As some 150 cardinals from around the world gathered with Pope Francis to talk about the family, their two days of discussion focused particularly on three points: the Christian vision of people and family life, essential pastoral programs to support families and ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
The consistory concluded on Feb. 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, as Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals, many from nations in the developing world, selections that emphasized his attention to the problems of poverty and development. The occasion became unprecedented when the ceremony was joined by Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus. The pope and the pope-emeritus embraced warmly and exchanged greetings before the ceremony began.
During his first ordinary public consistory to create new cardinals, Pope Francis encouraged the whole College of Cardinals to recognize their office as one of service and readiness for sacrifice. Calling on the cardinals to pray especially for suffering peoples and for all Christians suffering from discrimination and persecution, he said, “The church needs us also to be peacemakers, building peace by our words, our hopes and our prayers.”
Although the discussions during the meetings over Feb. 20 and 21 were closed to the press, Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican spokesman, provided an overview. Father Lombardi said the cardinals spoke broadly about Christian anthropology—the biblically based vision of people—and the challenge of living that out in the “context of a secularized society that promotes visions of the human person, the family and sexuality that are very different.
“The climate wasn’t one of complaining, but of realism,” Father Lombardi said.
Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, now retired, gave a two-hour opening presentation, laying out the biblical and theological basis of church teaching on marriage. He emphasized the challenge of finding ways to always fulfill two basic obligations: to remain faithful to Jesus’ words about the indissolubility of marriage and to embody the mercy God always shows to those who have sinned or fallen short.
Cardinal Kasper referred to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s work on this issue when he asked if, beyond rigor and laxity, the sacrament of penance could perhaps offer the path to accommodating difficult situations. Father Lombardi said several cardinals spoke about the church’s process for granting annulments and possible ideas for improving the process or simplifying it.
The cardinals were not expected to make any decisions or vote on proposals during their meeting, Father Lombardi said. Rather, they were holding a discussion in preparation for October’s extraordinary synod on the family and a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in 2015 on the same theme.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the upcoming synod, said on Feb. 21 that the responses to a Vatican questionnaire about Catholics’ family life reflected a great amount of suffering around the world, “especially by those who feel excluded or abandoned by the church because they find themselves in a state of life that does not correspond to the church’s doctrine and discipline.”
As of Feb. 19, about 80 percent of the world’s bishops’ conferences and 60 percent of the Vatican congregations and councils had turned in formal responses to a questionnaire distributed by the synod office in October.
The volume of responses, which also include about 700 submissions from Catholic groups and individuals, demonstrates great interest in the synod’s plans to discuss the family when it meets at the Vatican on Oct. 5-19, said the general secretary.
By urging bishops around the world to conduct the broadest consultation possible given the brief amount of time allotted, synod officials “sparked a spontaneous reaction that may seem surprising, but is actually proof of how necessary it is to go out of our offices” to where people really live, he said.
The results compiled by the bishops’ conferences, he said, show “the urgency of recognizing the lived reality of the people and of beginning a pastoral dialogue with those who have distanced themselves from the church for various reasons.” Simply by distributing the questionnaire so widely and inviting everyone to respond, he said, “a process has been opened for restoring the trust many have lost.”