Thomas Reese on What American Bishops Can Learn From the Amazon Synod

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for the USCCB’s annual fall meeting on Nov. 12, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

As the U.S. bishops gather for their annual meeting in Baltimore next week, they might take a page from the Vatican’s recently ended synod on the Amazon region.

There are six major differences between the synod, which met in Rome Oct. 6-27, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ three-day meeting, which starts Nov. 11.

First, the Amazonian bishops and the U.S. bishops are very different in experience, style and outlook.

The Amazon bishops come from large but poor dioceses with few priests and lots of people. Being a bishop in the Amazon is not an especially high-status job in the church.

Many of these bishops don’t bother wearing clerical garb and tend to get their shoes muddy visiting their people. They also are attacked for prophetically defending the rainforest and their preferential option for the poor. They are firmly on the side of Pope Francis.

American bishops, on the other hand, live comfortable middle-class lifestyles. Many are bulging in their clerical attire and are more interested in the culture wars than in helping the poor.

I would guess that about a third of U.S. bishops are enthusiastic supporters of Pope Francis; another third hope he goes to his eternal reward so the church can get a real pope; and the final third is simply confused, having grown up under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and not sure how to understand Francis.

Second, the synod met for three weeks in Rome in the presence of Pope Francis. The USCCB will meet in Baltimore for three days without Francis.

A synod of U.S. bishops meeting in Rome for three weeks would certainly give them an opportunity to deal with issues facing the U.S. church in greater depth. A short meeting in Baltimore is not going to be able to accomplish for America what the synod accomplished for the Amazon. The synod of U.S. bishops would also benefit from the wisdom and experience of Francis.

Third, before the synod met in Rome, there was a wide consultation process that allowed thousands of people in the Amazon to make known their ideas and concerns.

There was no similar consultation with U.S. Catholics before the upcoming meeting, even though in the past U.S. bishops successfully consulted experts and the laity before writing their pastoral letters on peace and the economy.

They clearly know how to consult the faithful; they just don’t want to.

Fourth, besides the bishops, Pope Francis invited laity and experts to participate in the synod.

Although these men and women (many indigenous) could not vote, they participated in every other way, giving speeches to the assembly and participating equally in small-group discussions. People in the synodal hall said that the bishops paid more attention to the input of these lay persons than they did to curial cardinals.

Fifth, the synod focused on three issues that are critical to the Amazon and its people: the protection of the rainforest, the human rights of indigenous people and inculturating Catholicism in the Amazonian context.

The USCCB needs to focus on similar topics pertinent to the United States.

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Source: Religion News Service