The Vatican seems oddly poised between complacent calm and nervous apprehension on the eve of a world gathering of Roman Catholic bishops. The bishops have been summoned here by Pope John Paul II to review the effects on the church of the two decades since the close of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).
The calm reflects a general conviction that the synod, scheduled to run from Nov. 25 to Dec. 8, will be too short to produce any such profound restatement of Catholic teaching as that embodied in the 16 documents issued by Vatican II in the three years from 1962 to 1965.
The apprehension stems from the synod's unpredictability.
Vatican II, initiated by Pope John XXIII, who said he wanted to ``open the windows'' of the church to ``let in fresh air,'' was remarkable for its sharp break with 400 years of church tradition. Among its many landmark actions were calls for closer union among Christian churches; a new emphasis on the church as a democratic institution rather than a hierarchical structure separating clerics and laity; an appeal for greater cooperation with Jews and those of other non-Christian faiths; and a commitment t o new forms of liturgy.
Roman Catholics of all points of view are worried that the coming synod may make some unforeseen or startling declaration. Liberals fear that some element of Vatican II teaching may be reversed. Conservatives are braced for a possible blanket confirmation of Vatican II, elements of which they strongly oppose.
``Anything is possible,'' observes the Rev. Robert Graham, an American Jesuit historian who has spent a lifetime studying the history of Vatican diplomacy. ``Once that gavel comes down and the synod begins, it is impossible to predict what direction it will take.''
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