The Synod for Oceania
The Synod for Oceania was an important event for our part of the world. Terry Kennedy offers background information, reflection and analysis to assist our understanding of its significance and the principal themes that emerged through the synodal process and in the post-synodal document of Pope John Paul II.
The 1998 special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Oceania has some unique features. It is this part of the world’s first appearance centre stage in Catholic affairs. Of the five continental Synods it was the only case where all an area’s active bishops participated. Their eight-minute speeches in the Synod Hall left a thrilling racy impression as one issue flowed into another. The speeches were more concrete and even earthy than usual and gave a sense of grassroots contact. The same vital, highly practical approach enlivened the group discussions to formulate propositions to present to the Pope.
The final document Ecclesia in Oceania ends the Synod’s formal work. Future-oriented from the introduction, it projects a positive uplifting vision of what the Church can be among the challenges confronting it.
Convocation of the continental Synods to prepare the whole Church for the Holy Year was the Pope’s personal initiative. Their overarching topic was evangelisation so as to guarantee the fruitfulness of the post-Vatican II renewal. These Synods were therefore encounters of continental Churches with the Church universal. Bishops from other continents, the Roman curia and Oceania’s four Episcopal Conferences were participants in the 1998 Synod.
Oceania is defined ecclesiastically as embracing Australia, New Zealand, PNG and the Solomons, and most Pacific islands. Contrary to the Australian usage, at least, it is often described by the European imagination as ‘a continent of water.’ The missionary Churches in PNG and the Pacific attracted intense interest as the last section of the globe reached by the Gospel.
Ecclesia in Oceania is outward looking. It is not written as a problem-solving exercise primarily preoccupied with a Church’s internal difficulties as in The Summary of Conclusions issued for Australia at the time of the Synod. It is addressed by the Pope to the whole Church as an act of his ordinary magisterium. It is the fruit of the Bishop’s collegial collaboration with the Pope on matters concerning Oceania. It makes the Churches of Oceania better known worldwide by highlighting their unique status and identity within the universal Church. Thus many bishops came to realise the deep inroads modern secularity has made in Australia and New Zealand. The importance of Ecclesia in Oceania may well be that others will use it as the point of reference to find the Church of Oceania on the map of the global ecclesia.
This apostolic exhortation is the end result of a six-year process whose phases are often silently present as contexts that lend it multiple depth dimensions.
The theme ‘Jesus Christ and the People of Oceania: Walking his Way, Telling his Truth, Living his Life’ was worked out by the Pre-Synod Commission in consultation with the local bishops (no. 8). By emphasising the action words ‘walking, telling, living’ they manifested their desire for a narrative, story-telling approach to John 14: 6. They had in mind audiences from both oral cultures and the highly educated.
They start by meditating on Christ as ‘Shepherd, Prophet and Priest’ (no. 5) as their guide through the whole process. Here is the theological key to their reflections, the framework for their ideas. It appears in all the official Synod documents but only comes completely into clear focus at the end.
The Lineamenta studied the faith’s condition in Oceania today. The Instrumentum lavoris summarised the responses to the above and served as a basis for the Bishops’ interventions in aula. The relatio at the start of the Synod’s proceedings, and the relatio post disceptionem that summarise the Bishops’ intervention are crucial for understanding the Synod’s unfolding.
What makes this Synod unique is the way the Bishops put into words their awareness of Christ as shepherd, priest and prophet. The Biblical icon heading each chapter expresses this reality symbolically: Christ meeting the people of Oceania on the shores of the islands and lands of the Pacific. It shows how the Synod was experienced as a spiritual event that should lead the people of God to sanctity, genuine love for God and neighbour.
Like most post-Synodal documents it too is a variation on the Vatican II theme: the Church’s mission conceived in terms of Christ’s functions as priest, king and prophet. These documents are but different prisms for perceiving Christ’s presence to the world’s peoples in their history.
To interpret Ecclesia in Oceania as it should be it is necessary to take into account its background, namely the celebration of the Synod’s great events as well as the documents that record its progressive unfolding.
Under the title ‘Mission and Culture’ (no. 7) we see a dynamic of inculturation at work in the whole region. In each nation the Gospel has to answer to the claims of an indigenous population on one hand, and the demands of modernity on the other. Both concerns were explicitly adverted to with the Synod listing problems they raise ad intra and ad extra for the Church.
Chapter II seems directed more to the missionary Churches: chapter III emphasises how secular society impacts faith particularly in more developed countries.
It is not possible to analyse the Synod’s stances on many delicate problems in detail. What is said on migration, refugees, ecology, the economy, peace and war, the rights of minorities, small nations and nation building, the family, medical technology, etc. etc, certainly touch burning questions. Its statements do not try to settle disputes but are rather acts of discernment, responses to the Spirit’s suggestions.
A good example is what the document has to say about teachers in Catholic education. Of all to be said on that topic the Bishops speak a saving truth, as if by intuition: teachers who really are not practicing their faith won’t be Christ’s authentic witnesses nor agents of evangelisation in the school system (cf. no. 33).
In a world vastly changed since 1998 Ecclesia in Oceania lays down criteria for achieving its objectives by hopefully pointing to goals that should be realistic possibilities for the future. It will help Bishops continue a tradition, of which they are rightly proud, of proclaiming and of implementing peace and justice in the region.
There are two general theological questions underlying the Synod’s concerns that it could not think of exploiting or expounding systematically.
The first regards indigenous cultures. The Holy Father’s invitation to examine ‘The question, among others of original peoples, who in a unique way evoke aspects of human prehistory…the encounter of Christianity with the most ancient forms of religion, profoundly marked by a monotheistic orientation’ (Tertio Millennio Adveniente no. 38) was not pursued vigorously. The significance of ancestors is fundamental to a proper comprehension of traditional cultures and their religions.
The second is secularity. The influence of media, globalisation, and the Church’s declining influence on law, custom and culture is well described. Loss of a sense of the sacred and the subsequent spirituality void underline the fact that evangelising of modernity/postmodernity is now an immense task for the Church. A vivid sense of God’s presence that comes through a lived relationship with Christ is being pushed to the outer periphery of social awareness. The Synod focused on the fact that this type of secularity corrodes faith rather than on its causes. Scientific research both into ancestors and secularity goes well beyond the Synod’s mandate and leaves specialists in these fields with work to complete.
Ecclesia in Oceania issues a clarion call for a new evangelisation that will revive a sense of mission in Oceania. This is its great strength. It inspires fresh courage and boldness, what the Pope calls with reference to the primitive Church ‘a parrhesia of faith’(no. 19) in the evangelisers. The whole Church community animated by the Holy Spirit thus becomes both agent and subject of evangelisation. The ministries of bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, the laity, the married, etc. find their proper place and function within this communio. At the same time this felt communion of the Church is at the service of the world and its salvation.
Community-building is treated prominently because it arises so spontaneous in traditional cultures and its absence is so marked in developed societies. What the Bishops intended was not just a natural grouping but A Church of Participation (no. 36) where the Holy Spirit ensures mutual enrichment to all the members of Christ’s Body.
The Bishops selected one thread to run through the document from beginning to end, weaving it into one garment. It is the conception of communio. By that they meant achieving union with the Trinity, with one another in Christ, and with the whole of humanity through the action of the Spirit. This is what they wanted to see realised in local Churches. They yearned to celebrate God’s love in the sacraments, communicate it in preaching and catechesis, and radiate it in service to the world.
Just as the African Synod took the idea of family as its model, the Synod for Oceania looked to communio for its inspiration. The last chapter then proposes communio as the Church’s way of life in Oceania for the new millennium.
Terence Kennedy is an Australian Redemptorist priest who lectures in Moral Theology at the Academia Alfonsiana in Rome.
It would indeed be wrong to think of the church in passage as a concession to the post-modern age, a sacrifice on the altar of generalised relativity and of the evolution of Western culture. For the threat of social change on a planetary scale is not the reason that the church, too, has to change…The church needs to change simply because it is itself movement, taking to the road, journey. Founded in the midst of the Passover, a time of movement, the church is a ‘place of passage’.
-Isabelle Graesslé, ‘From Impasse to Passage: Reflections on the Church’, The Ecumenical Review 53 (2001): 26.