The Synod on the Word of God
and the Carmelite Family

Bruno Secondin, O.Carm

In October, from the 5th to the 26th, the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will take place in Rome, on the theme "The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church". It follows the synod on the Eucharist (2005), and thus is completed the table of the body of the Lord, where we are given as bread of life both the Word of God and the body of the Lord (DV 21). The Word, as proclaimed by Isaiah, is simultaneously bread to be eaten and seed to the sower (Isaiah 55:10).

a) Point of Arrival

This is the point of arrival of a long journey by the entire Church, and the focus will be on the centrality of the Word in pastoral life, in studies, in liturgy, in the spirituality of the Church, as well as on the exploration of open problems and difficulties. This is clearly stated in item 4 of the Lineamenta:
This situation urgently warrants a total and complete knowledge of the Church’s teachings concerning the Word of God. It also requires employing suitable methods in providing all Christians with opportunities to encounter Sacred Scripture. The Church must take up the new ways suggested by the Spirit today to ensure that the various manifestations of the Word of God be known, discerned, loved, and more profoundly grounded and lived in the Church, thereby becoming the Word of Truth and Love for all people. So, more of a pastoral concern than a theoretical one. But always following the sense of the opening lines of the Dei Verbum: "Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans” (DV 1).
The last century was in some ways a true revolution in this field: the Word of God had for a long time been disregarded, almost hidden from God's people, particularly after the shock of the protestant reform (16th century), which had in fact made the Word its flag, inviting everyone to read and interpret it freely. Because every individual has the Spirit as their guide, with no need for intermediaries: hence free interpretation. This scared Rome, and for centuries it blocked direct access, even going as far as to burn bibles translated into the vernacular.

Main steps, during the last century, of the return of the Word to the centre of Christian life:
1890: foundation of the école biblique (in Jerusalem): a centre for studies, archaeology and discoveries.
1909: foundation of the Institutum Biblicum (in Rome), entrusted to the Jesuits, a prestigious school.

Consequence: birth and diffusion of the "biblical movement": highly scientific studies, but with a focus on the pastoral, on liturgy and progressive diffusion of biblical knowledge to all.
1943: Divino afflante Spiritu (Pius XII): yes to historical and literary research; yes to freedom of research.
1962-1965: the result of these decades converges on the Council, albeit with some controversy on the part of the conservatives against these new tendencies. The result was the Dei Verbum (1965): a document of great quality, chapter VI of which is dedicated to "The holy Scriptures in the life of the Church", in particular to the themes of pastoral and biblical spirituality (nos. 21-26). But it also urges for new translations, new liturgical lectionaries, development of new biblical spirituality, etc. Furthermore, it "urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to... frequent reading of the divine Scriptures" (DV 25)
43 years after the second Vatican Council, we can see that the Word of God has truly gained a central place in many fundamental areas of Christian life. It has a pervasive, intense presence in all ecclesial environments: liturgy, pastoral, catechism, teaching, theological study, spirituality, formation, evangelisation. True hunger and thirst for the Word all around...

And now for the assessment: the Synod will certainly examine the greatest results, the most lively and authentic experiences, as well as the problems and needs that have arisen. An initial map of the results and issues was sketched in the Lineamenta (March 2007), but a more detailed and guiding map will be provided in the Instrumentum Laboris, already complete and soon to be published. This will be the practical guide for the coming Synod: we would do well to read and study it, in preparation for the great ecclesial event, but above all to bring our minds to bear on the main themes.

We can single out three specific areas upon which there is a focus:
a) The nature of the Word of God, as a revelation of God Himself, as a symphony of many voices, and as heritage entrusted to the community of believers for safekeeping and faithful interpretation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
b) Space and role of the Word of God in the life of the Church: the Church is born of the Word, heard and embraced, lives it by practising it, celebrates it as the living source of the mystery, proclaims it in so many ways for the salvation of the world.
c) In the mission of the Church, the Word is a fundamental treasure, to be made available to all, a guide and a reference to evangelisation, creator of communion, guiding nucleus of ecumenism, in interreligious dialogue and dialogue with every culture. A certain emphasis will certainly be given to the pastoral life based on the Bible, in all of its many expressions, and within this the lectio divina (the renewed one, which we will return to later).

b) We Carmelites

We are called, along with all the Church, to live this moment of discernment and recognition of ecclesial history and the pastoral life we carry forward. We cannot avoid it: it concerns us for a number of reasons. First of all because we seek to live with the Church and walk with it, because we are within it with our pastoral life and spirituality, because this new era has changed, undoubtedly for the better, our nature and our identity. It is something that concerns us directly: and we wish to live from the Church and with the Church.

But also for other reasons:
-- in our roots is a strong and traditional biblical identity, now rediscovered: due to our birthplace (Carmel) and historical context (reformation of Christian life); due to our Rule: where the primacy of the Word of God is evident as the source of our charismatic identity and the origin of our structures and models (over 150 citations/allusions/symbols);
-- the current reinterpretation of the Rule has led us to recognise the guiding, shaping and transforming force of the Word: these are not simply biblical references, but a true harmonic synthesis, a dynamic project, a complete and completing biblical knowledge, which today forces us to rethink in toto, if we wish to recover the charismatic intentions of our origins;

-- our inspirational models: Mary and Elijah, whose features are rooted in the Scriptures, even though we subsequently expanded them (with some bias...). Today we have also recovered the model of the community of Jerusalem (Acts) and even the style of evangelisation of Paul;
-- our great masters may not have enjoyed as great a familiarity with the Bible as we do, but we can re-read them from this perspective, finding valuable suggestions to make the Word the true centre of our Spirituality.

In view of the Synod we can:
-- recognise the new experiences we have lived through, and sustain them with wisdom: we are not lacking in new experiences, of ecclesial and not just personal value; we must know them, recognise them as "fertile charism", and stabilise them as a strategic choice for our future within the Church and its mission, assimilating the most authentic novelties;

-- reinforce the link between past and present, emphasising the creativity revealed by new experiences, but within an identity best interpreted in the light of the new biblical sensibility. And so we live with the Church, and in its footsteps, as protagonists rather than spectators, with creativity rather than as a habit, as prophets rather than mindless and passive pragmatists guarding obsolete, dusty traditions;
-- purify our pastoral, formative and spiritual traditional in harmony with the body of the Church and its new awareness of the primacy of the Word, in order to implement a strategy of more decidedly biblical presence, spirituality and pastoral life, developing the seeds of identity (found again in the Rule and in our spirituality) which have not yet fully flowered. This creativity, together with continuity not of an archaeological nature but an essential one, demands wisdom, courage and patience, inner freedom, a passion for exploration, and fraternal collaboration.

c) Symbolic Return to Vivere in Obsequio Jesu Christi

Our first fathers sought, in their century, to express the quest for a radical and original reformation of the Church and evangelisation with a material return to the Holy Land, to live there, as in the beginning, following and heeding the Word, the centrality of Jerusalem, fragile fraternity, a sober and austere life. The Rule offers us some references to this intention of theirs and their propositum.
The re-readings of the last decades have led us back, symbolically and intentionally, to that originating and original nucleus, that communitas in its nascent form, and we are amazed by the capacity for synthesis and equilibrium, for essential values, for vital wisdom and balance of the Rule. Life in obsequio Jesu Christi, the centrality of the Word and the Eucharis, praying and hospitable fraternity, the forma Ecclesiae as an icon of peace, service and sobriety, openness to a true communio hospitalis towards tradition and towards the new paths of the Spirit, the fascination of the Pauline model of evangelisation, the courageous spontaneity and fearless flexibility: these values are stripped of their persuasive force if we disconnect them from the Word on which they draw as a source which inspires and shapes authenticity and a decisive criterion for evaluation (RC 22-23).

Now we must find again this dynamic, this guiding wisdom:
-- once again the Word must seize and shape us, with a living fascination, to regenerate into a new, innate paradigm the vivere in obsequio Jesu Christi et eidem fideliter de corde puro et bona conscientia deservire (R 2).

-- once again the Word must convoke and instruct us as an obediently listening community, walking towards the regenerating centre (RC 14), with our hearts subdued, disarmed, fraternal (R 12,14s,19).
-- it should too be the Word that sends us (Rc 17, 20), that rouses us from our security and our habits, repeating to us the refrain that Elijah heard so often: "Get up and go...". The ultimate goal of the Rule is that of the good Samaritan who generously gives himself (RC 24): a biblical spirituality open to new horizons, each to be inhabited with faithful wisdom.

Because there is no mysticism without prophecy, and no prophecy without obedient listening to the Word (VC 84), and there is no transforming power in listening without fraternity in listening, willingness to put ourselves at stake, as protagonists, shaking off our habitual laziness and mistaken or sleepy charismatic identities. Only if the Word burns in us, as happened to the words of Elijah (Sirach 48:1), as in the Vitae formula, the meditare die ac nocte in Lege Domini (R 10), will it be more than just a slogan, repeated by sleepwalkers who fool themselves into believing they are walking in the light of the sun. And too the vigilare in orationibus shall not be a mere regurgitation of pre-prepared prayers (RC 11), but the beating of a loving heart, in which desire lights up everything. And the exhortation to "do everything in the strength of and in fidelity to the Word of the Lord" (R 19) shall not be a hypocritical, unverified self-certification, but a process continually open to revision and guided by wisdom and discernment (R 24).

d) A Word on the Lectio Divina

Our participation in the new experiences of the lectio divina offers many opportunities. In reality this participation comes from, and is managed by not only the priests, but also the brothers, sisters, nuns and Carmelite laity. In the collection “Rotem – Ascolto orante della Parola” (Ed. Messaggero, Padova, 13 volumes to date), for which I am responsible, all of the above take part. Thus the clerical monopoly on the Word and the testimony of our charism is broken, and the reduction of our pastoral life to the celebration of the sacraments and to pious devotion centred on the priest or the liturgy of mass is no more.

Furthermore, there is an increase in ministerial capacities outside the common "sacramental" circuits which always fall within the scope of the clergy. And so creativity, a sense of faith, the co-responsibility of the many are put into play: suffice it to think of the results of the popular reading of Carlos Mesters in Latin America, which involved millions of people (particularly in the CEBs) and became recognised ecclesial heritage. We are in harmony with our charism (Rule) and the exhortations of Benedict XVI. In Italy too, though with more modest experiences, we now have a tradition. Without forgetting the website of our General Curia and other personal initiatives. We are seen by many as protagonists in this area of the lectio... It seems to me we have an opportunity to take part, in harmony with the Church and the true Charism. Of course, not to narcissistically show off, but to live and act as a true Church and not some mere sect.

However, I would like to join cardinal C.M. Martini: in his warning, that "The Lectio divina does not replace catechism nor other initiatives for teaching and cultural development which help Christians to mature in their faith. Nonetheless, the lectio does achieve something which the speeches, the sermons, the catechisms not always can: it places each person, with their conscience and responsibility, before God, who speaks, exhorts, calls, consoles or remonstrates, in an atmosphere of prayer and dialogue, of humble request for forgiveness, of a quest for light, of willingness to be guided by the Holy Spirit to make the offering of our own lives". On guard against confusion, but also with the necessary guidance to understand its use without confusion!

Because the lectio divina is not to be regarded as picking up the Bible every once in a while and reading a few pages, in a spirit of meditation. Rather, it is an ordered, methodical exercise, in an atmosphere of silence and praying reflection, with a progressive and systematic reading of the Bible, in the same way that liturgical procedure offers, in its Sunday and ferial cycles, an almost complete revisitation of the books of the Bible. The result should be inner unity, shaped by the Word of life, which finds in Christ the key and the sense of the contents of the Scriptures, and guides us towards a practical coherence of life in conformity with the biblical conventions, in communion with the community of believers and in open dialogue regarding the problems of current times (cf. our methodology).

"Living according to the Spirit results from making room for the Word and allowing it to be born in one’s heart" (Lineamenta, no. 34). This is how true spirituality could be defined! We think of ourselves as specialists in spirituality, or at least we are seen as such by many, but is it truly with this outlook that we specialise in and inhabit the Church?

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Last revised: 30 May 2008