Three images of a synodal Church
Pope Francis arrives for a youth vigil for World Youth Day (WYD) at Parque Tejo on August 5, 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal. ROY LAGARDE
By Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ
October 9, 2023
The term, Synod (syn-hodos), literally means together-on-the-way. This “walking together” could not be better exemplified than the convergence of 1.5 million pilgrims in Lisbon for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day on August 1-6, 2023. Portugal’s summer weather, alternating between cool mornings and dry sunny hours, was the ideal setting for the multiple activities for youth delegations coming from almost 200 countries. Most contingents were hosted by parishes or schools offering their basic amenities. The congress theme of Mary’s visitation to her cousin, Elizabeth, underlined the challenges to the youth to follow her example of readiness and haste to attend to the needs of a suffering world.
The week-long activities included songfests, catechetical teach-ins, exhibits, and outdoor confessions in the City of Joy. For all participants, including about 600 bishops and archbishops, there were common activities—such as the Opening Mass celebrated by the Cardinal-Patriarch of Lisbon, the Reception of the Holy Father on the third day, the Way of the Cross, the Vigil and Closing Mass with Pope Francis at the spacious Tejo Park overlooking the Tagus River of Lisbon.
The Philippine youth delegation, including Filipinos coming from Dubai, Canada and other countries, numbered about 2,500. Eight Philippine bishops joined the delegation: Arch/Bishops Jose Palma, Antonio Tobias, Patrick Buzon, Rex Alarcon, Bartolome Santos, Severo Caermare, Gerardo Alminaza and myself. Two other Filipino bishops from other countries also joined us: Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City, Utah, and Bishop Peter Baquero, SDB, of Papua New Guinea. (Bp. Baquero is the son of a classmate of mine at the Ateneo de Manila.)
I was also glad to meet once more Bishop Vilsom Basso, SCJ, from Brazil. He had been a missionary Sacred Heart parish priest of Dansolihon in Cagayan de Oro Archdiocese, before he was recalled to become a bishop in his home country. At present he is also the bishop for the Youth Apostolate in Brazil. Another missionary bishop I met was Bishop Enrique Figaredo, SJ, of Batttambang, Cambodia. I had visited him earlier in Cambodia to introduce our Natural Family Planning Program with our trainors’ team from Cagayan de Oro. Likewise, we greeted Bishop Stephen Chow, SJ, of Hong Kong, who talked about the continuing presence of the Church in China.
At the registration area for priests offering to hear confessions, I met two other priests connected with Cagayan de Oro Archdiocese: Fr. Benjamin Mkeri, CSSp, a Nigerian missionary priest who had served the quasi-parish of Balubal; and Fr. Aldrin Valdehueza, a former seminarian of San Jose de Mindanao Seminary and now a parish priest in Sydney, Australia. Fr. Reinerio Sabuga of our Indigenous People Apostolate accompanied four lumad representatives, while Fr. Ian Cahayag of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary joined the delegation from his home diocese of Dipolog.
After the World Youth Day, on August 8-10, Abp. Palma and I joined the International Meeting of Bishops of the Focolare Movement in Braga, the oldest center of Catholicism in Portugal. On the bus ride to the northern part of the country, we passed by Fatima to concelebrate a Mass with about 2,000 pilgrims in the spacious basilica of the shrine. This modern building was constructed across the wide open esplanade facing the earlier church shrine where the remains of the two shepher-saints, Francisco and Jacinta, and more recently the remains of Sr. Lucia, are buried. The panorama of countless pilgrims, many passing by on their way home from the World Youth Day, was another image of a synodal church heeding the message of Our Lady of Fatima to pray the rosary for the conversion of sinners.
In Braga, 87 bishops from 42 countries came together, representing all the continents of the world. Philippine Bishops Roberto Mallari, Guillermo Afable and Alminaza also joined us there. The theme for the three days of reflection and sharing was “The Mysticism of Encounter: contemplation and mission in an epochal change.” We were billeted in the hotels located near the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, a popular pilgrimage site with its 577 steps that reach down to the city center.
On the first day, Margaret Karram, President of the Focolare Movement, focused on the Spirituality of Unity in the life of God and the life of humanity, the key insight of foundress Chiara Lubich’s initial calling. We then listened to some of the youth’s impressions coming from the World Youth Day. The rest of the sessions included talks and sharing on Charisms Today; Woman as a Gift in the Church; an update on the coming Synodal Assembly; and a deeper reflection on Jesus Forsaken in “calling the wounds of our time by name.”
Some of these wounds were shared by bishops from different continents — e.g, the start of a new civil war in Ethiopia; the continuing challenges to the local churches posed by authoritarian governments in mainland Southeast Asia; the continuing efforts for climate justice in Latin America as well as in the Philippines; and the ongoing tensions brought about by the armed conflict in Eastern Europe.
The war in Ukraine and Russia was brought home to me in my bus-ride conversation with Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh, CSsR, of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; he heads the Exarchate of Ukrainian Catholics in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. According to him, the nation of Ukraine is indeed undergoing its holocaust at this time, as shown vividly in his mobile phone photos of various cities leveled to the ground. But he also voiced his hope and determination that Ukraine as a nation would prevail.
In the afternoon of the last day, the bishops visited the nearby city of Guimaraes. On the wall of one of the buildings was inscribed: “Aqui naceu Portugal”. For it was in this Christian settlement that the Reconquista first started against the Moors, leading to the Christianization of the entire Iberian Peninsula in the mid-15th century. By the 16th century, Portugal and Spain became the world maritime powers leading to the “discovery” of the Philippines by the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, on Spanish ships. Thus, Portugal today, with only a population of 10 million, has once more hosted a world assembly of present-day Christians, not unlike in earlier centuries when missionaries like Francis Xavier embarked from Portuguese ports to evangelize several regions in Asia—a synodal Church on the move across the seas and ages.
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