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July 8, 2015

October 2015 Synod of Bishops
to deliberate pastoral action for and with the family -
Synod working paper views needs and strengths of marriage and family

In this edition:
1. Synod 2015 approaches.
2. One synod leads to another.
3. Pastoral action and the family.
4. Quotes from the working paper:
a) Financial pressure on families.
b) Families that migrate.
c) Couples and youth catechesis.
d) Homosexual persons.
5. Families as agents of care.
6. Civilly remarried Catholics.
7. When couples separate.

1. 2015 Synod of Bishops Approaches

The word "pastoral" appears more than 65 times in the working paper for the October 2015 assembly of the world Synod of Bishops. The upcoming synod can be expected to focus heavily on pastoral action toward and with the couples and families of today's world.

The 2015 synod will take up where the October 2014 synod left off, continuing the discussion of key points discussed and debated last year, such as:
  • Ways to accompany the newly married.

  • Support for couples over the years of marriage.

  • The church and divorced people who remarry civilly.

  • Pastoral care for homosexual persons and their families.

  • The needs of single-parent families.

  • The church and couples who cohabit without marrying.
But while October's synod sessions will continue the work of last year's synod, this year's theme differs somewhat from last year's theme. "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization" was the 2014 theme, but the 2015 theme is "The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World."

It is not entirely clear how the new theme will shape the direction of the 2015 synod discussions differently than last year's theme. But the wording of the new theme obviously highlights the family as a subject of Christian life with a vocation and mission, and not simply an object of care and attention.

In this regard, for example, the working paper highlights the roles couples and families can play by accompanying other couples during the first years of their marriage or lending support to couples in troubled marriages.

The working paper points out, too, that the 2015 synod takes place "on the eve of the holy year of mercy," which begins Dec. 8. Pope Francis' accent on mercy is likely to influence the synod's work in various ways.

There is another difference to note between the two synods. The 2014 sessions constituted an extraordinary or special assembly on the Synod of Bishops and helped to lay the groundwork for the 2015 sessions to follow.

The 2015 sessions, however, constitute an ordinary or regular assembly of the synod. It is very likely, therefore, that the pope - perhaps a year or so after the synod -- will issue an apostolic exhortation reflecting upon this synod's recommendations.

Traveling in Latin America, Pope Francis spoke July 6 of the upcoming synod, insisting that what the family needs today is a miracle. During a Mass in Guayaquil, Ecuador, whose Gospel reading told of the wedding feast at Cana, the pope asked the people to pray for just such a miracle.

The pope's comment immediately was quoted in news reports, prompting Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, to say that the pope's remark was not meant to refer to any specific issue the synod might deliberate. What did the pope say? Allow me to quote from his homily:

"Shortly before the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the church will celebrate the ordinary synod devoted to the family, deepen her spiritual discernment and consider concrete solutions and help for the many difficult and significant challenges facing families today.

"I ask you to pray fervently for this intention so that Christ can take even what might seem to us impure, like the water in the jars scandalizing or threatening us, and turn it -- by making it part of his 'hour' - into a miracle. The family today needs this miracle."

2. One Synod Leads to Another

A synod working paper is a unique type of document. Its contents are based on suggestions from national conferences of bishops, other Catholic leaders and scholars, religious orders and many other interested groups and individuals around the world.

This particular working paper also is unique because it reflects the discussions and conclusions of last year's synod, including that synod's final report. In a sense, the observations and recommendations in the 2014 synod's final report form the working paper's backbone, with suggestions received since then by the Vatican Synod Secretariat structured around them. But the working paper expands the list of issues addressed in the 2014 final report.

The working paper also recalls various speeches by Pope Francis, including the speech he delivered at the conclusion of the 2014 synod. In that speech he said that the synod's final report would serve as a basis for the consultations to be conducted in the year ahead in preparation for the 2015 synod.

"Now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas [of the 2014 synod] 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," the pope said.

A working paper is not a precise outline of what a synod will address. It is safe to predict, though, that the points accented most heavily in a working paper will be explored during the synod sessions.

This year it is safe to predict that the synod will underscore the pastoral strengths and needs of families, and propose new and more effective ways to interact with the actual families of our times.

"The Gospel of the family offers an ideal in life which must take into account a sense of the times and the real difficulties in permanently maintaining commitments," the working paper states. "The church," it adds, "needs to proclaim a message which might give hope and not be burdensome so that every family may know that the church never abandons the family."

The working paper suggests that "the Christian message ought preferably to be proclaimed in a manner which might inspire hope." It says:

"A clear, inviting and open communication needs to be adopted, one which does not moralize, judge or control, but bears witness to the church's moral teaching, while at the same time remaining sensitive to the circumstances of each individual."

The paper calls further attention to the need to communicate well with contemporary families when it says:

"Since many do not understand the various subjects of the church's magisterium, a language is urgently needed which everyone, especially young people, can understand and one which conveys the beauty of family love and the meaning of terms such as 'self-giving,' 'conjugal love,' 'fertility' and 'procreation.'"

3. Pastoral Action and the Family

As a welcoming community the church has a valuable role to play "in supporting families," according to the working paper for the October 2015 world Synod of Bishops. The church's "welcoming communities," it says, are needed more than ever today "to offer support to parents" in the complex situations of everyday life as they go about "their work of raising their children."

The working paper insists, as the 2014 final synod report did, that "people need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life." It says, "We need to know how to support them in their searching and to encourage them in their hunger for God and their wish to feel fully part of the church." And this includes support for those "who have experienced failure or find themselves in a variety of situations."

Families "wounded" in one way or another are a major concern of the synod working paper. It urges at the same time that the family's strengths not be overlooked. "A proper appreciation of the strength of the family is particularly necessary if its weaknesses are to be treated," it explains.

If the working paper is any indication, the 2015 synod can be expected to devote attention to serving families that are wounded in various ways. "Almost everyone agrees that taking care of wounded families and allowing them to experience the infinite mercy of God is fundamental. People differ, however, on the approach to be used," says the working paper. It explains:
  • "On the one hand, some consider it necessary to encourage those who live in nonmarital partnerships to undertake a road of return, leading backward.

  • "On the other hand, others support inviting these people to look forward, to leave their prison of anger, disappointment, pain and loneliness, and to continue on the road ahead."
For example, in its pastoral care the church "ought to accompany those in a civil marriage or those living together in a gradual discovery of 'the seeds of the Word' which lie hidden, so as to value them until the fullness of union in the sacrament [of matrimony] might be achieved."

If the "vocation of Christian marriage" is to be better understood, marriage preparation must be improved, the working paper affirms. But, it comments, "the catechesis before marriage" sometimes is "poor in content," even though it is "an essential part of ordinary pastoral care."

Given the importance of pastoral action related to the family, the paper notes that some would like "the ongoing formation of the clergy and pastoral workers" to address "the emotional and psychological development that will be indispensable for them in the pastoral care of families."

When married couples experience "problems in their relationship," they ought to "be able to count on the assistance and guidance of the church," the working paper states, directly echoing a recommendation of the 2014 synod. It says, "Experience shows that with proper assistance and acts of reconciliation, through grace, a great percentage of troubled marriages find a solution in a satisfying manner."

In its "pastoral work of charity and mercy," the church "seeks to help persons recover and restore relationships," it notes.

The need today to make "courageous pastoral choices" was pointed out during the 2014 synod sessions, the working paper recalls. Speaking in the context of families that are wounded, it notes that the 2014 synod said:

"Strongly reconfirming their faithfulness to the Gospel of the family and acknowledging that separation and divorce are always wounds that cause deep suffering to the married couple and to their children, the synod fathers felt the urgent need to embark on a new pastoral course based on the present reality of weaknesses within the family, knowing oftentimes that these are more 'endured' with suffering than freely chosen."

4. Quotes From Synod Working Paper

Effects of Family Financial Pressures: "The following effects of economic inequity are reflected in a particularly acute manner in the family: Growth is impeded; a home is missing; couples do not wish to have children; children find it difficult to study and become independent; and a calm planning for the future is precluded." (From the 2015 Synod of Bishops working paper, No. 14)

Families That Migrate: "Many are concerned about the effects of migration on the family. . . . Persons who are migrating require a specific pastoral care, which is given to not only families in migration but also members of the families who are left behind in their places of origin. Such care is to be done while respecting their cultures and the human and religious formation from which each comes. Today migration is creating tragic consequences for masses of individuals and families, as if they were 'a surplus' in different populations and territories. . . . Encountering a new country and a new culture is made all the more difficult when there are no conditions of genuine warmth, acceptance, respect for the rights of everyone and the right of peaceful coexistence and solidarity." (From the 2015 Synod of Bishops working paper, Nos. 24 and 26)

Couples and Catechetical Formation of the Young: "Many consider that the catechetical program for the family needs to be revised. In this regard attention might be given to involving married couples in catechesis, especially with their children, in conjunction with priests, deacons and consecrated persons. This collaboration serves to demonstrate that the vocation of marriage is an important reality which requires an adequate preparation for a reasonable period of time. Integrating sound Christian families and dependable ministers in this program adds to a community's credibility in its witnessing to young people on their journey in making significant choices in their lives." (From the 2015 Synod of Bishops' working paper, No. 53)

Homosexual Persons and Their Families: "Every person, regardless of his/her sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his/her human dignity and received with sensitivity and great care in both the church and society. It would be desirable that dioceses devote special attention in their pastoral programs to the accompaniment of families where a member has a homosexual tendency and of homosexual persons themselves." (From the 2015 Synod of Bishops working paper, No. 131)

5. Families as Agents of Care

"The family is uniquely important to the church, and in these times when all believers are invited to think of others rather than themselves, the family needs to be rediscovered as the essential agent in the work of evangelization," the working paper for the October 2015 assembly of the Synod of Bishops states, directly quoting from the final report of the 2014 synod.

At numerous points the working paper calls attention to the active roles of service to others that married couples and their families can fulfill. This is one of the ways the paper highlights the theme of the 2015 assembly, "The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World."

Families, for the church today, are not only objects of pastoral attention, but are agents of pastoral care and of evangelization.

The paper affirms that "the family, in addition to being called upon to respond to today's challenges, is above all called by God to an ever-increasing awareness of its missionary identity as a domestic church, even to the point of 'going outside itself.'" Thus, it adds, "in a world often marked by loneliness and sadness, the Gospel of the Family is indeed good news."

The roles couples can play by accompanying and giving support to other couples is strongly accented by the paper. Those they accompany may be couples preparing for marriage, couples who have entered the first years of marriage or couples whose lives are troubled.

"In the initial years of married life, couples often tend to keep to themselves, resulting in isolation from society," the paper observes. "For this reason," it adds, "newlyweds need to experience the nearness of the community."

There is agreement, according to the paper, "that sharing experiences of married life might help younger families develop a greater awareness of the beauty and challenges of marriage." The working paper says that "the growth of a family to maturity calls for a strengthening of the network of relationships among couples and their creating meaningful ties."

The early years of a marriage represent "a vital and sensitive period during which couples become more aware of the challenges and meaning of married life," the paper affirms in concert with the 2014 synod. Thus, the church's role of accompanying married couples "needs to go beyond the actual celebration of the sacrament" of matrimony.

This is an area, it says, where "experienced couples are of great importance in any pastoral activity," and "the parish is the ideal place for these experienced couples to be of service to younger couples."

Couples benefit from the support of others in raising children, the paper suggests. "Everyone agrees that the first school in raising a child is the family and that the Christian community offers support and assistance in the family's irreplaceable role in upbringing," the paper states.

It points out that "many see the need to provide places and opportunities where families can meet so as to encourage parental formation and the sharing of experiences among families."

When couples experience difficulty in their marriage, the faith community might "display a friendliness" toward them "through the nearness" of other committed couples, the paper suggests. It says:

"The church draws near spouses who are running the risk of separation so they can rediscover the beauty and the strength of their married life." Moreover, "in cases of a painful end to a relationship, the church feels the duty of being close to these people in their time of suffering in such a way as to prevent disastrous conflicts between the spouses and, above all, to minimize the suffering of the children."

6. Church's Divorced, Civilly Remarried Members

News reports on the October 2014 extraordinary synod in Rome focused intently on the issue of whether a way can be found for Catholics who divorce and subsequently enter into a civil marriage to receive holy Communion in the church. On this issue the synod participants did not reach agreement, though the synod agreed that divorced people in the church need to be welcomed more fully and happily by the faith community.

The reception of Communion by divorced people who remarry civilly is a subject that "needs to be thoroughly examined, bearing in mind the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances," the 2014 synod stated in its final report.

The working paper for the October 2015 synod describes the status of this issue by quoting from the 2014 synod's final report. The synod "considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist," it says, adding:
  • "Various synod fathers insisted on maintaining the present discipline because of the constitutive relationship between participation in the Eucharist and communion with the church, as well as her teaching on the indissoluble character of marriage.

  • "Others proposed a more individualized approach, permitting access in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions, primarily in irreversible situations and those involving moral obligations toward children who would have to endure unjust suffering. Access to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice, determined by the diocesan bishop."
It appears certain that the upcoming, ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops will again take up the issue of reception of the sacraments by divorced-remarried Catholics. Whatever happens on that specific matter, the church now appears set on a course of welcoming its divorced members more fully into the life of the faith community.

Together with the 2014 synod, this working paper observes that "a new aspect of family ministry is requiring attention today," one that encompasses the reality of traditional marriages, civil marriages between a man and woman, and cohabitation. The 2014 synod said:

"When a union reaches a particular stability, legally recognized, characterized by deep affection and responsibility for children, and showing an ability to overcome trials, these unions can offer occasions for guidance with an eye toward the eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage. Very often, on the other hand, a couple lives together not in view of a possible future marriage but without any intention of a legally binding relationship."

However, it is added, "in accordance with Christ's mercy, the church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and lost love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm.

"Conscious that the most merciful thing is to tell the truth in love, we go beyond compassion. Merciful love, as it attracts and unites, transforms and elevates. It is an invitation to conversion. We understand the Lord's attitude in the same way; he does not condemn the adulterous woman, but asks her to sin no more (Jn 8:1-11)."

The working paper says, again quoting the 2014 synod, that "those who are divorced and remarried require careful discernment and an accompaniment of great respect." It cautions that "language or behavior that might make them feel an object of discrimination should be avoided, all the while encouraging them to participate in the life of the community."

Moreover, it says, "the Christian community's care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but, precisely in this way, the community is seen to express its charity."

The paper then notes that "many parties request that the attention to and the accompaniment of persons who are divorced and civilly remarried take into account the diversity of situations and be geared toward a greater integration of them into the life of the Christian community," remembering that "these persons are still part of the church."

7. Pope Francis: When Couples Separate

Pope Francis spoke June 24 about "families in so-called irregular situations," acknowledging that he does not "really like this word." But, he said, their situation "causes us to wonder. How do we help them?" The pope's comments came during his general audience in St. Peter's Square.

His remarks, appearing to anticipate the October 2015 Synod of Bishops assembly, came in the context of a reflection on the family and the troubles families often experience. The pope expressed special concern for children, and he spoke of the reality of marital divisions and separations, even the necessity of them in some cases.

"We know," Pope Francis said, "that in every family history there are moments in which the intimacy of loved ones is offended by the behavior of its members. Words and actions -- and omissions! -- that rather than expressing love, dismiss it or even mortify it."

The problem is that "when these hurts, which are still rectifiable, are ignored, they deepen: They transform into impertinence, hostility and contempt," the pope remarked. "And at that point they can become deep wounds that divide husband and wife, and induce them to find understanding, support, consolation elsewhere."

Pope Francis said that "the depletion of conjugal love spreads resentment in relationships. And often this disintegration 'collapses' onto the children."

He asked whether the "spiritual wound" a child may experience in this situation is ever really considered. "Despite our seemingly evolved sensitivity and all our refined psychological analyses, I ask myself if we are not just anesthetizing ourselves to the wounds in children's souls," Pope Francis said.

The pope insisted that "in the family everything is connected" and that when a family's "soul is wounded in some way, the infection spreads to everyone."

Yet, he said, "there are cases in which separation is inevitable. At times it becomes even morally necessary, precisely when it is a matter of removing the weaker spouse or young children from the gravest wounds caused by abuse and violence, by humiliation and exploitation, by disregard and indifference."

When a couple separate, there are those "who, sustained by faith and by love for their children, bear witness to their fidelity to a bond they believed in, although it may seem impossible to revive it," the pope noted. But, he said, "not all those who are separated feel called to this vocation. Not all discern, in their solitude, the Lord calling them."

Thus, he said, "around us we find various families in so-called irregular situations - I don't really like this word - and it causes us to wonder. How do we help them? How do we accompany them? How do we accompany them so that the children aren't taken hostage by either Dad or Mom?"

He urged his listeners to "ask the Lord for great faith in order to see reality through the eyes of God; and for great charity in order to approach people with his merciful heart."