort. In Atlanta, for example, we currently have 54 seminarians, with a priest corps of 165 diocesan priests and 75-80 members of religious orders. I credit this to Archbishop [John] Donoghue, who committed the archdiocese to an aggressive and strong vocational program. I think it’s also linked to inviting people to pray for vocations.

    Before we say that the solution to the vocations problem is obvious, I think we need to be in dialogue with our ecumenical partners, as we have been at the synod. Other religious communities with a married clergy, and in some cases with women clergy, are also experiencing shortages. I realize that ours may be worse, because we have more people and so on. We have to ask the question of why they too are experiencing shortages. Is there something endemic in our society at the moment that makes the clerical life unattractive for a lot of people? I also have to ask about the challenge of commitment. In the synod we may be talking about the scarcity of priests, but as a bishop I’m also worried about why half of our marriages end in divorce. Isn’t there some linkage between the difficulty of convincing young men to become priests, and the fact that so many marriages fall apart? In other words, I think the forces at work here are complex, and the answers are far from obvious.

    Having said that, some people were hoping that the synod might open the door on the ordination of viri probati, or tested married men. Are you surprised that the conclusion seems so negative?

    It was clear that the question came up in the interventions of a number of bishops, and it certainly came up in the small group discussions. In the end, the universal nature and circumstances of the church did not lend themselves to the possibility of a resolution that would satisfy everyone. The status quo held because we could not find common ground on this issue.

    But the draft resolution seems to suggest that you did find common ground, and that the answer is “no.”

    Let’s see how the final propositions turn out. In the discussion, the viri probati issue was raised first with regard to situations in the young, missionary churches. When it got into the bishops from the older churches, it became clear that there simply wasn’t the ability to say “yea” or “nay” about the viri probati.

    Are you saying you still see some openness on this issue?

    One of my concerns with the viri probati is what exactly we mean by it, depending on the context. In the United States, for example, if what we mean is fine men, excellent husbands and fathers, men who know the basics of the faith, but that’s it, I have some concerns. My conflict is, we’re in a time when the demands on Catholic priests have probably never been higher. They require ever greater theological sophistication, pastoral competence, professional training, and so you’re talking about something more than viri probati. Of course, that’s in the United States. In another context, with different educational and social expectations, a very simple, good, well-intentioned, well-formed Christian man may be a perfectly appropriate candidate. Even then, however, he has to be prepared to teach the faith. As a bishop, I have to feel confident that whoever is teaching the faith is offering the full spectrum of the church’s wisdom and tradition.

    If the synod does say a definitive “no” to the viri probati, do you believe that closes the conversation?

    I’m not naïve enough to believe in Roma locuta est, causa finita est. I’m sure the conversation will go on. But the pastors of the church who assembled here have come to this conclusion, as a matter for the universal church. This does not prevent, however, a bishop or bishops’ conference facing a specific set of circumstances from coming to the Holy Father and saying, ‘This is our situation, can we take a look at it?’

    So if there is to be movement on this issue, it will have to come from individual conferences?


    What about the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics? Again, the synod looks set to largely reaffirm existing discipline?

    In my experience, the synod fathers are far more conflicted on this question than on the viri probati. Many of the fathers, fully knowing and accepting the teaching of the church, nevertheless came back asking, what am I going to say to these wonderful people who find themselves in an awkward situation, who want to practice their faith and be good parents and yet find themselves in this situation? How do I deal with these people who come to me every day? What do I say to my pastors who face these challenges? How can I be true to the practices of the church, but help my priests to be sensitive and compassionate in their outreach? These are wonderful Catholics who come to you and say, “Bishop, I love my church and my faith, I was in an awful situation, I accept my responsibility, but now I’ve found a loving spouse and we have wonderful kids, and I want to be a practicing Catholic. Help me!” What do you say?

    The draft of the message dealt with this question in a very open fashion. What do you think its final form will look like?

    There were two strong views on that question expressed on the floor. I’m interested myself to see how it turns out.

    What about inter-communion?

    The context is different from the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, but in some ways the pastoral dilemma is similar. I think it’s an especially acute issue where Orthodox Christians and Catholics are mixed.

    One interesting aspect of the draft proposition is that it picks up on Cardinal Walter Kasper’s intervention, calling for more generous application of existing rules that allow non-Catholics to receive our sacraments in particular circumstances. Was there was general support for that?

    Yes, if you’re talking about doing it on a case-by-case basis.

    What do you make of the draft proposition on Catholic politicians?

    One of the best things about this synod is that 270 bishops came together from all over the world and had a chance to talk about this, especially in the small groups. One thing that came through is the uniqueness of the American Catholic experience, and the differences of our episcopal and pastoral context. At the same time, the world is too small … global communications have made it possible for people all over the world to react to political situations beyond their own borders. Whatever we do in the United States, our people can see what goes on in every other country, and the way we handle things is compared to other countries facing the same or similar challenges. I think people are looking for integrity, honesty, and also a certain degree of uniformity. All this makes it difficult to handle this particular situation.

    One interesting twist is that Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo’s proposal on this question was tweaked with an additional paragraph that says, “In applying this orientation, bishops ought to practice the virtue of prudence, taking into account concrete local situations.”

    It’s fairly close to where the American bishops ended up.

    So we should not expect a uniform policy from the universal church on this question?

    I think the only way to go is to leave it to local judgment. will post daily reports from the Bishops Synod on the Eucharist through Oct. 22. Bookmark this page or check back with to read more coverage of this international Catholic event.

    October 19, 2005, National Catholic Reporter

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