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Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Care of the Family Begins. Stop Fighting and Start Praying

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I write on the first full morning of the Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Care of the Family. The Catholic blogosphere has been inundated with theories and conjecture concerning “camps” among the Bishops which, depending on the source you read, will cause various possible problems.

As someone who has spent a significant time studying Church history, both out of personal interest and in pursuit of graduate theology work, I am not at all concerned about the lead up to the Synod. Nor am I concerned about the outcome of the Synod. What matters most is what happens over these vital days of prayer and deliberation.

It is called an extraordinary Synod for good reason. The last of its kind occurred in 1980. It was called by St John Paul II and led to the promulgation of the prophetic and powerful 1981 apostolic exhortation entitled The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.

The Bishops and other consecrated, religious and lay participants in this extraordinary Synod were selected by Pope Francis for their ability to contribute to what the Church knows is a major pastoral concern.

There is a literal assault on marriage and the family in much of the West. Yet, what the Church has to offer paves the path to a future of true freedom and human flourishing. The Lord Knows that – and the deposit of faith is in His hands.

This is not simply a defensive synod.

Nor is it a time when the Church will change her teaching to somehow accommodate the contemporary culture. She will certainly, as mother and teacher, consider how to best pastor the family and proclaim the truth about its nature, indispensable role and vital call for these times. She presents a new culture, breaking into our own through propetic witness, proclamation and spiritual power.

This approach to re-presenting her timeless truths in fresh language is what she does in every age.

The Church is the seed of a new culture, the seed of the coming Kingdom. In this Extraordinary Synod, the Church is considering the family within the pastoral and missionary context of the hour. This Synod is an opportunity for the Church, as mother and teacher, to reaffirm the unchangeable truth that marriage between one man and one woman, intended for life, open to life and formative of family, is the good news the whole world needs in a time of increasing bad news.

And to learn how to most effectively proclaim that the family, which is the first cell of both the Church, the Body of Christ, and of all civil society, is God’s plan for the whole human race.

Finally, to find the most effective and fruitful way to communicate that the Christian vision of marriage and family paves the path to a future of hope – and it is not simply some kind of vestige of the past, as some purport. In fact, in the words of St John Paul II, “the future of the world passes through the family.

Marriage and the family founded upon it is Gods plan. He will take good care of guarding the deposit of faith which it reveals. The Pre-Synod discussions were not a problem. They represent the very kind of interchange which often accompanies such pivotal and important meetings in Church history. The fact that they were robust, even heated, is not new at all.

One of my favorite professors in my doctoral work at the Catholic University of America was Dr. Susan Wessel. She is what I hope to become a “JD/PhD”, holding both her Juris Doctor degree (Civil Law) and her Doctorate in Theology. Dr Wessel wrote a truly fascinating book entitled Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy It is an academic work, but it brings to light the fact that theological disputes are nothing new in our 2000 year history as a Church.

In fact, past Synods and Councils in Church history have had similar lead-ups. In some instances  the disagreement was much more intense than what preceded this Synod . We simply did not have the technological wherewithal to be privy to the kind of “inside baseball” accounts and sideline pontificating which the internet now affords.

Our history as a Church demonstrates that the Lord has used all of it. He guides such gatherings and uses them to fulfill one of His many promises to us – that He would send the Holy Spirit which would guide us into all truth. (John 14:26). One of the ways this promise is fulfilled is through the rough and tumble so often associated with such Synods.

None of this robust discussion- and even disagreement – is new.

I urge all who read this article to stop worrying and fighting one another. Stop dividing. If you are either succumbing to fear, or spreading it, cease doing so. Start offering what Pope Francis has asked for, focused, intense and dynamic prayer.

Trust the Lord of this Extraordinary Synod. Trust His Church. Jesus is still identified with His Church. He is the Head and we are the Body. Do we understand the implications of this profound truth? Has it infiltrated the way we actually live our daily lives? We need not fear. The sky is not falling. In fact, the Church holds up the sky.

On the eve of the Extraordinary Synod, Pope Francis led the pilgrims gathered in St Peters square in prayer. You can read his entire address here. However, I offer these particular words to help us regain the perspective of living faith we need right now as this historic event unfolds:

Above all, 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 toward a sincere discussion, open and fraternal, which leads us to carry with pastoral responsibility the questions that this change in epoch brings. We let it flow back into our hearts, without ever losing peace, but with serene trust which in his own time the Lord will not fail to bring into unity.

Ask the Holy Spirit to guide the Council Fathers! Stop battling one another and start battling the real opponents who are arrayed against the Lord and His Church. Join together and pray for a full release of the Holy Spirit on this Synod. Remember the words of the Angel spoken to our Lady at the Annunciation and so often quoted by Saint John Paul II, Be not Afraid!

Too much of the back and forth online concerning the Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral care of the family has only fanned the fires of fear among God’s people. It has also given those who oppose the Church, and her liberating message of truth, fodder for their efforts to undermine her mission.

I urge my fellow Catholics and all other Christians to end the hypothetical speculation and put aside the fear. Jesus spoke directly to such fear – Fear is useless; what is needed is trust.
(Luke 8:50, Mark 5:36)

Trust the Lord. Trust He still works through His Church. The Church is our mother. Love her, and pray for her.

Our own ongoing conversion should involve ongoing conversion to the truth about the Church and trust in the Lord. The early fathers of the Church would have found the notion that one could be a Christian without being a member of the Church incomprehensible. Here are but three of a myriad of oft quoted tests confirming this identification between belonging to Jesus and belonging to His Church: Let us love the Lord our God; let us love His Church. Let us love Him as our Father and her as our mother.(St. Augustine)

No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother. (St. Cyprian)

For where the Church is, there the Spirit of God is also; and where the Spirit of God is, there the Church is, and all grace. And the Spirit is truth”   (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Have we experienced this kind of relational identification with the Church? Do we really believe that we live in the Church and go into the world? Is this experience supposed to only be the experience of the mystics? Is it just the talk of the Saints and Fathers? Was it only for the early church? Or, is it supposed to be the truly common experience of every Christian? I believe it is supposed to be the common experience of all who bear the name Christian. We are called in this Third Christian Millennium to recover the apostolic spirit which characterized the first disciples.

The Church is not some “thing” outside of us, which we try to fix or have our “issues” with. Upon our Baptism, the Church becomes our home, our mother, the place in which we now live our lives in Christ. That is not to say we do not sometimes have struggles with our mother. However, she always remains our mother. The Church is human and divine. The Lord knows that. He has birthed the Church from His wounded side  and He continues to work through it. We need not fear.

This kind of ecclesial identification can become the pervading reality of our lives, if we cooperate with grace. It is supposed to become a part of our way of life as Catholic Christians.  To perceive, receive and to live this reality requires a continuing and dynamic conversion and the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are sons and daughters of the Church. In living our lives in her we now carry forward in time the continuing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ who is her Head.

In its treatment of the mystery of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation.”

“The Church is “the world reconciled.” She is that bark which “in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world.” According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah’s ark, which alone saves from the flood.” (#845)

This is not just flowery language. It is ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. Of course, until the Lord returns, the Church is still composed of human members and thus, she is both human and divine. She is often wounded and in need of healing. However, she still offers the means through which we participate in the very life of God. To her has been entrusted the Sacraments and the Word, along with the gift of a teaching office upon which we can depend.

Below I offer an excerpt form the interview with Cardinal Raymond Burke on Monday Morning, October 6, 2014. Among the multiple theories floating around in the blogo-sphere concerning the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops is that somehow there is an effort to stop his voice from being heard. Yet, this interview was prominently featured on Vatican Radio and offered worldwide on the official Vatican News Source.

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Interview with Cardinal Burke on the Synod

Q: Your Eminence, you recently authored a chapter in a book about the indissolubility of marriage, entitled Remaining in the Truth of Christ.  What motivated the book and what is its underlying premise?

At the extraordinary consistory of Cardinals, which was held on Feb 20 and 21 of this year, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave a lengthy discourse on marriage and the family in which he invited a dialogue about what he had stated in his discourse. A group of us decided to ponder more deeply a number of questions which he raised in his presentation and to respond to them in a systematic way. And thank God, with the help of the general editor, Father Robert Dodaro of the Augustinianum, we were able to put this together as a service to the Synod and above all to the Holy Father in his desire to present once again the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family.

Q: Going into the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, what would you identify as three of the biggest challenges to the Catholic family today?

One of the biggest challenges is the defective catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church–I can speak from my experience in the United States–for the past 40 to 50 years. Children and young people are not well catechized with regard to marriage. Coupled with that is the recent entrance of a so-called “gender theory” that alienates human sexuality from its essentially conjugal meaning.

This is now being brought into schools along with the advancement of the homosexual agenda. This is a big challenge for families. It is only in the family that the true sense of who we are as man and woman is taught effectively both by the example of the father and mother, but also in catechesis to amplify that and assist the parents in the fuller teaching of the faith. So this is one major difficulty.

Obviously too, we are dealing with a culture, at least in the West, which is totally secularized and therefore denatured. When God is no longer taken into account, and His plan for creation is no longer considered. Instead, we have the pretense to decide for ourselves the meaning of our own lives and the meaning and destiny of our world, the family suffers first and foremost.

The family today has to be especially alert to the subtle influences of the secularized culture, what St. John Paul II once called the Godless culture, especially its insinuation into the lives of the members of the family and the family itself, through the mass media and above all through the Internet and the horrible reality of pornography on the Internet, which is causing so much damage to families. The second big challenge to families is secular society itself and the challenge to Christian families today to be countercultural.

A third challenge is the whole question of marriage itself and the effective presentation of the Church’s teaching about marriage, which in fact is also known by reason. Marriage is part of our human nature and therefore it is taught by natural law. Faith illumines reason and helps to see the truth in all its richness.

So, we need to help especially young people when they are at the age where one is preparing for marriage to see marriage itself as a beautiful call, a way to eternal salvation-not only to their happiness now on earth-and to assist them in every way we can. I think if we have a good catechesis for children and for young people it will be easier to reach them with the message of the Church, the message of reason and faith with regard to marriage as they come into their young adult years.

Q: How can we renew our pastoral care for people who are divorced and those who are divorced and remarried?

What we must do for those who are in irregular unions is to show the care to each and every one of them the same care we are called to share with every member of the Church, especially those who are in the most need. There is no question that those who are living in irregular unions have a very particular need of the Church’s care.

I think the important thing for us is to show them how, even in their particular situation, they can convert themselves more and more to Christ and conform themselves more to Him. It is not easy; it is one of the more particularly challenging situations in which a Christian can find him or herself, but nevertheless there is grace to respond in a way that is true to the teaching of Christ and therefore liberating.

It would be a big mistake to approach the situation simply from the point of view of trying to figure out how to admit persons in irregular unions to the sacraments. This is a contradiction in itself and would truly miss the point of the authentic pastoral care that these couples need. The Church has a long history of trying to help couples who, for one reason or another, are not able to leave an irregular union to live chastely and to live justly as they can in that situation.

Q: The Synod has attracted a great deal of media attention. How do you think the media reporting has impacted the Synod and people’s perception of it?

Certainly one good thing is that people are very much aware that there will be a Synod on the family! That message has gotten out. The sad part is that the message has been colored by the media with expectations which are unrealistic and actually not true to the nature of the Synod and, even in a more serious way, not true to the doctrine of the faith.

I have experienced myself in talking with the faithful and with bishops and priests that there has been built up this expectation that the Church is now going to change Her teaching with regard to the indissolubility of marriage and permit now second and third marriages and that for those in irregular unions there will be access to the sacraments. These kinds of expectations are unreal. They are not true to the work of the Synod in the first place and, in a more profound sense, not true to what Christ himself has taught us, the truth that human nature itself teaches us.

Therefore, that part is very sad. It has been going on now for several months, which is not a good situation. The Church’s teaching needs to be made clear now and her fidelity to Christ needs to be very clear in the Synod. Just like the title of the book to which I contributed, Remaining in the Truth of Christ, which is taken from St. John Paul II’s post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris consortio. That is what the Synod is all about: remaining in the truth of Christ.

Q: What would you like to see come out of the Extraordinary Synod?

I’m hoping that it will take up again the great papal Magisterium, which is a gift to us, beginning with Casti connubi (On Chaste Marriage) of Pope Pius XI, the teaching of Pope Pius XII, then in more recent times, the prophetic and heroic teaching of Humanae vitae (On Human Life) of Pope Paul VI, soon to be beatified at the end of this Synod, as well as the teaching of Familiaris consortio (Christian Family in the Modern World) of St John Paul II.

Fundamentally, what I hope will emerge from the Synod is this beautiful truth about the human person, who has written into his nature the call to union and communion between man and one woman, which is faithful, which is indissoluble, and which by its very nature is procreative; it participates in the creation of new human life in the image and likeness of God, what the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World referred to as the “crown” of marital love, the gift of offspring.

Whatever the Synod’s particular emphases are-marriage preparation, teaching on natural family planning, all the particular questions-(I hope what) would emerge over all is the splendor of the truth about marriage as God created us from the beginning.

(Report on Vatican Radio and Interview from which this quote is excerpted was by Andrew Summerson)



 

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