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July 10, 2014

Fall synod assembly to address urgent needs of families -
Communicating better about marriage and family -
Family life's complexity -
The families of a parish

In this edition:
1. Upcoming synod's vast challenge.
2. Urgent pastoral needs of families.
3. Quoting the synod's working paper:
a) Families and communication.
b) Work and family life.
c) The families of a parish.
d) The separated and divorced; single parents.
4. Communicating better on marriage, family.
5. Complexity of family life.

1. Family Ministry: Fall Synod's Vast Challenge

A two-week, extraordinary assembly of the world Synod of Bishops to discuss the family takes place Oct. 5-19 in Rome. The special assembly precedes and is meant to help pave the way for the three-week ordinary synod assembly one year later. The theme for both the 2014 and 2015 synod assemblies is, "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization."

Typically, news reports related to the 2014 assembly focus on the special issues it faces, in particular the situation in the church of divorced people who remarry without an annulment of their first marriage. Contraception, single parents, same-sex marriage, cohabitation and premarital sex are just a few other specific issues the synod is likely to address.

Those are important matters. Yet, the synod's working document, just released by the Vatican Synod Secretariat, indicates that in addition to particular, difficult issues involving families, the synod will devote attention more broadly to pastoral ministry geared to assisting all families today.

The vast challenge that ministry to and with families poses in contemporary times is made clear in the working document. Changes within families and within the cultures they inhabit make this a field in which the church must again find its way. For that reason, dioceses and parishes everywhere could benefit directly from the synod's October discussions, since marriage and family ministries are inherent to their mission.

"Often when the lay faithful sense the great distance between the ideal of family living and the impossibility of achieving that goal, the couple's crisis in marriage and the family gradually becomes a crisis in faith," the working document observes. "Therefore," it continues, "the question arises on how to act pastorally in these situations, namely, how to make sure that the church, in her variety of pastoral activities, can demonstrate that she has the ability to care for couples in difficulty and families."

The church on the local level is "called upon to assist families, and with them, persons in irregular situations," the document states. Still, the Synod Secretariat heard "quite a few" times in the process of its consultation "that the church's pastoral care does not always adequately address the specific problems existent in family life. To meet this need, pastoral action requires renewed efforts, creativity and joy."

But there is good reason for hope, the working document suggests. For, "at work in the pastoral program for the family is a beneficial mutual exchange between the responsibility of the bishops and other members of the clergy, and the various charisms and ministries of the ecclesial community. This synergy results in many positive experiences."

The document comments that "the engagement of so many brothers and sisters in the pastoral care of the family can lead to new effective forms of service for the church community."

2. Urgent Pastoral Needs of Families

"Real-life situations, stories and multiple trials demonstrate that the family is experiencing very difficult times requiring the church's compassion and understanding in offering guidance to families 'as they are,'" the working document observes. This is the "point of departure" for "proclaiming the Gospel of the family in response to their specific needs," it says.

The document is based on responses the Synod Secretariat received from conferences of bishops, religious orders, dioceses, educators, organizations and individuals to questions on marriage and family life that it raised in its preparatory document late in 2013. This is a document, then, that digests and presents viewpoints expressed in the large number of responses the secretariat received, some of which plainly were not easy for it to hear. In numerous instances, responses showed "resistance to the church's teaching on moral issues related to the family," the document makes clear.

Representatives of the church throughout the world participate in an assembly of the Synod of Bishops, contributing their unique perspectives and pastoral experiences to its discussions. Because family life around the world in certain ways reflects the realities of life in individual nations, the insights shared on family ministry during this fall's assembly could prove compelling and instructive.

After all, the needs of families in wartorn nations differ in important ways from family life in other places. Poverty or interreligious strife complicate family life and demand pastoral responses. Work-related pressures complicate family life and frequently deprive family members of the time together they need.

In a letter last February to families around the world, Pope Francis spoke of the upcoming synod's importance. "In our day the church is called to proclaim the Gospel by confronting the new and urgent pastoral needs facing the family," he wrote.

"This synodal assembly is dedicated in a special way to you, to your vocation and mission in the church and in society," Pope Francis said to families. It is devoted, he explained, "to the challenges of marriage, of family life, of the education of children and the role of the family in the life of the church."

Pope Francis spoke about the family in his apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" ("Evangelii Gaudium"). Today the family "is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds," he wrote. "In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children."

The pope expressed concern that "the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favors a lifestyle that weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds." Pastoral action, he said, "needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a communion that heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds."

3. Quoting the Synod Working Paper

Families and Communication: "Most responses [the Synod Secretariat received] indicate that one of the many critical issues facing the family is a difficulty in relationships and communication. Whether they are tensions and conflicts in a marriage due to a lack of mutual trust and intimacy, or the domination of one marriage partner over the other, or the intergenerational conflict between parents and children, all hinder the building of family relationships and can even make them entirely impossible" (No. 64).

Work and Family Life: "All responses treating the impact of work on the well-being of the family make reference to the difficulty of coordinating the communal aspects of family living with the excessive demands of work, which require of the family a greater flexibility. The pace of work is fast and sometimes even exhausting, and work hours, often excessive, can sometimes include Sundays, all of which hinder the possibility of a family's spending time together. An increasingly hectic life leaves little opportunity for moments of peace and family togetherness" (No. 70).

Families in Parishes: "The responses mention . . . the need for the active involvement of the family in parish life through support and solidarity on behalf of other families. In this regard, invaluable assistance comes from the community made up of families. Membership in movements and associations can also be a particularly significant source of support" (No. 48).

The Separated and Divorced, and Single Parents: "The responses lament that persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities, that some clergy are uncompromising and insensitive in their behavior and, generally speaking, that the church in many ways is perceived as exclusive and not sufficiently present and supportive. In this sense an open and positive pastoral approach is needed, one which can restore confidence in the institution through a credible witness by all her members" (No. 75).

4. Communicating Better on Marriage and Family

The synod working document notes that many responses received during the Synod Secretariat's consultation for the October 2014 extraordinary synod assembly voiced the need to "find new ways to communicate the church's teachings on marriage and family, which depends greatly on the vitality of the particular church, its traditions and the effective resources at its disposal." This points, some noted, to a need to form "pastoral workers to communicate the Christian message in a culturally appropriate manner."

Quite a number of dioceses around the world published the results of their local consultations for the upcoming synod, so it is no secret that church members often expressed a feeling that the church in some matters does not relate well to marriage and family life as they experience it. Responses the Synod Secretariat received often "confirmed that even when the church's teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety."

According to the working document, some conferences of bishops "argue that the reason for much resistance to the church's teaching on moral issues related to the family is a want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute." Here it adds:

"Some responses point to the insufficiency of pastoral activity that is concerned only with dispensing the sacraments without a truly engaging Christian experience. Moreover, a vast majority of responses highlight the growing conflict between the values on marriage and the family as proposed by the church" and the situations encountered in their socially and culturally diversified societies.

The document says that all the responses it received tended to cite the issue of contraception and "to emphasize that the difficulty in accepting the church's teaching on the fruitful love between a man and a woman is related to the large gap between the church's teaching and civil education, especially in places in the world where secularization is very strong."

The document adds that "oftentimes, the church's teaching is summarily dismissed as backward by the prevailing mentality, without taking into account its reasoning and conception of the human being and human life." Many responses, it says, "see a need to go beyond simply condemning this ever-pervasive ideology and to respond with persuasive argumentation against this position, now widely spreading in many Western societies." It continues:

"In this way the church's position on the subject of fatherhood and motherhood will be a strong voice in the anthropological change that some very influential persons are promoting. The response, therefore, cannot be only on the issue of contraception or natural methods but should be placed at the level of the decisive human experience of love, discovering the intrinsic value of the difference that marks human life and its fruitfulness."

Based on the working document, a discussion of natural law is likely to arise during the synod. The document leaves little doubt about the scope and difficulty of the challenges the church faces in this area.

This challenge is highlighted when the working document says that if some of the responses it received "refer to a lack of proper understanding of the natural law, several episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania and East Asia" mentioned that in some regions polygamy is considered natural, as is "a husband's divorcing his wife because she is unable to bear children -- and, in some cases, unable to bear sons."

The document says too that not only in the West "but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not 'scientific.'"

At the same time, the document points out, "a good number of episcopal conferences mention that when the teaching of the church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful."

Furthermore, it comments, "church teaching is more widely accepted when the faithful are engaged in a real journey of faith and are not just casually curious in what might be the church's thinking in the matter of sexual morality."

The working document says that "ultimately, the responses and observations" received by the Synod Secretariat call for "establishing real, practical formation programs through which the truths of the faith on the family might be presented, primarily to appreciate their profound human and existential value."

5. Complexity of Family Life

The complexity of ministry to marriage and the family is evident in the synod working document. Pastoral ministry involving families and children, given the range of contemporary family-life arrangements, is demanding.

For example, the working paper mentions issues such as "the relationship between the family and the workplace; the relationship between the family and education; the relationship between the family and health; the family's ability to bring generations together so as not to neglect the young and the elderly; the situation of the rights of the family institution and its specific relationships; and the promotion of just laws such as those that ensure the defense of human life from its conception and those that promote the social goodness of an authentic marriage between a man and a woman."

One question the working paper addresses is how children raised by cohabiting or same-sex couples should be treated by the church in matters related to their religious education and reception of the sacraments.

In such situations "words and expressions need to be used" that are able to "create a sense of belonging and not exclusion, ones that can better convey the warmth, love and the support of the church so as not to generate, especially in the children and young people involved, the idea of rejection or discrimination against their parents, fully aware that 'irregular' is a word applied to situations, not persons."

Many responses the secretariat received said that 21st century families face "many daily difficulties and trials." After all, "being a Christian family does not automatically guarantee the absence of trials, even excessively burdensome ones."

Still, the document continues, "through such trials the family itself can be strengthened and, with the support of pastoral care, led to recognize its fundamental vocation in God's plan. The family is already a reality, 'given' and secured by Christ and, on the whole, to be 'built up' each day with patience, understanding and love."

The church in these times "needs to provide care for families living in critical and stressful situations, ensuring that the family is attended in its entirety," the document adds. It says that "the quality of the relationships within the family must be of utmost concern for the church" and that "initial support originates in a parish, which is the 'family of families.'"

It calls the parish "the principal center of a renewed pastoral care that receives and guides people and is animated by sentiments of mercy and tenderness." Parish-based organizations "have a significant role in sustaining the family," the document says.

Despite all the challenges, however, the working document explains that families are "not ultimately defined by difficulties" or problems. It states, for example, that "many people, especially the young, see a value in a stable, enduring relationship and express a real desire to marry and form a family." It adds:

"This creates the possibility for a married couple to realize a love that is faithful and indissoluble, and one that offers a peaceful atmosphere conducive to human and spiritual growth. This 'desire to marry and form a family' is a true sign of the times that should be seen as an opportunity for pastoral ministry."