Local theologian headed to synod as an ‘expert’

By Catholic New World
Sunday, October 7, 2012

From Oct. 7-28, bishops from around the world will gather at the Vatican for the Synod of Bishops, which is dedicated to the new evangelization. The synod also marks the beginning of the Year of Faith declared by Pope Benedict XVI.

The synod includes seven U.S. bishops as full members, and 10 other Americans as official experts or observers. Cardinal George was voted as a member of the synod but had to decline because he is undergoing chemotherapy treatments. (See his column on Page 3.) Experts advise the bishops during the synod, and observers are allowed to address the entire assembly.

Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity Sister Sara Butler is one of those experts. Butler has been a seminary professor of dogmatic theology for 20 years — most recently at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York and Mundelein Seminary. She is a member of the International Theological Commission and a consultant to the recently formed Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.

She spoke from Mundelein with editor Joyce Duriga about the upcoming synod.

Catholic New World: Would you explain what your role is as “expert” at the synod?

Sister Sara Butler: I’m there as a theological resource person for the bishops. It involves helping Cardinal Donald Wuerl who is the relator, or chairperson of the synod, summarize the input from the bishops and also working with the English-language discussion groups.

The bishops break into small groups, maybe 25 in a group, and they have two or three resource persons who are experts just to be there in case a question comes up, perhaps relating to a recent document of the magisterium or some theological position. We also help formulate the small-group proposals so that the assembly of bishops can vote on them.

CNW: The synod is dedicated to the new evangelization. Can you explain what is the new evangelization and why it is so central to the mission of the church?

Butler: The new evangelization addresses the fact that many Catholics around the world don’t know or don’t practice their faith. They may simply have a cultural Catholicism, without any personal faith, without a personal relationship with the Lord.

There has been a real loss of faith in countries that were traditionally Catholic, for example countries in Europe. There the loss seems to be due to an aggressive secularism and even atheism. These forces also affect the church in North America. In Latin America many Catholics are departing from their Catholic heritage and joining other Christian communities, for example, evangelical churches, that have been effective in proclaiming Christ to them.

The new evangelization is not a new Gospel, it’s a new situation which the church has to address. The Gospel has to be proclaimed in new circumstances where Catholics are confronted with challenges to their faith both from secularism and also from a kind of proselytism. We cannot assume that this will be reversed without a deliberate effort.

In many places the culture is growing hostile to the living out of the faith and this has become so noticeable that Pope John Paul II started talking about it in the ’80s. He called for a new ardor, new methods, and new expressions. Now, the losses are more and more dramatic. It is necessary to rally the bishops and the Catholic faithful to face up to this and to plan together.

For example, the new evangelization would include new methods of proclaiming the Gospel. We can’t presume that Catholics who may be going to church really have a living faith themselves, that they feel close to the Lord, feel loved by God and saved by Christ’s cross and resurrection. We can’t presume that. We have to preach the Gospel as if for the first time to generations who haven’t heard the message. If they have come to know the Lord and love him, then we have to educate them better so that they can defend their faith and respond to these challenges.

A few generations ago, the culture supported the transmission of the Christian faith, going to church, keeping the Commandments and so on. Now the faith is publicly challenged. We need to convert the culture.

The new evangelization is an effort to bring people to a personal faith and, when they have that, to help them share it with others. If you don’t love your faith, it seems like a burden, not something you’re eager to share with others. The new evangelization is a project for all believers, not just priests and religious. Every Catholic is called to be a missionary.

CNW: It seems like the church has been talking about the new evangelization for a while.

Butler: Oh yes, for 20 years and more. But Pope Benedict is urging us, “Let’s focus on this. It’s not just one more thing on the agenda. We must address this formally.” He’s very persistent, no doubt about it. I’m sure he wants to leave the new evangelization as his legacy. He wants to fulfill the dream of the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic Church would be vital and alive and able to influence the culture and to bring about the salvation of the world. That’s our mission. He sees that we are losing ground and many people are not heeding the call to mission.

CNW: What are your expectations for the synod?

Butler: The synod is not called to develop programs. The bishops will work towards a consensus regarding the major obstacles to evangelization and regarding the best means to use to proclaim the Gospel in our time and to prepare the faithful to take up the mission. Some of the obstacles may come from misunderstanding what the Second Vatican Council taught. That is why the Year of Faith accompanies the synod.

The outcome will be different in each local church. If you are from Cameroon it’s not going to be the same as it will be in Chicago. But the bishops will develop an overall focus. They will write proposals and they will debate what the major issues are and what ought to be done.

Then in a year or so the pope will write it up with the help of a committee of bishops from the synod. The results will be published in a post synodal apostolic exhortation. That letter will give direction to the whole church about the new evangelization.