Synod for Oceania: Mistake or opportunity?


In preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, the Vatican has been organising a series of Special Assemblies of its Synod of Bishops bringing together representatives from the Roman Catholic bishops in the continental groupings—Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas. Stefan GIGACZ comments on the approach to lay people in the documentation for the current Special Assembly.

Many valid reservations have been expressed about the series of regional synods of which the Synod for Oceania (defined as Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands) 22 November-12 December this year is the latest. For Oceania? What about by and with Oceania? Why a purely consultative synod and not a decision-making regional council, for example?

Moreover, how happy are our South Pacific neighbours about being lumped together under the almost inevitable shadow of Australia? In the age of the Asia-Pacific and the East Asian hemisphere, wouldn’t it be better to be grouped differently?

In fact, the somewhat disjointed summaries of the history and present situation of the region set out in the Synod preparatory papers (the Lineamenta and the Instrumentum Laboris or Working Paper) only serve to highlight the disparities between Australia (and New Zealand) and other parts of Oceania.

Nevertheless, given the foot that in this series of regional synods called by Pope John Paul n, thinly populated Oceania is being placed on a par with Africa, Europe, the Americas and all of Asia stretching from the Middle East to Japan, I thought perhaps it was worth looking at the Synod for the opportunities that it does present.


I wondered whether it just might be possible to hope that the Oceania Synod could achieve something that the other Synods have conspicuously failed to do, ie deal adequately with the role and mission of lay people in transforming die world.

The initial preparatory document for the Synod, the Lineamenta, did start on the right track, noting in the conciliar spirit of Vatican II that “the proper vocation” of lay people is “in the world.”. It even pointed out that “perhaps, this central or focal aspect of their vocation might need greater attention in the Church’s program… especially in emphasising the laity’s Christian witness of their own lives and convictions in their secular professions—in the world of work, entertainment, and the media; and the intimate world of marriage and the family” (Para 39).

Sadly, this comment proved only too prophetic—and in a rather unexpected way—because the next Synod preparatory document, the Working Paper, in Paragraph 49 entitled “The Lay Vocation,” completely misses the point of its subject. It speaks of nothing but lay people’s role as “collaborators in parishes, members of pastoral councils, financial and legal advisers, and catechists and pastoral agents.” In other words, it focuses solely on lay people’s role within the institution of the Church.

Clearly, catechetical instruction, sacramental preparation, etc., are all important and it is no doubt positive that more lay people are engaging in these fields. But the question is: what happened to the ‘proper vocation’ of lay people as described in Para 31 of Vatican II’s document Lumen Gentium: “seek(ing) the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God—work(ing) for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven”?

Not a word about this so-called ‘proper’ role of lay people in the world in Para 49 of the Working Paper. True, the document does remind us elsewhere that making the Christian message “come alive for Christians in their daily life is probably the greatest challenge facing the Church” (Para 50). But the way in which the Working Paper handles the matter shows clearly that the drafters in Rome have missed the point.

Moreover, this misconception concerning the lay vocation is also evident in the way other points are treated or ignored in the document. The word ‘worker’ for example, appears a mere three times, each time referring to Church workers! Nothing about any other kind of worker in industry, at home, on farms or In plantations. One could legitimately ask whether the drafters of the Paper have even read Pope John Paul II’s own encyclical, Laborem Exercens (on human work) stating that “work is the essential key to the social question.”

Looking at the way the words ‘apostle’ and ‘apostolate’ are used also gives a good indication of the thinking behind the Working Paper. The word ‘apostolate’ appears half a dozen times, mostly in the sense of a particular initiative, e.g. apostolate of charity, setting up of ‘new apostolates’ e.g. for AIDS victims, the homeless, etc. Various ‘apostolic’ initiatives are mentioned, but never in relation to lay people.

Obviously, all of these initiatives are very good and we need even more dedicated works of these kinds. But what is striking is to see how the Vatican II conception of a lay person’s genuinely lay apostolate in the midst of ordinary life appears to have completely evaporated.

As for the word ‘apostle,’ it appears four times referring to the Twelve and once referring to the bishops whose function is “to teach the faith handed on by the apostles” (Para 52). The tragedy is that one of the big battles fought in the corridors and commissions of Vatican II was precisely on the right of lay people to claim the title of apostle. Many argued that only bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, were entitled to use this term. At the Council, the conservatives lost and the Decree on the Laity (Para 3) proclaimed that lay people have “the duty and the right to call themselves apostles.” Pyrrhic victory, it now seems!

The irony is that the Working Paper itself laments in Paragraph 20 that “many of the faithful still see evangelisation as a special vocation given to others and not as the mission of the Church herself, and hence not as a command of the Lord to every believer in one’s proper life-situation.” Frankly, this is hardly surprising when the Synod preparation documents themselves are drafted in terms of a pre-Vatican II episcopal monopoly on the apostolate of the Church.

Similar comments could be made concerning the use of the terms ‘mission’ and ‘missionary’ in the Working Paper. Although these words appear numerous times, the context shows that it is almost always in relation to building up the Church. Even when the Paper does speak of the mission of lay Christians it seems more concerned to say that they “give witness to their faith in Jesus Christ” (Para 7)—without linking this to their genuinely lay mission of building and transforming the world.

To give due credit to the Working Paper, it does speak in many other paragraphs about all kinds of problems affecting lay people in the Oceania region, e.g. unemployment, the environment, family, culture and the like. But if the [Roman Catholic] Church is really serious about transforming the region with respect to these issues, surely an adequate Vatican II understanding of the lay vocation is essential if it really hopes to do something to contribute to solving these problems?


The real worry about these weaknesses in the Working Paper is the fact that the document is meant to reflect the replies and comments from the various dioceses and national bishops’ conferences to the Lineamenta—including especially the largest, Australia!

Now, for most of the 20th century Australia has had a particularly rich and varied tradition of promoting the lay apostolate in the temporal world, stretching from the Melbourne University Campion Society of the 1930s, the Catholic Action of the 1940s, to the Newman Societies in the universities and the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and Young Christian Students (YCS).

Here, I am not arguing in favour of this or that movement, or against any other. The point, however, is that there is absolutely no evidence in the Working Paper of a broad century-long tradition of lay action in the world.

Whose fault this is, I do not know. No doubt as lay people we ought to ask ourselves why we have failed so abysmally to defend territory so hard won at Vatican II. No doubt the bishops also bear their share of the responsibility—especially since lay people have such a minor role in the synodal process.

At this point, with the Synod all but over, perhaps a bit of shock therapy is in order.

Let me conclude then by citing the words of an obscure French Marianist lay brother, Louis Cousin, who wrote in 1906 that the essential role of lay people is to act as “promoters of social well-being as they would have to be even if Christ himself had not come.” No need for a mandate from the Church, according to Louis Cousin, counsellor to the Sillon movement, which as early as the 1890s already understood the specific lay mission as the transformation of the world.

Cousin and the Sillon, which was the first lay apostolate movement in the Vatican II sense, scandalised the clericalised Roman Catholic Church of their day by reversing conventional thinking. Admitting that “lay action is a kind of collaboration of the work of the priest,” they emphasised that this lay role was exercised “in the lay domain, and in such a way that it secularises the work of the priest.”

Except for the Holy Spirit, it was no doubt too much to hope that the Synod of Bishops for Oceania could operate a similar paradigm shift in today’s Church. Perhaps, it is already time, then, to start thinking about a genuine Council of the People of God in the Asian-Pacific region. Instead of clericalising the role of lay people in inward-looking service of the Church, such a Council would start by recognising the genuine role of lay people in secularising the Church’s mission in service of the world.


A graduate in law from the University of Melbourne, Stefan GIGACZ is currently engaged as a Researcher in Lay Apostolate History, at the International Cardijn Foundation, in Brussels.


National Outlook, December 1998, 14-15.