Pope Benedict XVI closed the Synod of Bishops on the Bible by preaching a lesson on love of God and neighbor, saying the word of God must be put into practice through service to others.
The concluding liturgy came after the pope accepted 55 final synod propositions, including a proposal that women be admitted to the official ministry of lector, or Scripture reader, at Mass.
Joined by more than 250 bishops at a Mass Oct. 26 in St. Peter's Basilica, the pope said the synod had highlighted a fundamental truth: that the church's missionary activity will fall flat unless it is nourished by scriptural reading and understanding.
Those who think they've understood Scripture but fail to implement its most important teachings -- in particular, the double commandment to love God and neighbor -- "show that they are still far from having grasped its profound meaning," he said.
There is "a singular connection that exists between listening to God and unselfish service to one's brothers and sisters," he said.
The papal liturgy closed an intense three-week period of speech-giving, small-group discussion and elaboration of final recommendations by the 253 voting members of the synod and some 50 other observers and experts.
One of the synod's strongest recommendations was to improve the scriptural aspect of homilies, and the pope seemed to offer a model at the closing Mass.
Examining St. Matthew's account of Christ's words on the "greatest commandment," the pope began by looking at the historical context of Judaic law and the originality of what Christ was proposing.
Then he drew connections with the previous readings from the Book of Exodus and a letter of St. Paul to underscore a crucial point: "To be disciples of Christ is to put into practice his teachings, which are summarized in the first and greatest commandment of divine law, the commandment of love."
The pope said the synod had helped the church focus on the importance of Scripture, and he urged participants to return home and launch a program of scriptural renewal in their dioceses and parishes.
He expressed his disappointment that bishops from mainland China were not allowed by their government to attend the synod. He paid tribute to the Chinese bishops' "communion with the universal church and their fidelity to the successor of the apostle Peter," and assured them they were in the synod's prayers.
On Oct. 25, the last working day of the synod, the pope lunched with participants, joking that he had probably violated international human rights principles by making them work late into the night and on Sundays during the assembly.
"We'll have to see what can be done to improve this for the next synod," he said.
The synod's propositions, all of which were approved overwhelmingly, were presented to the pope along with an invitation to prepare a document on the topics raised during the assembly.
Proposition 17 asked that "the ministry of lector be opened also to women, so that their role as proclaimers of the word may be recognized in the Christian community." Women already act as Scripture readers, but cannot be installed officially in such a ministry, which is reserved to males.
It was unclear what the pope would do with the proposal, which would appear to require a derogation of canon law. Some Vatican sources said that, if approved, it would have to be emphasized that the ministry of lector arises from baptism and not from any connection to priestly ordination.
An issue that was the subject of four synod propositions was the need to strengthen the theological perspective in exegesis, or scriptural interpretation. Reflecting one of the pope's expressed concerns, it said the study of Scripture cannot be reduced simply to a historical analysis of biblical texts.
In its propositions, the synod identified several areas needing further study or guidance:
-- Proposition 12 suggested that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarify "the concepts of the inspiration and the truth of the Bible" in order to make more understandable the Second Vatican Council's teaching on the question.
-- Proposition 15 asked for a "homiletic directory" to help priests in preparing homilies. Such a directory would cover the principles of homiletics and the art of communication and would present biblical themes that recur in liturgical readings.
-- Proposition 47 asked the Vatican to conduct a study on "the phenomenon of the sects," citing deep concerns over their growing popularity in traditionally Catholic countries. Often, it said, these sects attract followers by promising "an illusory happiness through the Bible, often interpreted in a fundamentalist way."
-- Proposition 16 asked for an examination of the Roman Lectionary, the book of Scripture readings for Mass, to see if "the current selection and ordering of readings is truly adequate to the church's mission in this historical moment." In particular, it asked that the Old Testament receive greater attention in the lectionary.
On another liturgical question, the synod suggested that moments of silence be more universally adopted between the first and second readings at Mass and at the end of the homily.
It emphasized that scriptural readings never should be substituted with other "spiritual or literary texts," which it said "can never attain the value and the richness contained in holy Scripture."
The synod propositions thanked laypeople, in particular catechists and leaders of small communities, for their help in promoting scriptural understanding, especially in places where priests are absent.
But, sounding a note of liturgical caution, the synod also recommended the formulation of "ritual directories" to help ensure that where catechists lead Sunday services such celebrations "are not confused with the eucharistic liturgy."
The synod, reflecting an ongoing theme of the assembly, said the connection between Scripture and evangelization needs to be better understood. It said the call to the Gospel must be "explicit, done not only inside our churches, but everywhere" and must be accompanied by the daily witness of the faith.
Missionary activity will often lead to persecution, the synod said. It appealed to civil authorities to respect and protect religious freedom.
On a basic point made by bishops from developing countries, Proposition 42 said many local communities lack Bibles translated into their own languages. It encouraged an effort to train translation specialists.
Proposition 53 dealt with dialogue with Muslims, but did not specifically mention scriptures. Instead, it insisted on "the importance of respect for life, the rights of men and women, and the distinction between the social-political order and the religious order in promoting justice and peace in the world." In a line added as an amendment, it said another important theme of Catholic-Muslim dialogue was "reciprocity and the freedom of conscience and of religion."
Proposition 54 treated the theme of ecology, urging greater pastoral and theological emphasis on the connection between Scripture and current efforts to safeguard the created world.
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