I was surprised to find myself one of a small group of veterans at last year’s Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, one of the very few who had been present also at the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 1980. I also have attended many synods since then, albeit in a variety of capacities. This has given me some insight into how synods work and into where they have worked well and where they have run into difficulties. Last year’s Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod let me compare and reflect on what has happened in the past 35 years.
I found it interesting, first of all, that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis took the family as the theme for their first synods. Both had been diocesan bishops up to the moment of their election—one in a country under Communist persecution and the other in the challenging and changing religious reality of Latin America—yet both saw clearly, from their own perspectives, how Christian marriage and the family are vital for the transmission of the faith and for the stability of society. Both saw the need not just to defend the teaching of the church but to foster the Christian vision of the family and to present that vision in an attractive and appealing way in the real situations of today’s changing world.
It is interesting to recall that Pope Paul VI had, in fact, wanted to hold a synod on the family, but he feared that right after the publication of the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (1968), it would not be possible to create the proper atmosphere. Ten years later, however, he felt that the time to hold a synod on the family had come, and he communicated that to the secretariat of the synod just before he died.
The question was taken up by Pope John Paul I, who formally communicated his decision to dedicate the synod to the theme of the Christian family in the contemporary world. But he also died before the theme was formally made public. Pope John Paul II took up the question shortly after his election, but he was not happy with the theme as formulated by his predecessor. Instead he chose the unusual term de muneribus, the mission of the family in the contemporary world.
He used the concept of the threefold mission of all Christians, priestly, prophetic and kingly, as a reminder that the family has a vital contribution to bring to the life of the church and to society and must be supported. Christian married couples have a mission within the church that must be fostered and never supplanted. Christian marriage and family life are ecclesial realities, realities of faith and of Christian life.
Synods have traditionally involved a preparatory position paper (lineamenta) on which bishops’ conferences could reflect, followed by a working document (instrumentum laboris), which constituted an agenda for the synod’s discussion. These were prepared by the Permanent Council of the Synod, 12 bishops elected at the conclusion of each synod and three others appointed by the pope. Pope Francis surprised us all last year by asking that the lineamenta be accompanied with a lengthy questionnaire, which not just the bishops but as wide a representation within the church as possible should study.
It was a revolutionary challenge. I think that some bishops had to read the instructions a few times before they realized exactly what they were being asked to do.
This surprising idea prompted varied reactions. One reaction was typical of us Irish. We immediately found fault with the questionnaire. The language was too complex, the time available was too short; how then were we going to carry out such a consultation?
This questionnaire, however imperfect, did in fact bring about a change in direction for the synod. This change was evident on the first morning of the synod, when Pope Francis said that he wanted an open and honest discussion:
After the last consistory [February 2014], in which the family was discussed, a cardinal wrote to me, saying: what a shame that several cardinals did not have the courage to say certain things out of respect for the pope, perhaps believing that the pope might think something else. This is not good, this is not synodality, because it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart, what your brothers say. Synodality is exercised with these two approaches. It is necessary to say with parrhesia all that one feels.
I had to Google the word parrhesia, and I found that it is a Greek New Testament term that means “courageous and bold speech” and the ability of believers to hold their own in discourse before political and religious authorities. We find it in Acts 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.”
This Gospel parrhesia does not just encourage us to speak candidly and boldly; it seems to be saying also that in a sense, boldness of speech must be characteristic of the followers of Jesus. Catholicism is not a “yes man” faith. Candid affirmation of faith is not the gift just of the learned. It is rooted in a depth of faith rather than in a degree or diploma.
Pope Francis attended every working session of the synod except for his Wednesday general audience. He arrived every morning on foot, surprising some on the first morning when he arrived 20 minutes early and began the session exactly at nine o’clock. It was funny to watch eminent cardinals, used to having five minutes’ grace at Vatican meetings, having to discretely slip into their places in the synod hall, like children arriving late for school.
What We Learned
The worldwide consultation had shown that the church’s teaching on marriage and the family is not easily understood today, especially by young people. In today’s culture, many of the classical terms regarding marriage and the family have taken on a different meaning.
The synod’s analysis was realistic. The perfect family rarely exists. Families struggle everywhere. They struggle with poverty, unemployment and marginalization. They find it difficult to transmit faith to their children. In many parts of the world families are struck by wide-scale emigration and the separation that this entails. A couple from Iraq spoke movingly of the struggle that families in that region face, being driven from their homes if they do not renounce their Christian identity. The perfect family rarely exists, but in the midst of great challenges great families do exist and struggle. And they must be supported.
With so many countries represented, it was inevitable that concerns and challenges would be different. My English-speaking discussion group included five African bishops, seven from Asia, one from Papua New Guinea and just two from historically Christian countries, myself and Cardinal Dolan of New York. There were lay couples from the United States and Iraq, a lay theologian from Lithuania and a Presbyterian pastor from Nigeria.
Bishops from Africa spoke about polygamy; bishops from Asia spoke about marriage between people of different faiths. We discussed annulment processes. We discussed marriages of Christians who have a very weak understanding of their faith. An interesting aside was that a bishop from Greece mentioned to me that he had many Irish weddings on his islands, arranged by marriage planners as a sort of business within which the faith dimension was reduced to a colorful ceremony.
The strong message of the synod was a call for a radical renewal of the church’s pastoral support for marriage and the family. In today’s pluralism, we need a radical catechesis on marriage and the family. Marriage preparation is not just for a ceremony, much less just filling out canonical forms. Marriage must be understood as part of a lifelong catechesis or itinerary of faith. Marriage preparation and accompaniment is a lifelong task for parishes and for the day-to-day work of evangelization; it cannot be outsourced.
Our Changing Society
The 1980 synod referenced secularization and a changing understanding of family in Western societies. That challenge has become worldwide. The number of Catholics who are married only civilly or who cohabit is increasing. This can be due to a different anthropology or to a lack of awareness of the Christian vision of marriage, to harsh economic and social conditions or simply to the expense of church weddings. Permanence in human relations is difficult today. Marriages fail.
Pope Francis’ tone was never condemnatory. The church must encounter families where they are. It must listen to where God is speaking also through the witness of those Christian married couples who struggle and fail and begin again. The tone was one of reaching out pastorally and of reflecting the mercy of Jesus. Pope Francis uses an image of the church as a “field hospital on the scene of a battle.” At the field hospital what matters is the first contact with one who is wounded. It is not a place for diagnostics, but a place where people are taken up into the caring arms of someone, where their wounds are washed and cleaned and they receive a welcome of care and concern. One bishop took up this image saying that too often the church appears more like the city morgue, where all the pathologies of the things that have gone wrong with the family are examined without emotion.
It is inevitable that in reporting a major church event like the synod certain issues become what I called “celebrity issues.” Last year’s celebrity issues were the admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to holy Communion and the pastoral response to people of homosexual orientation. The synod dedicated much time to these questions, and the views were different. There was also a vast amount of extra-synodal reflection and even polemics around the issues.
It is important to remember a difference between last year’s session of the Synod of Bishops and the one to come. Last year’s meeting was to gather information. This year’s is to take up the conclusions from last year and propose pastoral reflection on how to strengthen and renew our ecclesial support for marriage and family life. This year’s process aims not at further analysis but at pastoral strategies for the future.
Such pastoral reflection should not focus just on certain controversial questions or on negative factors. We should look at a broad renewal of pastoral services that include marriage preparation, educating young people about the Christian understanding of marriage and fostering an itinerary of faith to accompany men and women during their married and family life. How can families be helped to pass on the faith to coming generations? How can families find new ways of praying together? What can parishes do? Do we hear homilies on marriage and the family? Do parishes celebrate married couples in their calling and struggles?
A Window on Married Life
The teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage and the family is challenging. The bishops at the synod stressed that they were not there to change fundamental teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. Their concern about divorced and remarried couples did not undermine their absolute commitment to the church’s teaching on indissolubility. There was never any idea that the church would simply say to those whose marriage had broken down and who had entered into another union that they automatically could receive the Eucharist. Cases are very different. In some an abandoned partner may have found someone with whom he or she has made a new life, with real mutual love and permanence. In other cases the breakdown of a marriage might have come from irresponsibility and even injustice or abuse. Each case is different.
The covenant bond of the Eucharist and the covenant bond of Christian marriage mirror each other and must be lived authentically. Where the covenant bond of Christian marriage is broken, there is a rupture in the relationship with the Eucharist. Neither relationship is purely personal; both are public. The challenge is to find ways to restore the covenant relationship through a process of penitence and not just cheap forgiveness. The Eucharist, on the other hand, is not just a reward for the saints but a medicine to heal sinners.
Similarly, in discussing how to reach out to and recognize the situation of men and women of same-sex orientation, it was clearly stressed by all that there is a radical difference between marriage between a man and woman and marriage between people of the same sex. Yet the church has to welcome these, our brothers and sisters, as they are.
People will not come to understand the church’s teaching simply by decree or dictate, and the church has been negligent in presenting its teaching more effectively. There is a sense in which “the church” taught married couples what marriage was about. But married people are not passive recipients of teaching. The sacrament of marriage is not just a blessing for a man and a woman on their wedding day. It is given to build up the church. Married couples have a calling and a special charism that should make them protagonists in fostering the values of love and life, of permanence and fruitfulness, essentials of marriage life.
The lived experience and struggle of spouses can help find more effective ways to express the fundamental elements of church teaching. The church must listen to married couples and to where God is speaking through couples who struggle and fail and begin again and fail again. The experience of failure and struggle surely cannot be irrelevant to how we proclaim the church’s teaching on marriage and the family.
The church must reach out to families where they are, but this does not mean leaving them where they are. We can be led by the help of grace to move gradually, step by step towards living our Christian vocation more fully. When we reach out to people in what for the church are irregular situations, they may become more open and gradually come closer to the church’s teaching on marriage as a lifelong commitment. We will attain more by reaching out to them than by simply condemning. We have to learn from what I call Pope Francis’ “pedagogy of pastoral patience.”
Marriage and the family are complex social realities. Marriage is not simply about two individuals who are in love. The Christian teaching about marriage stresses the complementary relationship between male and female, which is not just a social construction. Marriage is also about a stable and loving relationship where children are generated and educated. Family is also an intergenerational reality. The stability of marriage contributes in a unique way to the stability of society, even though that reality is realized only partially. It is important that people stop for a moment and look at what marriage and the family mean within society. The challenge for the Synod of Bishops is to reawaken a sense of the importance of the mission of married people in the church.