Yesterday's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops was undoubtedly crowned by Pope Francis' landmark speech, whose translation I shared yesterday. However, it was preceded by a masterful address by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in which he argued that the first council of the Church - the Council of Jerusalem that is reported in the Acts of the Apostles - ought to serve as a model for the Synod. While the full text of Cardinal Schönborn's talk is very much worth reading, I will only share a translation of some passages here, since it is not available in English yet:
"It all began with a dramatic conflict: "Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.”" (Acts 15:1). That was not a harmless thing. It was about salvation or damnation. What was at stake was the entire Christian way. Not only teaching, but life. No wonder that the question triggered a great argument: "Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question." (Acts 15:2). It is therefore not surprising that "much debate had taken place" (Acts 15:7) also in Jerusalem. Because when they were all together, "some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”" (Acts 15:5).Wow! A beautiful exegesis of this proto-synod, lives by Jesus' immediate disciples.
The conflict over Gentile Christians shows something very important: It was spoken about. It was openly called by name and openly handled. [...]
I see the most important lesson about the "synodal way" of the Early Church in its methodos, in the way in which the young Church has resolved this dramatic conflict. They have not written theological arguments, against which theological counterarguments would then be formulated and submitted. Theological debate is important and essential. It belongs to the synodos, begun by Pope Francis, in which he chose the theme of "Marriage and Family" that triggered an intense theological debate in the whole Church. I see this as a real win for the "organic development" of the doctrine of the Church. [...]
However, the Early Church has uses a different method to finding a decision for resolving the conflict. This method is surely also important for theological debate. It is even more important for the success of the synodal path. Let us listen to the report in the Acts of the Apostles:
"The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter. After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them, “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus,g in the same way as they.”"(Acts 15:6-11)
Briefly put, Peter gives an account of what God himself has done and thereby decided: The method that Peter uses, is the recounting of the acts of God. We can also say that he reports what he has experienced as a working of God. From this he draws conclusions. These are not the result of theological reflections, but an attentive looking at and listening to God's work.
How does the "Synod", the Assembly, react to the Peter speech? "The whole assembly fell silent" (Acts 15:12). They do exactly what Pope Francis had asked us to do in the Synod of last year: Peter spoke with Parrhesia. And the congregation listened "humbly". The testimony of Peter doesn't immediately get "torn apart" and criticized in a great debate. His word is received with silence, and can therefore be "kept in [their] heart" (cf. Lk. 2:19,51). How important is this silence and this listening with the heart! With this attitude, they are then ready to receive the testimony of Paul and Barnabas: "The whole assembly fell silent, and they listened while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them."(Acts 15:12).
They described! They gave no theological treatise. They did not theorize abstractly about the salvation of the Gentiles, instead they presented what they had "seen and heard" (cf. Acts 4:20). What Peter and John said before the Sanhedrin, is even more true for the meeting of the church in Jerusalem: "It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).
The testimony of Paul and Barnabas too at first stops the Church in its tracks: It doesn't get discussed straightaway, but heard and kept in the heart. "After they had fallen silent, James responded, “My brothers, listen to me. Symeon has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name."(Acts 15:13f). James confirmed what Peter has said already: God himself has intervened and decided the matter.
James then presents words of the prophets as an authority, which confirm in advance what the Lord is doing these days, "acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name" (Acts 15:14). Scripture and experience thereby agree. In listening to both Scripture and experience, the Assembly recognizes the way and will of God. Thus arrives a joint decision "the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole church" (Acts 15:22). It is said then: "It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage." (Acts 15:28f).
The Acts of the Apostles the report the reception of the decisions of Jerusalem: "When the people read it, they were delighted with the exhortation (paraklêsei)" (Acts 15:31). It is nice when the result of a synod encourages the faithful! It is not always the case that, what finally emerges from a synod, is received with such joy."
The same event also saw addresses by cardinals from all five continents, from which I'd just like to share Cardinal Vicent Nichols' personal experience of observing the participants of the Second Vatican Council:
"I started my seminary formation in 1963. In September of that year, at the age of 17, I arrived in the Venerable English College, here in Rome, shortly before the Second Session of the Second Vatican Council. For these meetings of the Council all the bishops of England and Wales resided in the English College. For a young 17 year old, the sight of so many bishops was a wonder to behold! I had never seen anything like it. I have become more accustomed to it now! But it was there that I learned my first lesson in the meaning of Episcopal Collegiality, 'collegialitas affectiva'.On Friday, Archbishop Blase Cupich gave an extensive interview in which he also spoke about the topic of a new language:
If I remember correctly, during that second session, each morning the bishops came down the College staircase, one by one, and were collected at the door, individually, and brought by car to St Peter’s Basilica for the day's proceedings of the Council. It was the prince bishop escorted fittingly to his important task.
By the third and fourth sessions of the Council, however, the scene had changed. Now the bishops came down the stairs together, walking out of the doors of the College and on into the Piazza Farnese where they all entered a bus and travelled together for their day’s work. Now they were brothers in the Lord, bound together in the challenge of a shared task, being fashioned into an affective college in a new spirit flowing through the Church. The Synod of Bishops, created in 1965, was a key way in which that spirit was to be expressed and strengthened. Without doubt, it has fashioned strong and enriching relationships between bishops and between bishops and the Holy Father which would have been unimaginable before the Council."
"We have to speak to families the way families recognize themselves. Yes it’s important to have various general principles, categories, words from our tradition and so on, and yet if we really do want to engage people they have to recognise that we know their life in the way that we speak.
It’s interesting: the word ‘indissolubility’, what we heard is that in different cultures, especially in the east, that word says too much for people, or it’s too hard a word to understand. People understand ‘lifelong fidelity’, but it seems too much of a juridical term to describe the richness and complexity of what a marriage means for people and their culture. I had never heard that before. But I get it. Because what it conveys is not the indissolubility of a wedding band, but handcuffs."