The Corner

Synod in Rome Points to Faith, Hope, and Love for Renewal of Marriage, Family, Civilization

Yesterday after I went to Confession, the priest asked me to pray for “what might be the biggest group of Christians in the U.S.: fallen away Catholics.” He said that because we — he and I — are sinners, and have knowledge of the depth of our own failings — at the heart of why we would go to Confession in the first place — it makes us more sensitive to those who feel like they are not welcome. We pray so they might know otherwise — that they might know God’s merciful love. A desire grows in the faithful with the grace of every sacrament for others to know the awesome humbling and strengthening love that God shows us in the sacraments. He also prayed that we — those of us who know we are sinners and also the joy of encountering God’s mercy and truth — might be better witnesses to the Gospel, so that others might be attracted to the love of Christ in us and see in the most compelling ways the value of the Gospel.

It seemed a timely intervention as interventions continue in Rome about how to better support, nourish, and encounter marriage and family.

Today in Rome, the ongoing synod on the family, with cardinals and bishops and laypeople participating, has reached a midway point. This morning, a midterm report was issued that has been described as an “earthquake.” Many might say it is about time. Others will be worried about what it means.

This was how I preliminarily tweeted about it early this morning:

The report strikes me as consistent with what I’ve been hearing going into and coming out of the synod, with just about everything Pope Francis says, and with the reset that Pope Benedict XVI pointed to in the last months of his pontificate, as he opened a Year of Faith at the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and with the Gospel of Christ — which is the starting place, in prayer, for every Christian and our daily encounter with Him.

The report talks about both truth and mercy. Finding “positive elements” in the “irregular” relationships. Being “welcoming.” And, yes, while still being honest about what marriage is and isn’t and acknowledging that Paul VI was prophetic in his Humanae Vitae.

As the priest in the confessional was pointing to, this is a shared work of the Church: not just the stuff of Vatican synods or priests and bishops. As the midterm report — which is only a summary of the discussion thus far — states:

The announcement of the Gospel of the family is an urgent issue for the new evangelization. The Church has to carry this out with the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher (cf. Eph 4,15), in fidelity to the merciful kenosi of Christ. The truth is incarnated in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it.

Evangelizing is the shared responsibility of all God’s people, each according to his or her own ministry and charism. Without the joyous testimony of spouses and families, the announcement, even if correct, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words that is a characteristic of our society (cf. Novo Millennio Ineunte, 50). On various occasions the Synodal Fathers underlined that Catholic families are called upon themselves to be the active subjects of all the pastoral of the family

A lot of the headlines thus far — as you know if you have caught some of them — have been about conflict and specific questions involving divorce and annulments. These are all matters for concern and discernment, and they come up in the midterm report. (As are the children, who have come up, too, at the synod.) As Pope Francis himself said going in, those who are divorced should not feel like they are excommunicated, but often do. The scope of the synod, however, is much more than this, and much more fundamental and deeper in many ways.

That “discernment” word is no small one. The increase in media covering the Catholic Church is fabulous for transparency, but can also present a big challenge on days like these, often unintentionally encouraging the tendency to see the Church through political lenses, or even glasses more appropriate or accustomed to sports-watching. Who’s up and down and who’s winning and losing.

This is part of the reason people — particularly if trusting headlines and excerpts and commentary — can walk away reading totally different things from some of what Pope Francis does and says: He’s seeking to follow the Holy Spirit in his leadership. The Holy Spirit is the lens for a Christian’s receiving and understanding and taking action commensurate with our vocations, too.

Some of the challenge from the point of view of public discussion and understanding is going to be in seeing that this isn’t a sea change in any kind of doctrinal way, but an acknowledgement of pastoral realities and an expression of tremendous love: to seek and show the “Gaze of Christ” to every woman and man who are members of the Body of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

The Catholic Church is a rock established by Christ to be a living hope and an active way to eternity – His way, known in encounter with Him, and his life, Passion, death, and Resurrection. In recent decades, through a mix of dissent, timidity, and outright evil among men, the love and clarity of Church teaching hasn’t always been shared, known, and embraced. Because of the sins (again, evil, some of it of the most heinous sort, as you know) of men, it hasn’t always been seen as credible. With God’s grace, we have to do better — and that’s an everyday matter and requires the examination of conscience our Jesuit spiritual director, Pope Francis, spoke explicitly of on Friday, and guides those listening and watching in daily. As a pastoral matter, in a highly secularized West, the question of how to show the counter-cultural way of Christ, a gift for the fullest freedom and flourishing of women and men for eternity, is a tremendous, multi-layered challenge. For those in the Church thinking about it — thinking about how to bring Christ’s truth and merciful love to the peripheries, as Pope Francis puts it — the challenge is: The people in church and the people who have fallen away and people who have never been within the walls of the church need to know they are loved by a Creator who knows them and offers them something better than life as the world knows it. He has described the Church as a “field hospital,” and I’m at a loss to find a news story today where that metaphor doesn’t speak to the need and help that the Church can and does provide. Whether it’s ISIS, Ebola, immigration, depression and suicide, the most vulnerable at the beginning and end of their lives, violence and unspeakable death . . . offering love — that is, Christ — to anyone who suffers or is in any poverty, material or spiritual, is what the Church does.

Today, of course, marriage and family is suffering. The family is in crisis, is the word Pope Francis has used. How do you do it? Why would you want to do it? Why would you wait for it? How can you make it work? Can it work? What about those who don’t feel drawn to it? What about the fact that what marriage even is is unclear today in our laws?

Getting the law right is essential, but not an end in itself, of course. (See Pope Francis’s homily this morning.) Law isn’t a magic wand, but it is a teacher and should tell the truth and also not impede the freedom to live according to one’s conscience. But it’s going to be hard to get the laws right if the world isn’t overwhelmed by witness to truth being proclaimed.

This — with so many other practical questions, and different ones, depending on where you are and what you do — is the context for the synod on the family in Rome, which is the first main part (it began with prep work that included surveys that discovered that there is a “shocking” — as one leading cardinal from the Philippines put it — lack of knowledge even among Catholics who go to church and the sacraments) of an ongoing process, which will involve in no small public way the city of Philadelphia and a world meeting on families there next fall and Pope Francis’s expected visit and then a follow-up synod. And, as has been long obvious to many who try it, you can’t just say marriage is for a man and a woman anymore and assume people know what you’re talking about and agree. Secularism and relativism and the sexual revolution have weighed on us and changed culture and lives. What was once obvious — though always hard work — is now counter-cultural. (And the pope has encouraged young people to live the life!) How to re-propose truth about our lives to a world that views it with suspicion at best, but also increasingly with a hostility born not only of decisive opposition but pain and misunderstanding? This is the work of the synod: To discuss this in practical ways, honestly and lovingly. This is what is being done.

When Pope Francis issued his exhortation — another example of where you could see him being a bit of a Jesuit retreat leader walking the world through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola in a creative and timely way — on The Joy of the Gospel late last year, many who never got the chance to read it missed both the Gospel and the joy of it. But it is the radical nature of the joy that comes from discipleship that Pope Francis is emphasizing in all of his pleading with Catholics to take their prayerful, sacramental, and missionary encounter with Christ seriously.

The Church can show the way and provide supports, but Christ’s love cannot be seen in that way He needs it to be: Through lives of heroic virtue made possible by the will surrendered to God’s will, strengthened by grace, nurtured by domestic churches living Christian lives. As Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the  current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently put it: People need to see that self-sacrificial love between a man and woman in marriage is attainable. People also need to see that there is a point to it, one that is both about who we are and what we were created to be but also where we ultimately long to go and are made to be. Or so this is what the Church exists to make manifest in the lives of those who say “yes” to Baptism in Christ and life-long transformation in Him.

Rather than the disagreements and even the details of discussion, the most striking thing that has come out of the synod thus far is the tremendous love — the desire so many of those gathered have for telling the truth of Christ in ways that will help and heal and transform. The world needs people of virtue and domestic churches — the family — to be beacons of self-sacrificial joy. And the universal Church today is asking: How can we help? How can we best feed and nourish people in a way that will both meet their needs and be just and true? How can people both be better prepared and reconciled? There’s listening and talking, give and take. There’s desire to hear and knowledge that some of the best teachers are those who are living the life of the radical call of Christianity, and who know the sweetness of the taste of redemption. And it begins and ends with prayer and encounter with Christ and Christ in one another.

One last word about Confession: Vatican Radio has a report of a heartbreaking and yet magnificent story about a woman who thought her sins were too great to be forgiven. (Which reminds me of one of the most maddening — because it was like salt being pored on open wounds — media misunderstandings of recent years, surrounding World Youth Day in Madrid and abortion.) They were not — they are not — and she has encountered God’s merciful love as she now knows the truth. 

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