The second in a pair of Synods on the Family opened this morning with a mass presided over by Pope Francis. It will last for the next three weeks, during which 270 Synod Fathers (45 of which have been directly nominated by the pope), 51 auditors (among whom there are 9 married couples) and 14 fraternal delegates (representatives of other Christian churches and ecclesial communities) will discuss “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the contemporary world.” This will be done by following the structure of the working document (“instrumentum laboris”) that was published at the end of June, where each week will focus on one of the document’s parts: “Considering the challenges of the family,” “The Discernment of the Family Vocation,” and “The Mission of the Family Today.”
Like I did last year, I will again try to share excerpts from the material published during this Synod and I will here start with selecting parts from yesterday’s prayer vigil for the Synod and his homily at the opening mass of the Synod this morning.
Pope Francis opened his prayer vigil address with underlining the gentleness of God’s call:
“God’s grace does not shout out; it is a whisper which reaches all those who are ready to hear the gentle breeze – that still, small voice. It urges them to go forth, to return to the world, to be witnesses to God’s love for mankind, so that the world may believe…”Then, he spoke about the fundamental importance of the Holy Spirit, by referring to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch who said that:
“without the Holy Spirit God is far off, Christ remains in the past, the Church becomes a mere organization, authority becomes domination, mission becomes propaganda, worship becomes mystique, Christian life the morality of slaves.”Francis then set out his desires for the Synod:
“[L]et us pray that the Synod which opens tomorrow will show how the experience of marriage and family is rich and humanly fulfilling. May the Synod acknowledge, esteem, and proclaim all that is beautiful, good and holy about that experience. May it embrace situations of vulnerability and hardship: war, illness, grief, wounded relationships and brokenness, which create distress, resentment and separation. May it remind [...] every family, that the Gospel is always “good news” which once again enables us to start over. From the treasury of the Church’s living tradition may the Fathers draw words of comfort and hope for families called in our own day to build the future of the ecclesial community and the city of man.”To emphasize the importance of even the smallest good, Francis then declared that “Every family is always a light, however faint, amid the darkness of this world,” and he equated love for even the most insignificant neighbor with an ascent to God: “For in loving others, we learn to love God, in stooping down to help our neighbour, we are lifted up to God.”
Concluding the vigil he then set out parallels between the family and the Church, again drawing on the image of the Church being mother, father and a community of siblings and at the same presenting ideals for both Church and family to strive for:
“In the “Galilee of the nations” of our own time, we will rediscover the richness and strength of a Church which is a mother, ever capable of giving and nourishing life, accompanying it with devotion, tenderness, and moral strength. For unless we can unite compassion with justice, we will end up being needlessly severe and deeply unjust.This morning, Pope Francis then set out his vision for the Synod to the Synod Fathers themselves, by plotting a path from the individual, through the relationship between a man and a woman to the family. The starting point here, as in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, is Adam’s solitude in the Genesis accounts of creation that has echoes in today’s world:
A Church which is family is also able to show the closeness and love of a father, a responsible guardian who protects without confining, who corrects without demeaning, who trains by example and patience, sometimes simply by a silence which bespeaks prayerful and trusting expectation.
Above all, a Church of children who see themselves as brothers and sisters, will never end up considering anyone simply as a burden, a problem, an expense, a concern or a risk. Other persons are essentially a gift, and always remain so, even when they walk different paths.
The Church is an open house, far from outward pomp, hospitable in the simplicity of her members. That is why she can appeal to the longing for peace present in every man and woman, including those who – amid life’s trials – have wounded and suffering hearts.
This Church can indeed light up the darkness felt by so many men and women. She can credibly point them towards the goal and walk at their side, precisely because she herself first experienced what it is to be endlessly reborn in the merciful heart of the Father.”
“The drama of solitude is experienced by countless men and women in our own day. I think of the elderly, abandoned even by their loved ones and children; widows and widowers; the many men and women left by their spouses; all those who feel alone, misunderstood and unheard; migrants and refugees fleeing from war and persecution; and those many young people who are victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture.God’s response to Adam’s loneliness, and to the loneliness we experience today, is to give him “another heart like his own”:
Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom… The number of people who feel lonely keeps growing, as does the number of those who are caught up in selfishness, gloominess, destructive violence and slavery to pleasure and money.
Our experience today is, in some way, like that of Adam: so much power and at the same time so much loneliness and vulnerability. The image of this is the family. People are less and less serious about building a solid and fruitful relationship of love: in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, in good times and in bad. Love which is lasting, faithful, conscientious, stable and fruitful is increasingly looked down upon, viewed as a quaint relic of the past. It would seem that the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates and the highest percentages of abortion, divorce, suicide, and social and environmental pollution.”
“This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self. It is the same plan which Jesus presents in today’s Gospel: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:6-8; cf. Gen 1:27; 2:24).Pope Francis presents a profound insight about Jesus’ self-sacrificing love, perceived as folly by his contemporaries, being the key to understanding the indissolubility and exclusivity of conjugal love:
[... Jesus] brings everything back to the beginning, to the beginning of creation, to teach us that God blesses human love, that it is he who joins the hearts of two people who love one another, he who joins them in unity and indissolubility. This shows us that the goal of conjugal life is not simply to live together for life, but to love one another for life! In this way Jesus re-establishes the order which was present from the beginning.”
““What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mk 10:9). This is an exhortation to believers to overcome every form of individualism and legalism which conceals a narrow self-centredness and a fear of accepting the true meaning of the couple and of human sexuality in God’s plan.What can the Church do to support such a Christocentric understanding and living of marriage?
Indeed, only in the light of the folly of the gratuitousness of Jesus’ paschal love will the folly of the gratuitousness of an exclusive and life-long conjugal love make sense.
For God, marriage is not some adolescent utopia, but a dream without which his creatures will be doomed to solitude! Indeed, being afraid to accept this plan paralyzes the human heart.”
“We see people chase after fleeting loves while dreaming of true love; they chase after carnal pleasures but desire total self-giving. [...]Such a defense of faithful love is built on two pillars: truth and charity:
In this extremely difficult social and marital context, the Church is called to carry out her mission in fidelity, truth and love.
To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert, in defending faithful love and encouraging the many families which live married life as an experience which reveals of God’s love; in defending the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously.”
“The Church is called to carry out her mission in truth, which is not changed by passing fads or popular opinions. The truth which protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 3).And finally, Francis calls for an intensified love for those who fall and err so that the Church may be the bridge it is called to be:
And the Church is called to carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; even more, to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.”
“I remember when Saint John Paul II said: “Error and evil must always be condemned and opposed; but the man who falls or who errs must be understood and loved… we must love our time and help the man of our time” (John Paul II, Address to the Members of Italian Catholic Action, 30 December 1978). The Church must search out these persons, welcome and accompany them, for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock: “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2:11).”To my mind, Pope Francis’ words last night and today are a beautiful synthesis of what he has taught about the family all throughout this year and what he has already emphasized during the last Synod. I pray for him, the whole Synod and all families that the next three weeks may be a journey towards Pope Francis’ vision of bringing God’s love to all.