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October 28, 2015

Synod of Bishops concludes deliberations on marriage and family -
Purposes of synod examined by the pope -
What the synod final report says

In this edition:
1. Synod concludes in Rome.
2. Year of Mercy to follow synod.
3. The synod's purposes.
4. The civilly remarried and the synod.
5. Overview of synod final report.

1. Synod of Bishops Concludes in Rome

A post-synod-on-the-family period got under way in the church Oct. 25 when a two-year synod process in Rome devoted to the 21st century's diverse couples and families reached its conclusion. The period ahead will be one of digesting the final report of Synod 2015 and its conclusions. It will be a period, as well, of reflection on the evolving process of dialogue and open expression that Pope Francis encouraged in the synod.

The three-week October 2015 ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops addressed a broad range of family-life issues. The issues that seemed to matter most in news reports and in the mind of the public, however, were Communion for divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of a first marriage and questions related to couples living in what often are referred to in the church as "irregular" situations.

The period ahead, then, will be a time not only to visit and revisit what was said by the synod on those matters, but a time, as well, to consider what the synod had to say about the importance of marriage preparation, the financial pressures families experience, parents and children, migrant families, roles of women and many other concerns.

Surely, much will be heard in the weeks ahead not only about what the synod actually said, but what it meant in the 94 paragraphs of its final report.

It needs to be noted at the same time, though, that the final report is designed to serve as a resource for the pope in composing the document he plans to write on marriage and family life, and the conclusions of this synod.

Typically, a pope develops an apostolic exhortation based on the work of an ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops. If past experience is any guide, that document will become the synod's written legacy. Years from now what is likely to be referenced when people speak of this synod will be the apostolic exhortation.

When the final report of Synod 2015 was released in Italian Oct. 24, numerous commentators immediately concluded that it left room on key points for Pope Francis to move in directions he decides upon. Some were suggesting afterward that the final report left doors open for Pope Francis.

What will Synod 2015's lasting legacy be? It seems worth noting that in the time leading up to the synod, and indeed during the synod itself, Pope Francis repeatedly sought to explain what "pastoral ministry" for the family entails and the shift of emphasis it invites for some.

Might the time of this synod be remembered far into the future as a time uniquely devoted to renewing interest in pastoral ministry and exploring its true value in Catholic life?

2. Year of Mercy: The Synod in Context

The 2015 ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops quickly will be followed by the Year of Mercy, which begins in the church Dec. 8. This will be a year for exploring the demands of Christian mercy in our times.

The goals of the Year of Mercy extend beyond the concerns of the 2015 synod. Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Year of Mercy will become a time for revisiting Synod 2015 from a variety of perspectives and delving into the ways the church and its people can relate mercifully to the couples and families of our time and, to borrow terminology from the pope and the synod, how the church might "accompany" them.

Pope Francis kept mercy front and center in his homily for the Oct. 25 Mass concluding Synod 2015 in Rome. He proclaimed, "Today is a time of mercy!"

The Gospel reading for Masses Oct. 25 introduced Bartimaeus, the blind beggar (Mk 10:46-52). "It is beautiful to see how Christ admires Bartimaeus' faith, how he has confidence in him," Pope Francis said. Jesus, he added, "believes in us, more than we believe in ourselves."

Jesus is "not content" to offer alms to Bartimaeus, Pope Francis pointed out. Rather, Jesus "wants personally to encounter him." Jesus asks him, "What do you want me to do for you?"

Pope Francis commented: "Jesus shows that he wants to hear our needs. He wants to talk with each of us about our lives, our real situations, so that nothing is kept from him."

Two temptations "for those who follow Jesus" were described by the pope - temptations illustrated in the reading about Bartimaeus. "None of the disciples stopped, as Jesus did" to encounter this beggar. "They continued to walk, going on as if nothing were happening," said the pope.

Thus, "if Bartimaeus was blind, they were deaf. His problem was not their problem." This, Pope Francis said, shows how possible it is to be with Jesus without thinking like him.

"Scheduled faith" was the second temptation mentioned by Pope Francis. Falling into this temptation means that "we are able to walk with the people of God, but we already have our schedule for the journey where everything is listed. We know where to go and how long it will take; everyone must respect our rhythm, and every problem is a bother."

In succumbing to this temptation, "we run the risk of becoming the 'many' of the Gospel who lose patience and rebuke Bartimaeus," Pope Francis said.

The disciples of Jesus are called "to bring people into contact with the compassionate Mercy that saves," Pope Francis said. He stressed that "when humanity's cry," like the cry of Bartimaeus, grows strong, "there is no other response than to make Jesus' words our own and, above all, imitate his heart." For, "moments of suffering and conflict are for God occasions of mercy."

3. Purposes of the Synod

"The church's first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God's mercy, to call to conversion and to lead all men and women to salvation," Pope Francis said in a speech to the Synod of Bishops at the conclusion of its final session in Rome Oct. 24.

Speaking frankly and directly, the pope presented a list of synod purposes and nonpurposes. He commented on the synod's successes as well as the style of the disagreement that emerged at various points during its three weeks.

"In the course of this synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed -- and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways -- certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue," he said, "They offered a vivid image of a church which does not simply 'rubberstamp,' but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts."

The pope remarked that the word "family" now has "a new resonance" for the synod participants, "so much so that the word itself already evokes the richness of the family's vocation and the significance of the labors of the synod."

He highlighted a challenging reality for the synod, which by its nature represents the church in all parts of the world. It was seen during the synod, the pope noted, "that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent" may be "considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another" and that "what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another."

It also was seen that "what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion." The pope concluded that "cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated if it is to be respected and applied."

Pope Francis said to the assembly's participants that the synod experience "made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulas but the gratuitousness of God's love and forgiveness."

His point, he said, was "in no way to detract from the importance of formulas, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his mercy."

The synod's purpose was not, the pope insisted, to settle "all the issues having to do with the family." Instead, the synod attempted to see those issues "in the light of the Gospel and the church's tradition," and to bring "the joy of hope without falling into a facile repetition of what is obvious or has already been said."

Again, he said, the synod's purpose was not to find "exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family." The purpose, rather, was to carefully study these challenges and confront them "fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand."

And the synod was about baring the "closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church's teachings or good intentions in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families."

The synod "was about making clear that the church is a church of the poor in spirit and of sinners seeking forgiveness, not simply of the righteous and the holy, but rather of those who are righteous and holy precisely when they feel themselves poor sinners," Pope Francis stated.

He said it was the synod's purpose, moreover, "to transmit the beauty of Christian newness," which at times is "encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible."

4. Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics

The final report of Synod 2015 covers a wide range of marriage- and family-related concerns. But what many observers really want to know right now is what the synod said about divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment of a first marriage.

The synod strongly supported church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. It also asked whether there are ways of acting more mercifully toward divorced-remarried Catholics.

Three paragraphs in the synod's 94-paragraph final report relate in a particular way to divorced-remarried Catholics and whether some could receive the sacraments. Those paragraphs, Nos. 84-86, are bound to be dissected, studied and debated for some time to come.

In the first place, it was clear at the synod's conclusion that the synod participants themselves did not interpret these paragraphs in unison. According to the report, "there can be no general rule that applies equally" to all the divorced and remarried without considering their personal situations, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris said in a Catholic News Service report by Cindy Wooden.

But Australian Cardinal George Pell, who heads the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, told CNS that "the text has certainly been significantly misunderstood." Cardinal Pell noted that "there is no reference in Paragraph 85 or anywhere in the document to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried; that is fundamental."

And Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Austria, insisted that the report was not a blanket "yes or no" to Communion for divorced Catholics who remarry civilly. He viewed the report, according to the CNS story, as calling for "careful discernment, recognizing that the amount of blame different people bear for a broken marriage and the different situations which led them to remarry vary widely. Therefore, the consequences in terms of absolution and Communion vary as well."

Part of what underlies this disagreement is the synod's recommendation that an internal-forum conversation involving a priest and a couple be employed to address divorced-remarried couples' questions and desires. But the report does not say in a highly specific way just what the outcome of this internal-forum conversation should or might be.

It seems to some, however, that such an internal-forum conversation would consider both church teaching and the conscience of a divorced-remarried individual or couple, and that its outcomes might differ from couple to couple.

According to the report's Paragraph 86, an internal-forum conversation of this type would need to consider the demands of both truth and charity. The aim of the conversation is to know God's will and to respond more perfectly to it.

Does the synod's discussion of an internal-forum process in cases involving divorce and civil remarriage present one of those unanswered questions that Pope Francis might respond to in an apostolic exhortation on the synod? That is a question some ask.

The synod also concluded that the reasons and the culpability for divorce and remarriage can vary from person to person. There is a big difference, the synod said, between someone who tries sincerely to save a marriage and someone who, through a grave fault, destroys a marriage.

What the synod made entirely clear was that divorced Catholics must be welcomed in the church and must not be made to feel that they are excommunicated, since they are not. Divorced-remarried Catholics need to be accompanied by the church's pastoral ministry and to become more fully integrated into the church's life.

5. Overview of Synod's Final Report

No official translation of Synod 2015's final, 22,000-word report is available as I write this edition of the jknirp.com newsletter; the report thus far is available only in Italian. I hope in our next edition to quote generously from a translation so that you can see exactly how the synod expressed itself not only on the most difficult issues but on other matters vital for church ministry.

"Strong words and provocative language" were "bandied around" during the Synod of Bishops, "both by those seeking some new developments in church teaching and by those who resist any openings toward people in so-called irregular situations of cohabitation, remarriage or same-sex relationships," a Vatican Radio report said Oct. 24, the final day of the synod deliberations.

But the Vatican Radio report said that "the final document has been welcomed by most as a carefully crafted work of art which seeks to balance the very different views and cultural perspectives of all synod participants." The synod, it added, encouraged pastors "to open doors and engage with every person and every family, not judging or condemning, but welcoming and caring for each individual need."

Accenting the current style of dialogue within the synod, Vatican Radio commented that half a century after the synod was established by Blessed Paul VI, the synod and its participants now "are moving toward a new way of collaborating more closely with each other and with the pope, respecting differences, while at the same time realizing the value of diversity."

Pope Francis, after all, invited the synod participants to speak openly and without fear during its sessions.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, said in a briefing on the final report that it takes into account the many difficulties the family faces today, while also taking account of the family's strength, its capacity for facing and reacting to those difficulties.

The report urges that the situation of couples who cohabit without marrying be faced constructively, according to Father Lombardi. Efforts should be made to transform their situation into an opportunity for embarking on a path toward the fullness of marriage and family, the report recommends.

It insists that God loves homosexual persons and that their dignity must be respected, but it says that same-sex unions cannot be recognized as comparable to marriages.

Father Lombardi noted that the final report addresses concerns related to immigrants, refugees and persecuted families, as well as to widows and widowers, couples in mixed marriages, the disabled, the elderly and grandparents.

The report, he said, includes suggestions for strengthening preparation for marriage, especially for young people who appear intimidated by it.

He added that the final report reflects extensively on the need in the church to speak in ways that people understand so that the church's proclamation of the Gospel of the family will respond to the deepest human aspirations.

Finally, he indicated that the synod report speaks of the beauty of the family as a domestic church, society's fundamental cell, a place of safe entry for the deepest sentiments and a point of connection in a fragmented age.