I, no doubt as many of you, heard about the work of the Synod on the Family through glaring news headlines earlier this week. It was a couple of days before I located the document itself (in its unofficial translation) on the Vatican’s website. By the time I read it I had already been bombarded with bloggers and journalists that had either usurped the Synod document to confirm their agenda or rejected it outright as a sell-out.
This morning I found the Message of the Synod Fathers issued at the end of the Synod.
Reflecting, during my hours of Eucharistic adoration, on the first draft and the document on the Family—having taken refuge from the headlines and comments in the news and blogosphere—I found my heart gladdened and my hope strengthened for the future of ministry in the Church. Let me explain.
Three keys could be helpful keys to keeping the work of the Synod in perspective.
FIRST KEY: Documents coming from large international meetings are more complex than news reports. I am a member of an international community and have been at my share of international meetings where sisters from diverse cultures and experiences have been commissioned to create a common understanding that would lead to a unified policy. It isn’t easy. It is clear from the document issued mid-term through the Synod that it is what it says it is: “we have gathered together the results of our reflections and our dialogues….” Thus we hear about the unique struggles in various nations that may or may not reflect our own. Some ideas may give us pause and require greater reflection in order to further clarify or modify them. That is what the document is meant to do: to give the whole Church reason to pause and reflect for a year.
Sometimes first drafts focus on certain angles and second or third drafts draw in aspects that needed greater highlighting or provide a more nuanced approach. In fact, this morning at the press conference held at the Holy See Press Office to present the final Message of the Third Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, the Message already shows the fruit of further maturation in prayer and discernment: “Our dialogue during the Synod has been mutually enriching, helping us to look at the complex situations which face families today. We offer you [families] the words of Christ: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.’ On his journeys along the roads of the Holy Land, Jesus would enter village houses. He continues to pass even today along the streets of our cities. In your homes there are light and shadow. Challenges often present themselves and at times even great trials. The darkness can grow deep to the point of becoming a dense shadow when evil and sin work into the heart of the family. We recognise the great challenge to remain faithful in conjugal love….”
SECOND KEY: The Church’s pastoral ministry could be more effective if it sprang from a greater sensitivity to the positive seeds in a person’s life—even if these individuals have made choices that are not in accord with the Church’s teaching. These seeds, if watered carefully, can be opportunities to bring someone to a full marriage commitment.
One day a dear friend called me in tears from his cell phone in a grocery store telling me his wife had threatened to divorce him. The affairs, the separation, the divorce were many years ago now. I walked with him from the moment of his first reaction: “Mom and Dad are going to say, ‘I told you so,’” through years of spiritual and friendly accompaniment as he made his choices about how to live that final year during which his wife made her decision, through the choices he would make for the sake of the children, through a greater understanding of his own need for affective and emotional maturity, to now just sitting back in awe of what God has done in him and through him for his family. These days as his wife remarries, the waves of pain are renewed, but he is spending them in prayer and in a desire to provide for his children all they need for their future.
The mid-term document calls for greater accompaniment before and directly after marriage, which could have helped my friend and his wife to mature into a love that might have had a better chance of being a forever love. I am glad that at least I could represent the Church for my friend as he walked the very painful road after the injustice he had suffered from someone he still loved, accompanying him to greater maturity as he moved forward with his life in faithfulness to the marriage vows he had pronounced. I agree with the Synod document’s call for greater preparation and accompaniment when it comes to marriage. In the Final Message from the Synod there is this beautiful image from the Song of Songs about the encounter between spouses: “This authentic encounter begins with courtship, a time of waiting and preparation. It is realized in the sacrament where God sets his seal, his presence, and grace. This path also includes sexual relationship, tenderness, intimacy, and beauty capable of lasting longer than the vigor and freshness of youth. Such love, of its nature, strives to be forever to the point of laying down one’s life for the beloved (cf Jn 15:13). In this light conjugal love, which is unique and indissoluble, endures despite many difficulties. It is one of the most beautiful of all miracles and the most common. … This journey is sometimes a mountainous trek with hardships and falls. God is always there to accompany us.”
A phone call one night announced to me that a young adult whom I had known through the years had decided to attend an Anglican parish and live together with his girlfriend. “Will he go to hell?” his mother asked me in tears. Knowing this young person—who now attends scripture study three times a week and makes a hundred sandwiches for the poor every Saturday—I believe in my heart that he is on a journey to find a greater way of living out his faith that unfortunately wasn’t available in a Catholic parish nearby. When I was able to visit him and his girlfriend in their house where they both are finishing their doctorate I was unsure of the best thing to say, yet amazed at what God was able to do in their life despite the imperfect decisions they had made. I pray and trust God’s love for him, that he is only at this time “on the way” back to the Church. One particular line from the Synod’s mid-term document I found helpful: “All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk toward the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel” (no. 39). Or as the beautiful words of the final Message state: “Another expression of fraternal communion is charity, giving, nearness to those who are last, marginalized, poor, lonely, sick, strangers, and families in crisis, aware of the Lord’s word, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). It is a gift of goods, of fellowship, of love and mercy, and also a witness to the truth, to light, and to the meaning of life.”
“Our task is to cooperate in the sowing: the rest is God’s work. We must not forget that the Church that preaches about the family is a sign of contradiction” (no. 27). That means, I think, that we need to remember that living the Church’s teaching [even if we ourselves are doing it] isn’t easy. In the Gospel passage of the seed and the sower, Jesus stated that some seed the sower [God] threw out fell on ground that wasn’t prepared, or rocky, or full of weeds, and some seed fell on good ground and yielded a harvest a hundredfold. The rest of the seed on the unprepared ground yielded 10% or 30% or 50%...but it wasn’t the full harvest immediately. In the document, the Synod is clearly calling on the Church’s ministers and families who have lived marriage in its full Gospel exigency to accompany those with more fragile marriage situations on the way from 10% or 20% toward 100%.
Something the news reports have left out—there just isn’t enough room in a headline or perhaps the writers didn’t understand the whole point—is precisely this mystery and gift of accompaniment in truth and mercy; “the truth is incarnated in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it” (no. 25). Not to exclude it, fix it, throw it out, but to seek to draw human fragility closer into the sphere of the Church’s compassionate care so that the seed which is at least beginning to sprout—the positive values which can be acknowledged in what may be as yet an irregular situation—can find its way toward full flowering in the Gospel of the Family. “While clearly presenting the ideal, we also indicate the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal” (no. 36).
THIRD KEY: The direction of pastoral ministry today must flow from our gazing on the face of Christ. The document encourages us to gaze on Christ and to learn from him how to announce the Gospel of the Family. The one who is God-with-us Emmanuel had a style of announcing the good news that I’ll summarize here as the 4 A’s of evangelization:
Jesus was AROUND (people saw him, knew him, could easily approach him);
ATTRACTIVE (there was something about the way Jesus was with them that made them want to be with him);
ACCEPTING (the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery are two people who no doubt were surprised and healed by the respectful way in which Jesus interacted with them, accepting their reality as a springboard for offering them the good news for which he knew they deeply longed without knowing it);
ACCOMPANYING (Jesus started with people where they were and showed them the next good step they could take on the path to becoming sons and daughters of his Father, co-heirs with him of the Kingdom: “Call your husband”; “Come down from the tree, I mean to have dinner at your house today”; “I forgive you also. Go and do not sin again”…. In giving himself in the Eucharist he committed himself to being with us and in us …as nourishment, strength, peace, and reconciliation…till the end of time).
I recently was working with a woman in her fifties who had obviously had a hard life. She asked me what I did. When I told her, she immediately followed up with, “Do you really believe that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle?” There were tears and more conversation. Then she shared that she and her brothers hadn’t been allowed to make their First Communion. She can remember having gone to CCD, but after first grade she had had no further connection to religion. What struck me as I listened to her now was this: At age fifty the thought of turning to God for help in her life wouldn’t even cross this woman’s mind in a million years. And her children also now lived without a sense of God in their life. And their children…. I offered her a book I had edited—Courage in Chaos by St. Francis de Sales—telling her I thought she’d like it because it seemed to me she was a practical person and St. Francis de Sales was a practical person himself. Sure enough, the next day she came in with pages underlined: “See this? This is exactly what my problem is…. He has some real good advice….” The seeds had been cast into her field…. God would now take care of the growth and the harvest.
An image from the document has impressed me greatly: “Faced by these situations, the Church is called on to be ‘the house of the Father, with doors wide open […] where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 47) and to move toward those who feel the need to take up again their faith” (no. 37; italics mine)
In the final Message the Synod Fathers there is a beautiful reference to the fragility of families who little by little rediscover a desire for faith: “We recognize the great challenge to remain faithful in conjugal love. Enfeebled faith and indifference to true values, individualism, impoverishment of relationships, and stress that excludes reflection leave their mark on family life. There are often crises in marriage, often confronted in haste and without the courage to have patience and reflect, to make sacrifices and to forgive one another. Failures give rise to new relationships, new couples, new civil unions, and new marriages, creating family situations which are complex and problematic, where the Christian choice is not obvious.”
With a third of the mid-term document focusing on couples whose marriages are fragile or irregular, those spouses who have lived the fullness of their marriage vows in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad—or who remain faithful to their marriage vows despite their spouse’s infidelity—could feel they haven’t been recognized for what they’ve done. Instead, the Church respectfully is inviting these families to be the presence of the Church for those with more fragile marriages, and to walk beside them on the way, showing them the joy that comes from living the Gospel of the Family.
They are called to be subjects for the evangelization of the family—the evangelizers par excellence of families who long to hear the joy that living the Gospel of the family brings—so that through their attractive witness they can help others walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel, to express to them the charity of the Church’s caring. (cf. no. 46).
By their involvement in marriage preparation, in accompanying young married couples, and even in preparing pastoral ministers including clerics, it is decisive that couples living the fullness of the Church’s teaching on marriage “highlight the primacy of grace, and therefore … the possibilities that the Spirit gives in the sacrament…. This is about letting it be known that the Gospel of the family is a joy that ‘fills our hearts and lives,’ because in Christ we are ‘set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 1)” (no. 27). Thus the seeds sown in the marriages of those couples who are yet in fragile or irregular marriage situations might grow and one day yield a full harvest in the Church.
I end with the final request of the Synod Fathers which ends their Message issued October 18:
We Synod Fathers ask you walk with us towards the next Synod. The presence of the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in their modest home hovers over you. United to the Family of Nazareth, we raise to the Father of all our petition for the families of the world:
Father, grant to all families the presence of strong and wise spouses who may be the source of a free and united family.
Father, grant that parents may have a home in which to live in peace with their families.
Father, grant that children may be a sign of trust and hope and that young people may have the courage to forge life-long, faithful commitments.
Father, grant to all that they may be able to earn bread with their hands, that they may enjoy serenity of spirit and that they may keep aflame the torch of faith even in periods of darkness.
Father, grant that we may all see flourish a Church that is ever more faithful and credible, a just and humane city, a world that loves truth, justice and mercy.
Read the entire text of the Message
Read the entire text of the mid-term document
Sr. Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP