Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Synod15: the joy of feeling loved

Emmaus arcabas

Today saw the publication of the “instrumentum laboris” (working document) that will be used in preparation for this October’s Synod on the Family and that incorporates answers from around the world to the questionnaire put forward at the end of last year’s Synod. The document is 21K words long, only available in Italian so far and reproduces the “lineamenta” (directives for the work to be done between the two synods on the family) of last year’s Synod in their entirety. As a result, the following will focus on those of the 147 paragraphs of the “instrumentum laboris” that differ from the 61 paragraphs of the “lineamenta” and the English wording here will be my own, crude translation.

The first part of the text is entitled “Listening to the challenges of the family,” which presents a rather pessimistic view of the current state of the family, starting with the following statement:
“Only a minority live, support and put forward the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, recognizing in it the goodness of God’s creative plan. Marriages, religious or not, are on the decrease and the number of separations and divorces is growing.” (§7)
The following sections the speak about the a variety of challenges, from cultural (where differences between men and women are not understood and instead denied), to social, economic and political ones (where insufficient support for the life of the family is bemoaned). The particular difficulties following from solitude, old age, the last stages of life and bereavement, disability and migration are also profiled.

The many difficulties related to the unequal treatment of women are then spelled out in §30:
“Many have observed that the processes of the emancipation of women have brought their role in the growth of the family and society to the fore. It remains true, however, that the status of women in the world is subject to large differences resulting primarily from cultural factors. It ought not be thought that problematic situations could be resolved simply by an end to difficult economic conditions and the arrival of modern culture, as evidenced by the difficult conditions of women in various countries that have recently become developed.

In western countries, the emancipation of women requires a rethinking of the duties of spouses in their reciprocity and common responsibility for family life. In developing countries, the exploitation and violence perpetrated against women’s bodies is supplemented by onerous tasks imposed on them even during pregnancy, as well as forced abortions and sterilizations, not to mention the extremely negative practices connected with procreation (for example, the renting of a uterus or the market in embryonic gametes). In advanced countries, the desire for a child “at all costs” has not resulted in happier or stronger family, but has in many cases actually exacerbated the inequality between women and men. The sterility of a woman is, according to the prejudices present in various cultures, a socially discriminating condition.

What could contribute to a more decisive role of women would also be a greater recognition of their responsibilities in the Church: their involvement in decision-making; their participation, not only formal, in the government of some institutions; their involvement in the formation of ordained ministers.”
The first part of the “instrumentum laboris” concludes with remarks on bioethics, the need for formation about affectivity and the importance of bearing in mind that even those “far” from the life of the Church are “persons loved by God” and that all ought to be looked upon with understanding (§36).

The second part of the text is entitled “Discernment of the call to family life”, where a lack of knowledge of Scripture and its reading in the family is first noted with concern. The value of indissolubility is then emphasizes:
“The witness of couples who live Christian marriage in its fullness highlights the value of this indissoluble union and awakens the desire to embark on ever new paths of marital fidelity. Indissolubility is a person’s response to a deep desire for mutual and enduring love: a love that is “forever” and that becomes choice and self-giving of each spouse to the other, of the couple towards God and towards all those whom God entrusts to them.” (§42)
The unitive and procreative character of marriage, of the family being in the image of the Trinity, the missionary character of the family, prayer in the family and the importance of catechesis are addressed next, followed by a call to emphasizing the joy that springs from the life of a family:
“The joy of a person is an expression of their full realization. To present the unique joy that comes from the union of spouses and the establishment of a new family, it is beneficial to show the family as a place of personal, gratuitous relationships, unlike those in other social groupings. Mutual and gratuitous giving, being the origin of life and a place where all members are cared for, from the youngest to the elderly, are just some of aspects that make the family unique in its beauty. It is important let the idea grow that marriage is a choice for life that does not limit our existence, but makes it richer and fuller, even in difficulties.” (§55)
A call is next made for a greater appreciation of the value of marriage and of a recognition of the good in the life of unmarried couples who may be on the road towards sacramental marriage:
“The Church is aware of the high profile of the mystery of marriage between man and woman. [...] The seriousness of adhering to it and the courage that it requires ought to be appreciated in a particular way today, when the value of this inspiration, which covers all the relationships built by a family, is called into question, or even censored and removed.

Therefore, even in the case where the decision to proceed to sacramental marriage by cohabiting or civilly married couples is still in an immature, virtual or early state, or only a gradual approximation, it is asked that the Church does not shirk from the task of encouraging and supporting such development. At the same time, it would be good if the Church showed appreciation and friendship with regard to the commitments already made, where she ought to recognize elements that are consistent with the plan of God for his creation.” (§57)
This need for welcoming those who are potentially on a journey towards an understanding and practice of marriage shared with the Church is again emphasized in §61:
“The attitude of the faithful towards people who have not yet come to the understanding of the importance of the sacrament of marriage ought to be expressed in particular through a relationship of personal friendship, accepting the other as they are, without judging, meeting their basic needs and at the same time witnessing to the love and mercy of God. It is important to be clear about the fact that we are all weak, sinners like the others, without giving up on affirming the goodness and values of Christian marriage. Also, we ought to become aware of the fact that the family in God’s plan is not a duty, but a gift, and that today the decision to approach the sacrament is not something already given, but a step to be arrived at and goal to be achieved.”
The “instrumentum” then speaks about the fear of young people to get married, also because they see so many failed marriages, and the second part of the document concludes with the following paragraph on the relationship between mercy and truth (§68):
“For the Church this is about departing from the concrete situations of today’s families, all in need of mercy, starting with those who suffer most. In mercy, in fact, the sovereignty of God shines, with which he is faithful, time and again, to his own being, which is love (cf. 1 Jn 4: 8), and to his covenant. Mercy is the revelation of God’s loyalty and identity with himself, and therefor, at the same time, a demonstration of Christian identity. Therefore mercy does not take away anything from the truth. She herself is revealed truth and is closely linked with the fundamental truths of the faith - the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Lord - without which she would fall into nothingness. Mercy is “the core of the revelation of Jesus Christ” (MV, 25).”
The third part of the text is entitled “The mission of the family today” and it starts by identifying tenderness in the family with the tenderness of God:
“Tenderness means to give with joy and stir in the other the joy of feeling loved. It is expressed particularly in turning with exquisite attention to the limits of the other, especially when they emerge clearly. Delicacy and respect mean healing wounds and giving back hope, reviving confidence in the other. Tenderness in family relationships is the everyday virtue that helps to overcome the inner and relational conflicts. In this regard, Pope Francis invites us to reflect: “We have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today! The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God.”(Homily for the Midnight Mass on the Solemnity of Christmas, December 24, 2014).” (§70)
Next, the point is made that the family is a subject of pastoral work and ought to think about the Church as “we,” and attention is paid to a point that was also very prominent during last year’s Synod, which is the need for a new language:
“The Christian message must be announced with preference for a language that will inspire hope. It is necessary to adopt communication that is clear and inviting, open, that does not moralize, judge and control, that bears witness to the Church’s moral teaching, while remaining sensitive to the conditions of each individual.

Because the Magisterium of the Church is no longer understood by many on certain topics, there is an urgent need for a language that can reach everyone, especially young people, to convey the beauty of family love and an understanding of the meaning of terms such as donation, conjugal love, fertility and procreation.” (§78)
That such hope and joy filled communication is set in a cultural context is underlined next, followed by an exposition of the concept of a “symphony of differences”:
“Starting from an observation of religious and cultural pluralism, it is hoped that the Synod will protect and enhance the image of a “symphony of differences.” It is shown that as a whole the pastoral care of marriage and family needs to value positive elements that are found in different cultural and religious experiences, which are a “praeparatio evangelica” [“preparation for the Gospel”]. Through an encounter with those who have followed a path of awareness and responsibility with regard to the authentic goods of marriage, one can establish an effective collaboration for the promotion and defense of the family.” (§83)
The following paragraphs speak about formation in the family, recognizing its currently meager state and underlining the importance of thorough and extensive preparation for marriage. Mention is also made of the importance of the role of the family in the formation of future priests and in the continuous formation of the clergy and pastoral workers. The need for accompanying newlyweds and for participating in socio-political processes that favor the family is also stressed.

Next, the “instrumentum laboris” turns to pastoral care for those who may be on a journey towards sacramental marriage and those who live in “wounded” families (“separated, divorced and not remarried, divorced and remarried, single parent families”), paying particular attention to the “art of accompaniment”:
“Many have appreciated the references of the Synod Fathers to the image of Jesus who accompanies the disciples of Emmaus. Staying close to a family as a journeying companion means, for the Church, to adopt a wise and nuanced attitude. Sometimes, we need to stay close and listen in silence; at other times, to stand in front and point to the way ahead; at yet other times, to stand behind to support and encourage. In an affectionate sharing, the Church makes her own the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of every family.” (§110)
The importance of being close to the divorced who do not remarry and of reinforcing in them the knowledge that God never abandons us is followed by an insistence on the need for speeding up procedures for recognizing marital nullity. That this also requires formation and greater numbers of tribunal staff and clear guidelines on top of which individual cases may then be approached is discussed next. After emhasizing the need for finding ways to integrate the divorced and remarried into the life of the Church, the “instrumentum laboris” speaks about the possibility of a “penitential way:”
“[T]here is broad agreement about the idea of a journey of reconciliation or penance, under the authority of the Bishop, for the divorced and civilly remarried faithful who are in irreversible cohabitation. With reference to Familiaris Consortio §84, a process is suggested of becoming aware of failure and of the wounds produced by it, and, with repentance, a verification of the possible nullity of marriage, to make a commitment to spiritual communion and a decision to live in continence.

What others mean by a penitential way instead is a process of clarification and reorientation, following the experience of failure, accompanied by a priest appointed for this purpose. This process should lead the concerned party to developing a fair assessment of their condition. This process that same priest too would develop his own assessment so as to make use of the power of binding and loosing in a manner adequate to the situation.” (§123)
The need for more coherent practice with regard to mixed marriages (i.e., among Christians) and marriages with a disparity of cult (between a Catholic and a non-baptized person) is then stated, followed by a section on pastoral attention towards “persons with a homosexual tendency” [note the return of the word “welcomed” - for background see here :)]:
“It is reaffirmed that each person, regardless of their sexual orientation, must be respected in their dignity and welcomed with sensitivity and delicacy, both in the Church and in society. It would be desirable that diocesan pastoral plans paid specific attention to the accompaniment of families in which homosexual person live and of these same persons.” (§131)
The following paragraphs then speak about procreation, where the following passage is particularly significant:
“Bearing in mind the wealth of wisdom contained in Humanae Vitae, two poles emerge in relation to the issues it deals with there that need to be constantly balanced. On the one hand, the role of conscience, understood as God’s voice, which resounds in the human heart that has been taught to listen to it; on the other, the directions of objective morality, which prevent thinking about procreation as a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan for human procreation. When reference to the subjective pole dominates, there is a risk of making easy, selfish choices; in the other case, moral norms are perceived as an unbearable burden, not corresponding to the needs and possibilities of the person. The combination of the two aspects, lived under the accompaniment of a competent spiritual guide, will help the spouses to make choices that are fully human and that conform to the will of the Lord.” (§137)
Next, the goodness of adoption is emphasized, followed by a reaffirmation of the insistence of the value and dignity of life from conception to natural death, and the “instrumentum laboris” concludes by underlining the challenges and importance of education in the family.

Finally the prayer to the Holy Family that Pope Francis first shared during the General Audience on 25th March 2015 is presented in preparation for this October’s Synod:
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour 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 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.

From a first reading, I believe that the “instrumentum laboris,” elaborated in close collaboration with Pope Francis represents only minor adjustments to the final “relatio” of last year’s Synod. Including the full text of last year’s Synod is a strong signal of continuity and the new paragraphs predominantly focus on elaborating on what was there last year. Only in few cases can the new material be seen as a nudge towards one of alternative lines of thought present during last year’s Synod. The reiteration of the “penitential way” for the remarried and divorced and the re-introduction of the word “accogliere” (“to welcome”) with regard to homosexual persons (which was there in the intermediate working document of last year’s Synod but then got removed from the final one) are - to my mind - the most prominent examples. What also permeates the document are echoes of Pope Francis’ closing speech from last year where he insisted on the Church “flinging open” her doors to all and of the need for tenderness, accompanying and personal relationships rather than the blind following of rules that have also been key themes of his pontificate.

[UPDATE (1st July 2015): The official English translation of the “instrumentum” is now available.]