What will happen at the Synod on the Family?

Bishops and cardinals attend the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2014. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring Bishops and cardinals attend the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2014. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Amy Morris-Young held back happy tears as she watched her son, Nick, receive his first Communion May 17 at St. Mary Church in Anacortes. This beautiful moment had been a long time coming. Nick, who has autism, is 27 years old.

Twenty years earlier, Amy had tried to integrate Nick into Sunday school at a different parish, but that was “a nightmare,” she said. The teachers just didn’t know how to deal with Nick’s special needs. “They basically told me to get him out of there,” Amy recalled. In her frustration, she stayed away from church for a while. “It could have severed my connection with our church,” she said of the experience.

Thankfully, things had changed by last October, when Nick leaned over during Mass and whispered, “Hey, I want to get one of those cracker thing­ies, too.” Amy didn’t take him seriously at first, but then she thought: Well, I received first Communion in second grade; and, developmentally, Nick is like a tall 7-year-old. Why not?

She talked with St. Mary’s then-pastor, Benedictine Father Marion Nguyen, and exchanged emails with the archdiocesan directors for pastoral care and parish faith formation. She received encouragement, and an “Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit” from Loyola Press. Soon, Nick began attending Sunday-morning faith formation classes.

Nick Ring
Nick Ring

This time, things went smoothly. At first, when Nick answered a question in his deep, halting voice, the children giggled, Amy said, “but by the end they all were his protectors, they all were his buddies.”

Going through the preparation and receiving the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist has made a real difference in Nick’s life, Amy said, and also made him a “minor celebrity” and a symbol of hope in the parish.

“Overall, it was a beautiful experience,” she said.

‘Both lights and shadows’

The question of how best to serve families with special needs, like Nick’s, will be one of the many topics on the agenda at this month’s big Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican — at least according to the document designed to guide the discussion among church leaders gathered from around the world. (Though you never can be quite sure what those bishops will do.)

If you followed the media coverage of last October’s Synod on the Family, you probably got the general impression that it involved a lot of arguing about homosexuality, annulments, and whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive Communion — and not much else.

And indeed, those hot-button issues did spark some lively debate among the bishops. As Pope Francis said in his closing address, “I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for … these animated discussions … if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace.”

But the Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, for the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops — which will meet Oct. 4–25 to discuss “the vocation and mission of the family in the church and in the contemporary world” — reveals the bishops’ desire to go beyond those few high-profile issues, important as they are, to address “the reality of the family today in all its complexities, both lights and shadows.”

The scope of the synod’s ambition is reflected in the length of the working document. The Instrumentum contains all 8,000 words of the Relatio Synodi, or final report, from last year’s synod, plus 13,000 more summarizing the input solicited from national bishops’ conferences, the Roman Curia, Catholic organizations, academic institutions and others, including individual laypeople and families.

The variety of issues covered in the document “indicates the breadth of the topic,” said Andrew Lichtenwalner, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, in an email. “Marriage and family touch everything, having a fundamental significance for the church and for the world.”

The working document is divided into three parts: 1) “Considering the Challenges of the Family,” 2) “The Discernment of the Vocation of the Family” and 3) “The Mission of the Family Today.”

‘The Gospel of the Family’

Part I begins with the observation that, for a variety of cultural reasons, “Only a minority of people lives, supports and encourages the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and family, seeing in it the goodness of God’s creative plan.” Fear of commitment, extreme individualism and consumerism are listed among the culprits.

It goes on to review the many challenges faced by modern families: economic inequity; ecological problems; aging, death and widowhood; special needs and disabilities; migration due to war, persecution or poverty; polygamy, arranged marriages and “marriage in stages”; divorce, absentee fathers, discrimination against women and the sexual exploitation of children; pornography and forced prostitution; and the technological manipulation of reproduction. (The list drives home the church’s worldwide vision — its 1.2 billion members cover every continent.)

Part II explores how the vocation of the family can be better understood and lived out. At heart, this requires an encounter with Jesus Christ — in the Bible, in family prayer, and especially in the Eucharist. “Only in fixing one’s gaze on Christ can a person come to an in-depth knowledge of the truth of human relationships.” In the light of Christ, the fullness of the church’s teaching on marriage can be “understood not as a ‘yoke’ imposed on persons but as a ‘gift.’”

When it comes to “people who have not yet come to an understanding of the importance of the Sacrament of Matrimony” — including those who are married outside the church, divorced and remarried, or cohabiting — the church must witness to “God’s love and mercy.”

“It is important to be clearly aware that everyone is weak and that each person is a sinner like everyone else, yet not failing to affirm the blessings and values of a Christian marriage.”

Part III takes up the family’s mission to participate in the work of the church and to proclaim “the Gospel of the Family.” It highlights the need to improve marriage preparation, “particularly the catechesis before marriage”; the “growing need to include families, particularly the presence of women, in priestly formation”; and the necessity of caring for “wounded families.”

It also addresses the aforementioned hot buttons: the possibility of streamlining the annulment process (which Pope Francis took steps to do in September), the strenuous debate over whether a “way of penance” could allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, and the pastoral care of homosexual persons.

So, what concrete changes in the church might come out of this month’s Synod on the Family? At this point, we just don’t know. And so, like Pope Francis, we must trust in “the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.”

The Synod of Bishops at 50

This year’s Synod of Bishops on the Family marks the 50th anniversary of the assembly. On Sept. 15, 1965, Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops, “whereby bishops chosen from various parts of the world are to offer more effective assistance to the supreme Shepherd” by “providing information and offering advice.”

After the synod, then what?

Sometime down the road, Pope Francis will probably release a lengthy document with recommendations for the church based on the bishops’ discussions at the synod. Popes have published these post-synodal apostolic exhortations after each of the last 11 ordinary general assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), followed the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.

Prayer for the Synod on the Family

Pope Francis has asked Catholics to pray the following prayer for the Synod of Bishops on the Family:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division: may all who have been hurt or scandalized find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer.

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Northwest Catholic - October 2015

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.

Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.