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September 18, 2014

Issues for synod on the family -
The church as traveling companion for couples, families -
Reflections on racism today -
Worsening means of war - Polarization's toll

In this edition:
1. Synod approaches: Pope on marriage.
2. Pastoral action for parents, families.
3. The church as traveling companion.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) On polarization and finger-pointing.
b) The worsening means of war.
c) The future for Middle East Christians.
5. Archbishop reflects on Ferguson, Mo.
6. Racism in today's America.

1. Pope on Marriage: A Journey, Not a Fiction

Pope Francis presided Sept. 14 at the marriages of 20 Rome couples in St. Peter's Basilica. Just three weeks before the start of October's extraordinary assembly of the world Synod of Bishops on the family, the pope's homily focused on a central concern before the synod: the real challenges of marriage and family life.

Those who married that day, according to the Rome Diocese, included some couples already living together, some who were parents, some who met within their parish. The youngest of the new wives and husbands were in their 20s, and the oldest were a man and woman born in 1958 and 1965.

Married life is a journey, Pope Francis stressed. He thought of families "walking along the paths of life with all their day-to-day experiences." Along the way, he observed, some husbands and wives "become impatient" and "succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment."

To these couples "God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them," the pope said. He assured the couples that God can heal them with "merciful love," renewing them and setting "married couples and families once again on the right path."

Pope Francis told the couples that "it is impossible to quantify the strength and depth of humanity contained in a family: mutual help, educational support, relationships developing as family members mature, the sharing of joys and difficulties." Families, he added, "are the first place in which we are formed as persons and, at the same time, the 'bricks' for the building up of society."

At the same time, he called attention to married couples who become impatient as the journey of marriage and family life unfolds. "The hardship of the journey causes them to experience interior weariness; they lose the flavor of matrimony, and they cease to draw water from the well of the sacrament. Daily life becomes burdensome."

For a wife and husband this journey "is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult and at times turbulent, but such is life," said the pope.

He wanted couples to realize that it is normal for them to argue. "It's normal. It always happens." His advice was, "Never let the day end without having first made peace. Never! A small gesture is sufficient. Thus the journey may continue."

Christ's love, Pope Francis added, "can restore to spouses the joy of journeying together. This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man."

The pope referred to marriage as "a symbol of life, real life." But marriage "is not fiction," he exclaimed. Rather, "it is the sacrament of the love of Christ and the church, a love which finds its proof and guarantee in the cross." His desire for the 20 couples was that they "have a good journey, a fruitful one, growing in love."

2. Pastoral Action for Parents, Families

Pastoral action on behalf of the family needs to treat both the needs of children and the real challenges of parenthood as priorities, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, told a marriage care conference Sept 13. "Preparation for parenting and support for parents, who often experience very great strain in bringing up their children, are areas which need to be significantly strengthened within the church," said the cardinal.

Looking ahead to October's extraordinary session of the world Synod of Bishops in Rome, Cardinal Nichols spoke of couples and families who experience difficulties and broken relationships. "Marriage failures and the hurt and pain which accompany them, the psychological impact of those failures upon children and families, are not changed by condemnation and blame but can be redeemed by mercy and open the way to reconciliation," he commented.

The cardinal predicted that "the importance of mercy as the path to reconciliation and forgiveness in human relationships and in relationships with the church" would become "an important and recurring theme" in the synod's deliberations.

While "initial support by the church for family relationships originates in a parish, other organizations can also play a significant role in collaborating with and strengthening that support," he said.

He considered it important that marriage preparation and support for family relationships be inspired by the church's teaching. "One reason for this," he explained, "is the rich and coherent vision of the human person which is made known in the person of Jesus Christ and proclaimed in the teaching of the church."

3. The Church: A Family's Traveling Companion

A paper that Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp released Sept. 1 suggests the church ought to do more to accompany and support couples and families as a "traveling companion." Looking ahead to this October's extraordinary assembly of the world Synod of Bishops on the family, the bishop writes, "Behind every ordinary family life there is always an extraordinary story."

Bishop Bonny is "struck as a bishop by how complex the reality of relationship formation, marriage and family life is today." He explains:

"I hear stories on a daily basis of human failure and starting over, of weakness and perseverance, of standing one's ground in the face of economic and social imperatives, of mutual care in difficult circumstances."

The question he asks is, "How can the church be their traveling companion?"

A goal of his paper is "to expose the complexity of the evolving context in which relationships, marriage and family life occur today, and the expectations that many still have of the church as traveling companion." He says, "Words like 'traveling companion' and 'fraternity' should feature with greater clarity in the ecclesial discourse surrounding marriage and family."

Bishop Bonny writes that "married couples rightly look toward the church community to help them, encourage them and inspire them." However, he comments, "the church's relationship with men and women today is not one of symmetry or mutuality. While some often maintain their distance from the church, they refuse to be written off or ignored by it, and they are not wrong in this regard."

Without rejecting use of the terms "regular" and "irregular" to distinguish families formed by a married man and woman from those led by unmarried parents, single parents, same-sex couples and others, Bishop Bonny recommends paying careful attention to the use of these terms.

"I do not intend to deny the legitimacy of the said distinction" between regular and irregular family situations, he explains. "Nevertheless, we must also be extremely cautious in dealing with the distinction."

He notes, for example, that "regular and irregular situations occur in the majority of Christian families. The mixture of situations, however, does not prevent family members from continuing to support and appreciate one another, and fortunately so. The church should not underestimate this family-rooted solidarity."

Indeed, people have questions regarding their relatives' "choices and decisions," and often are "saddened by them" or "would have preferred things to be different." However, people "do not abandon one another" on the basis of these choices and decisions. And "for the people involved, such solidarity is an important sign of God's fidelity to his people, no matter what happens to them."

The church, Bishop Bonny stresses, "invites everyone, whatever the relational or familial situation in which they find themselves, to welcome the Word of God into their lives and to accept their responsibility as Christians. Nevertheless, people find it difficult to fulfill this task under their own steam. They need others with whom they can work together to realize their life project. There can be little doubt that the church falls short here."

Bishop Bonny expresses hope that the upcoming synod assembly will not reach hasty conclusions and that it will "challenge us rather than pamper us." In addition, he speaks of his hope that this "won't be a platonic synod" and "that it won't withdraw into the distant safety of doctrinal debate and general norms, but will pay heed to the concrete and complex reality of life."

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

On Intolerance, Polarization and Finger-Pointing: "I wonder whether some of the acrimony, name-calling, labeling and intolerance that appear increasingly to characterize the political discourse in the United States passes unchallenged into the heart of the U.S. Catholic Church. Furthermore, there is evidence that the new information technology, far from providing a catalyst toward a richer conversation among different groups, whether in the public square or in the church, instead exacerbates the ideological divide and aggravates alienation by allowing us to discover quickly which sites and blogs favor our point of view, while isolating us from contrary opinions. Another cultural trend that may be exerting a deleterious effect within the church is a tendency to oversimplify what are really complicated questions in the hope of discovering whom to blame. Simplifications such as the global economic crisis is caused by higher taxes; or the decline of religious vocations is due to the infidelity of religious themselves; or what Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees were once to Jesus of Nazareth, the Vatican and the hierarchy are to religious today. Such simplifying and blaming probably has been around since the tragedy of Eden, where Adam blames Eve, who, in turn, accuses the snake (Gn 3:9-13). At the present moment, this behavior threatens to Balkanize American Catholics into so-called right-wing and left-wing or 'progressive' and 'traditional' factions who point fingers at each other." (From a speech on consecrated life by Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis to the annual meeting of the College Theology Society, held at the end of May at Benedictine-run St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. His speech appears in the Sept. 11 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

The Worsening Means of War: "In general there is a worsening of the very conditions under which war is conducted as provided for by the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners and of the wounded, as well as with regard to humanitarian laws. Wars are increasingly inhuman. We see it in the exhibition of acts of cruelty that used to be covered up by those who committed them in the past and now in this global era are used as a weapon: To slaughter and to exhibit the horror (women and men humiliated, driven out of their homes, naked, killed by gunshot or worse) is true terrorism. It is an act of worship of violence that terrorizes and conquers." (From Sept. 7 remarks in Antwerp, Belgium, by Andrea Riccardi, who founded the lay Community of Sant'Egidio, to the International Meeting of People and Religions. The meeting aimed to create an alliance of religions to work for peace and to counter fundamentalist ideologies and violence. His remarks appear in the Sept. 18 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

The Future for Middle East Christians: "We have the right to live in our own land, the land of our ancestors for millennia. . . . Our forefathers endured persecution and even martyrdom because they were faithful to the Lord Jesus. We keep hope in the Lord, who repeated many times in the Bible, 'Don't be afraid.'" (Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, speaking during the Sept. 9-11 inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians, a new Washington-based group formed to promote awareness of the plight of Christians in the Middle East and to bring their concerns to U.S. policymakers. During the summit, the patriarch urged the international community to help find a solution allowing thousands of Christian refugees to return to their homes in northern Iraq and Syria.)

5. Archbishop Reflects on Ferguson, Mo.

"Today as we gather to pray for Michael Brown and his family, for the policeman involved in the shooting and his family, for all first responders and their families, and for all those who hold positions of authority in our communities, we ask the Lord to make us instruments of peace," Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis said in an Aug. 20 homily during a Mass for peace and justice celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed Aug. 9 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., located in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. The shooting and the protests that followed in Ferguson prompted nationwide discussion and debate over issues of race relations. (The archbishop's homily appears in the Sept. 4 edition of Origins.)

Archbishop Carlson quoted the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis, which commented on events in Ferguson, saying: "We must examine the tragic events taking place in the St. Louis area, seek to understand why and work toward dismantling systemic racism. Until the causes are addressed and are rectified there will be no change."

The archbishop said that "in the face of brokenness and shame and heartbreak, Jesus calls us to come to him, encourages us so that we do not walk away. The time has come for us to acknowledge decades of hurt and mistrust and suspicion and prejudices and, yes, even a tragic death."

He added, "We ask for the wisdom and the compassion and the courage to address the brokenness and division that confront us as we recognize there is an irrepressible yearning present in the heart of each person for good."

Prayer, the archbishop insisted, "is the inexhaustible source of our service, and pray we must. And at the same time, as we work to dismantle systemic racism, there're actions that must take place."

Thus, he announced he was "re-establishing the Human Rights Commission in the Archdiocese of St. Louis" and "asking the Charles Lwanga Center to begin a study and offer solutions to decrease violence in our communities and in our families." The Charles Lwanga Center in St. Louis promotes "Christian spiritual formation and leadership development within the African-American Catholic community."

The archbishop pledged "an ongoing commitment to provide a pathway out of poverty by providing scholarships so that young people can receive a quality education in our Catholic schools." Already during this year "we have given 3,000 scholarships so that young people can attend our schools," he said.

Moreover, he pledged his own support "and the support of the archdiocese to assist the churches in Ferguson to deal with issues of poverty and racism."

Archbishop Carlson was clear that "there is more that will need to be done." He said, "We will work to open dialogue with the churches, community leaders and people of Ferguson. This is a modest beginning -- but begin we shall."

6. Racism in Today's America

"The church remains a prophetic voice and must continue to insist on the dignity of all persons and the very real opportunity available to each of us to have a personal encounter with Christ and to be instruments of his healing, love and truth," Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 this year, I join together with my brother bishops in recalling the heroic history of that achievement," said the Sept. 9 statement, issued the first day of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Administrative Committee meeting in Washington.

But "there are reminders across our nation today that the embers of racial discrimination still smolder," the statement continued. "This evil infects institutions, laws and systems, and it harms our brothers and sisters."

Therefore, it is essential "to work against the destructive influence of racism on families, religious and civil communities, employment, the prison system, housing, hunger, educational achievement and mental health," Archbishop Kurtz stressed. He wrote:

"The Gospel requires ongoing personal and social transformation. Respecting the dignity of each person is paramount as we seek to spread the beauty of God's truth throughout our world. We cannot give in to discouragement.

"The Civil Rights Act was a monumental step forward, and since then we have made even more progress in this vital work of transforming hearts and minds, but there is still much work to do. The act itself did not eradicate the legacy of slavery, racial discrimination and injustice."