Reform in the Catholic church, viewed after the fact, often seems revolutionary. The switch from Latin to the vernacular languages in the Mass, for example, is today regarded as a thunderclap from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The reality, however, is that liturgical experts barnstormed the United States and Europe for decades before the council, preaching the need to use the languages of the people in the liturgy. In many parts of the world experiments were well underway. The shift, in other words, did not come out of the blue.
Is it possible futurologists might spot similar energy building behind a prospective reform today?
To judge from the first week's action at the Synod of Bishops, one theme suggests itself: collegiality, or the balance of power among the pope, the Roman curia, the episcopal conferences and individual bishops. As Bishop Patrick Dunn of New Zealand put it Oct. 3, collegiality is "the great challenge for the church in our time.'
The current synod, the 20th since the institution was created by Vatican II, has as its theme the role of the bishop. It runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 27.
Collegiality was also a dominant theme at last May's consistory, a gathering of the at last May's cardinals, and taken in tandem with the synod, the focus suggests and taken in tandem for reform.
Of the first 80 interventions (the formal name for a speech), 21 addressed collegiality. Two came from the United States.
On Oct 3, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston and Houston, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, argued in favor of greater "subsidiarity," or local decision-making.
Fiorenza said the full body of U.S. bishops had discussed the synod's working document in small groups at a June meeting, and "there was general agreement .. that this synod should discuss appropriate means for recognizing that particular churches or regional churches can make specific decisions that relate to local issues."
He said bishops can have authority to resolve questions "which do not impinge on doctrinal issues," which would be "an expression of communion exercised in a new form of participation and collegiality."
Though Fiorenza did not make reference to specific cases, some American bishops have long complained about centralizing trends that seem to take local or regional matters out of their hands. Examples include Roman moves to take control of how liturgical texts are translated into English and to reject Archbishop Rembert Weakland's plans for remodeling the Milwaukee cathedral.
Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore likewise argued for more local control, calling bishops' conferences "indispensable as servants of communion between the bishops of the particular churches and the univernal church."
These conferences have seen their wings clipped under John Paul II. Some Vatican officials fear that large and well-financed episcopal conferences can be a counterweight to Roman authority. Others believe that conferences abridge the authority of individual bishops, subjecting them to the diktat of consensus, with the results sometimes shaped more by lay experts than bishops.
'Not a super-church'
Keeler, however, pointed to several projects of the U.S. conference that would have been difficult or impossible for individual bishops, including development of catechetical materials, interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, and documents on social justice and peace.
Other appeals for collegiality were even stronger.
"The church of Rome is not a superchurch, and the local churches are not vicariates of Rome," said Nerses Bedros Xix Tarmouni, Armenian patriarch of Lebanon. "An excessive centralization by Rome could suffocate the riches of the particular churches."
Bishop Norbert Brunner of Switzerland was equally pointed Oct. 3.
Insisting that measures taken at Vatican II to promote collegiality "still have not found their objective," Brunner said, "Once again we ask, with serious preoccupation, what value do the pastoral needs of the local churches have for the Roman curia? "At the universal level of the church, only what is necessary for the unity of the church should be resolved centrally," Brunner said.
"The offices of the Holy See should be an expression of collegial unity, and not a universal decision-maker," said Bishop Joachim Phayao Manisap of Thailand.
"The synod must heed the pope's call to rethink the Petrine ministry, so that the coresponsibility of bishops in governing the universal church increasingly becomes a deep sign of communion," said Colombian Bishop Ruben Salazar Gomez.
Salazar Gomez extended this idea to relations between bishops and laity.
"The bishop must ... promote structures for communion and participation, in order to listen to the Spirit who lives in his people," he said.
Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Catholic church in northern Russia, wanted to beef up the role of the Synod of Bishops, suggesting that it "learn from the experience of the synods of the Eastern churches, which take concrete decisions."
Kondrusiewicz favored "greater collaboration and trust between the local churches and the Roman curia," along with greater power for bishops' conferences.
Others who spoke in favor of greater collegiality in some form include Bishop Arne dee Grab of Switzerland, president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences; Archbishop Jose Mario Ruiz Navas of Ecuador; Bishop Vincent Logan of Scotland; Bishop Jorge Enrique Jimenez Carvajal of Colombia, president of the Latin American Episcopal Conferences (CELAM); Archbishop Luis Morales Reyes, president of the Mexican bishops' conference; Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski of Poland; Bishop Louis Pelatre, apostolic vicar in Istanbul, Turkey; Bishop Gerhard Goebel of Norway; Bishop Leopold Peiris of Sri Lanka; Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Great Britain; Bishop John Lee Hiong Fun-Yit Yaw of Malaysia; Bishop Rodolfo Valenzuela Nunez of Guatemala; and Fr. David Fleming, superior general of the Marianists.
Not everyone, however, agreed that collegiality is a four-alarm concern.
"Collegiality is by now a very pacific theme, agreed upon by all, also in practice," Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, told NCR outside the synod hall. "It can be emphasized, it can be reformulated, but in its essence collegiality is already in vigor in ,the church."
Despite the reformist thrust of the collegiality discussion, the lone round of applause so far has been captured by Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, who struck a defiantly conservative note.
Meisner said bishops have helped trigger an "auto-secularization" of the church. Too many do not recognize the gravity of the situation, he said, and treat differences in the church merely as "healthy tensions."
A bishop must "face problems, correct error and defend the truth," Meisner said. "Bishops are not only called to feed and care for the faith, but also to judge it, to discipline it and to impose it accordingly."
The tough line was echoed by American Cardinal William Baum, who heads a Vatican tribunal.
"Bishops should examine their own consciences. How often, because of sloth or timidity, have we failed to proclaim the truth about Christ and the truth about the human condition?" he asked.
In this context, Baum expressed gratitude for the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which insisted on the superiority of Catholicism over other churches and faith traditions.
Another issue that has stirred discussion is the need for bishops to live simply, in solidarity with the poor. John Paul raised the question in a Sept. 30 homily opening the synod, calling for "personal and communal conversion to an effective evangelical poverty."
Bishop Nestor Ngoy Katahwa of the. Congo put the point in unusually dramatic terms Oct. 2.
"With our title of `princes of the church' we are led to cultivating the search for human honors and privileges, while the king, in reference to whom we are princes, finds his glorification on the cross," Katahwa said.
"We are more at ease with the powerful and the rich than with the poor and the oppressed. And the fact that we maintain sole legislative, executive and judicial powers is a temptation for us to act like dictators, more so inasmuch as our mandate has no limitations," Katahwa said.
Not all the discussion has been so highminded. Two speakers have addressed a more prosaic plea to the pope to allow bishops to retire earlier than the age of 75.
"Present legislation, it is worth noting, seems to overlook the fact that the ordinary lifespan in some developing nations is well below the church's retirement age," said Bishop Stephen Reichert of Papua New Guinea.
For the record, life expectancy in Papua New Guinea is 61.
Nor was the discussion so scintillating that it prevented the occasional prelate from nodding off. One bishop complained about the audible clues of boredom emanating from Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Germany. "That he sleeps, I can understand," the bishop said. "But he really must stop snoring."