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October 19, 2014

2014 Synod of Bishops assembly concludes -
Synod on the family sets agenda for discussions in year ahead -
Pope invites synod participants to listen, speak openly

In this edition:
1. Message of the synod assembly.
2. Synod: family strengths, challenges.
3. Concluding synod report.
4. Pope Francis at synod's conclusion.
5. After 2014 synod: What is next?
6. From synod 2014 to synod 2015.
7. Pope to synod: listen; speak openly.

1. Message of Rome Synod Assembly

"Christ wanted his church to be a house with doors always open to welcome everyone," the October assembly of the Synod of Bishops stated in its concluding message. The synod thanked all the "pastors, lay faithful and communities who accompany couples and families, and care for their wounds."

The synod issued two final documents Oct. 18: its concluding message and its final report, which contained 62 paragraphs addressing some aspect of doctrine, ministry or the family's vocation. The synod voted on each paragraph in the final report.

Each of these two* documents - the message and the final report -- is discussed below, starting with the message.

One of the petitions in a prayer concluding the synod message asked, "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."

The message pointed to challenges posed when marriages break up and 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."

Notably, the synod participants explained in the message that during this first stage of the synod (the second stage is the general assembly of the synod in October 2015), "we have reflected on how to accompany those who have been divorced and remarried, and on their participation in the sacraments." The message immediately added, "We synod fathers ask that you walk with us toward the next synod."

Finally, the message encouraged charity in the form of "nearness" to those in our world "who are last, marginalized, poor, lonely, sick, strangers and families in crisis."

Statements such as those, focused upon, a) finding a way in the church to welcome everyone, b) accompanying divorced-remarried couples whose first marriages were not annulled, c) serving people today in a faithful manner that also will be found credible, d) meeting the challenges raised by nontraditional couples and, e) drawing near to families in crisis may reflect a direction taken by the synod as a whole.

At the same time, the synod message does not take up in any specific detail the issues that were the sources of greatest contention for the synod - the church's relationship to Catholics who remarry without an annulment or to Catholics in same-sex unions, for example. Those and other issues would be addressed in greater detail in the synod's final report, a document considered more controversial by most commentators.

2. Synod Message: Family Strengths, Challenges

The message of the synod assembly greeted "all families." It said, "We admire and are grateful for the daily witness that you offer us and the world with your fidelity, faith, hope and love."

Expressing awareness both of the joys and difficulties encountered in marriage and family life, the message commented that the very process of preparing for the October assembly, "beginning with the questionnaire sent to the churches around the world, has given us the opportunity to listen to the experience of many families."

A home is a place of "light and shadow," the synod said. In fact, "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."

The message recognized "the great challenge to remain faithful in conjugal love." It noted that "there are often crises in marriage" and that they often are "confronted in haste and without the courage to have patience and reflect, to make sacrifices and to forgive one another."

It is in such cases that "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," the synod said.

The synod acknowledged "the suffering that can arise with a child with special needs, with grave illness, in deterioration of old age or in the death of a loved one." It made clear its admiration for "the fidelity of so many families who endure these trials with courage, faith and love."

The difficulties caused for families by economic systems, by unemployment and by poverty were concerns for the synod. The message said, "We think of so many poor families, of those who cling to boats in order to reach a shore of survival, of refugees wandering without hope in the desert, of those persecuted because of their faith and the human and spiritual values which they hold."

War and oppression afflict families. And the synod message made a point of remembering "the women who suffer violence and exploitation, victims of human trafficking, children abused by those who ought to have protected them and fostered their development, and the members of so many families who have been degraded and burdened with difficulties."

The message's concluding prayer asked that God:

"Grant to all families the presence of strong and wise spouses who may be the source of a free and united family."

"Grant that parents may have a home in which to live in peace with their families."

"Grant that children may be a sign of trust and hope, and that young people may have the courage to forge lifelong, faithful commitments."

"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."

3. Synod Concluding Report

After some points in the Oct. 13 midterm report on the work of the 2014 synod drew strong reactions from a number of participants, the report was revised. The revision took into consideration hundreds of recommendations by the smaller working groups of synod participants that met during the assembly's second half.

The final report -- separate from the synod's final message - touches upon a wide range of family-related issues, everything from preparing couples for marriage in the church and accompanying newlywed couples after their marriage to the role of the family in the work of evangelization and pastoral support of families.

A majority of the synod's voting members approved each of the 62 paragraphs in the revised final report, but three paragraphs received less than a two-thirds vote of approval. These paragraphs involve issues related to the church's relationship to divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of their first marriage and its relationship to Catholics in same-sex unions.

News coverage at the time of the final report's release focused largely on those points and whether their failure to gain a two-thirds majority vote reflected backtracking by the church or a defeat for Pope Francis. However, the pope pointed out in a concluding speech to the synod after the vote that the final report now sets the agenda for the October 2015 general assembly of the synod. He said:

"Now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families."

That means, he added, that there is "one year to work on" the synod's final report, "which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups." The contents of the final report now will be presented as guidelines to bishops' conferences around the world, he said.

Two paragraphs that did not receive a two-thirds vote of approval related to divorced Catholics who remarry without receiving an annulment. Can a way be found to admit some of these Catholics to Holy Communion? There had been disagreement within the synod on this point, and Catholic News Service noted that the final report called for further study of the matter.

The other paragraph not receiving a two-thirds vote involved the church's manner of welcoming homosexual persons and its pastoral care for them. There was disagreement within the synod at the time of the midterm report over a statement that same-sex unions can be a "precious support in the life of the partners." That phrase, CNS pointed out, did not appear in the final, revised report.

The Vatican's official spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said after the voting on the synod's final report that while the lack of two-thirds approval of certain paragraphs gave evidence of a lack of consensus on them, no part of the final report carried the weight of doctrine. The voting does not mean that those points have been dismissed, according to Father Lombardi, but suggests that they were "not mature enough to gain a wide consensus."

The entire final report now becomes a basis for the discussions in the church leading up to the October 2015 synod.

4. Pope Francis at Synod's Conclusion

"I can happily say that - with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality - we have truly lived the experience of 'synod,' a path of solidarity, a 'journey together,'" Pope Francis said to the synod participants Oct. 18 after the voting on the assembly's final report. After he spoke, the pope received a very lengthy, standing ovation.

In reviewing the rewards and consolations of this journey, he commented that "since it is a journey of human beings," alongside the "consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations."

One example is "a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter), and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the Spirit)." The pope cautioned against closing oneself "within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve."

He added that this temptation, from the very start of the church, has been "the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called -- today - 'traditionalists' and also of the intellectuals."

An example of a quite different kind, he said, is "the temptation to a destructive tendency" which "in the name of a deceptive mercy binds wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the 'do-gooders,' of the fearful and also of the so-called 'progressives and liberals.'"

Pope Francis cautioned against "the temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4)," as well as the temptation "to transform bread into a stone and cast it against sinners, the weak and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens."

Again, he cautioned against "the temptation to come down off the cross, to please the people and not stay there in order to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God."

In his list of temptations to avoid, the pope spoke also of the temptation of some "to neglect the deposit of faith, not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters; or on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing, to say so many things and to say nothing!"

But Pope Francis said that, personally, he "would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions" - if, he explained, "all were in a state of agreement or silent in a false and quietist peace."

Instead, he remarked, during the synod "I have seen and I have heard -- with joy and appreciation -- speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage." He "felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the church, of families and the supreme law, the good of souls."

Pope Francis said that "many commentators or people who talk" about the synod "have imagined that they see a disputatious church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit" - doubting the Spirit as "the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the church."

But he suggested that the kind of discussion that took place in the synod "was necessary" and that it was "necessary to live through all this with tranquility and with interior peace."

5. After This Synod: What Is Next?

The Oct. 5-19 extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops paved the way for discussion and debate in the church over the course of the year ahead on issues related to contemporary family life. "We synod fathers ask you walk with us toward the next synod," the concluding message of this year's assembly stated.

What questions are likely to shape debate and discussion within the church from now until next October?

In October 2015 a full, general assembly of the synod takes place, continuing the 2014 synod's conversation. It is next year's synod that will make the final recommendations to the pope on issues considered by this year's synod. Usually a pope issues an apostolic exhortation a year or so after a general assembly of the synod, a document based on the synod's deliberations.

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising pointed to the concluding report of this year's synod assembly as the final step only of the current stage of discussion. During the year ahead, the world's bishops will study and discuss the themes of the report, and consult their people on family-related matters.

After an Oct. 13 midterm report on the work of the 2014 synod drew a strong reaction from a number of participants, it then was revised, incorporating recommendations from the small groups of synod members that met during the assembly's second half. The final report - separate from the synod's final "message" -- sets an agenda for discussions leading up to the 2015 synod, Pope Francis indicated.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, commented that two issues in particular "got people 'hot around the collar'" at the time of the midterm report.

One issue involved the midterm report's discussion of homosexual unions. While not equating these unions with marriage, the midterm report pointed to positive dimensions of these relationships. A second issue involved the report's discussion of Catholics who enter a second marriage without receiving an annulment of their first marriage. Might a way be found for them in some cases to receive the sacraments?

The midterm report's presentation of those issues was premature, Cardinal Napier suggested; it did not reflect a view agreed upon by the participants.

Thus, these two issues are certain to hold a key place in the worldwide discussion leading up to the 2015 general assembly of the synod.

I think, too, that in the year ahead we will read and hear much about balancing truth and mercy in pastoral ministry to families. How does the church uphold the indissolubility of marriage while at the same time welcoming couples who cohabit without marrying or who remarry without receiving an annulment of a first marriage? How does the church act mercifully toward those in homosexual unions?

In what ways can the church accompany these people and credibly affirm their personal dignity without compromising doctrine?

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Austria, commented on the tension that emerged during the 2014 synod's final days on the issue of balancing doctrine and mercy. People need to understand what Pope Francis means when he talks of "accompanying" people in various kinds of situations, the cardinal suggested. He said that many times the pope says, "'Don't judge; accompany.' Is that relativism? No, certainly not."

Still, Cardinal Schonborn continued, the synod mirrored the differences one might find in a family's approach to new situations. "It often happens in a family that the mother says, 'It's too dangerous,' and the dad says, 'No, don't be afraid.' We're in a big family, and some say, 'Attention!' and they are right, it's dangerous. But others say, 'Don't be afraid.'"

Different emphases are normal, said the cardinal, since "there are different aspects to consider: There is doctrine and the clear word of the Gospel, and there is the evident action of Jesus showing an attitude full of mercy and compassion. How to unite the two is a perennial challenge for the church."

6. From Synod 2014 to Synod 2015

The October extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops has concluded, but it will not soon be forgotten. Its discussions set the stage for a lively discussion from different perspectives about matters such as:
  • What it implies in practice to affirm that the church loves all people, wants to welcome them and accompany them, and intends to affirm their dignity clearly.

  • The value of marriage, its beauty and its positive roles. These were points that some at the synod wanted to emphasize above all.

  • What a synod is meant to be and how it can contribute valuably to the church and the world, even when its participants speak openly and disagree on important matters. Is the synod as an institution maturing before our very eyes, devoting attention to consequential matters in an atmosphere where participants feel free to speak more openly? Will the participants in such discussions be able to reconcile their points of view and become a positive sign to others in today's polarized church?

  • Whether the church's annulment procedures can be streamlined and how to accomplish this.

  • Why it is important that the church listen to families and hear their voices?

  • Whether a law of "gradualism" might be applied by the church to the situations of cohabiting couples, or same-sex couples, or divorced persons who remarry without receiving an annulment, for example - committed couples who may not live in accord with the church's moral ideal but whose relationships may nonetheless be a source of much good for them or for their children.

  • How can the church speak in ways that today's families understand? And how important is it to employ respectful language and terminology when describing couples who cohabit without marrying or same-sex couples, for example?
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, proposed in remarks to the 2014 synod during its early days that it is essential to find new language for the dialogue between church teaching and the lived experience of Christian spouses. To find this language, he added, it is important to listen.

"To many the language of the church appears to be a disincarnated language of telling people what to do, a one-way dialogue," he said. He did not mean to imply that the church is not called to teach or that "experience on its own determines teaching or the authentic interpretation of teaching."

Rather, "what I am saying is that the lived experience and struggle of spouses can help find more effective ways of expression of the fundamental elements of church teaching," Archbishop Martin explained.

He said: "Jesus himself accompanied his preaching the good news with a process of healing the wounded and welcoming those on the margins. His teaching was never disincarnated and unmoved by the concrete human situation in which people could come to be embraced by the good news."

7. Pope to Synod: Listen; Speak Openly

Critics of past assemblies of the Synod of Bishops often judged them inadequate as true expressions of the collegiality of bishops. It is no secret that Pope Francis wants to improve this institution, to heighten its value to the church as an assembly in which voices of the church around the world truly make themselves heard.

For that reason some of the pope's comments to the October synod assembly are of particular interest. "Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas or to see who is more intelligent," Pope Francis remarked in a homily for the synod's opening Mass.

Instead, he said, synods "are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord's vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity."

A synod ought to be a setting in which the participants listen and are free to speak openly, the pope stressed in an address to the synod participants at the beginning of their sessions.

"We ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, that with him we may hear the cry of the people; to listen to the people until breathing in the will to which God calls us," the pope stated.

In addition to listening, "we invoke openness toward a sincere, open and fraternal discussion," said the pope.

Two days later he once again discussed these very qualities of a synod, insisting that "speaking honestly" was "one general and basic condition" for fulfilling the synod's role. "Let no one say, 'I cannot say this, they will think this or this of me."

But at the same time it is necessary to "listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart," to what others say.

Synodality, the pope concluded, "is exercised with these two approaches."

During an evening prayer vigil in St. Peter's Square before the start of the synod sessions, Pope Francis spoke about the importance in the synod sessions of listening and of openness. He said:

"We ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of listening for the synod fathers: to listen in the manner of God so that they may hear, with him, the cry of the people; to listen to the people until they breathe the will to which God calls us.

"Besides listening we invoke an openness to a sincere discussion, open and fraternal, which leads us to carry with pastoral responsibility the questions that this change in epoch brings."

During the prayer vigil the pope commented that "we must lend our ears to the beat of this time and perceive the 'scent' of the people today so as to remain permeated with their joys and hopes, their sadness and distress, at which time we will know how to propose the good news of the family with credibility."