On Saturday, Cardinal Ravasi - one of the Synod Fathers, and head of the Pontifical Council for Culture - published a short reflection on the family, entitled “The room of pain,” whose English translation I’d like to share here next:
“The French writer Jules Renard, author of the famous novel Poil de carotte (1894), was right when he noted in his diary: “If we want to build the house of happiness, we must remember that the largest room must be the waiting room.” In fact, if we take a look at the biblical house of the family, we realize how large and populated is the room of pain. The Bible is a constant witness to this, from the brutal violence of Cain’s fratricide of Abel and the quarrels among the children and spouses of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, then moving on to the tragedy that has bloodied the family of David, with his son Absalom’s aspiring to parricide, to the many difficulties that pepper the familiar tale of the book of Tobit or to that bitter confession of Job: “My family has withdrawn from me, my friends are wholly estranged. ... My breath is abhorrent to my wife; I am loathsome to my very children.”(19:13,17). Jesus himself is born in a refugee family, enters Peter’s house where the mother-in-law is ill, let’s himself be involved in the drama of death in the house of Jairus, or in that of Lazarus, hears the desperate cry of the widow of Nain. In their homes he meets tax collectors like Matthew-Levi and Zacchaeus, or sinners like the woman who is introduced in the house of Simon the leper; he knows the anxieties and tensions of families, pouring them into his parables: from children who leave home in search of adventure (Luke 15:11-32) up to difficult children (Matthew 21:28-31) or the victim of external violence (Mark 12:1-9). And he shows interest in a wedding that runs the risk of becoming embarrassing due to the absence of wine or of guests (John 2:1-10, Matthew 22:1-10), and he also knows the horror of the loss of a coin in a poor family (Luke 15:8-10). One could go on for a long time, describing the vastness of the room of pain, arriving at the present day. The list of the old wounds of divorces, rebellions, infidelities, pornography, abortions and so on is expanding to new socio-cultural phenomena such as individualism, privatization, the surprising and often disconcerting bioethical approaches to fertilization, the requests for recognition of new models of marriage, different from that between man and woman and their adoptions, of theories of “gender”, of cloning, of single parenthood and so on. A list that shakes the traditional system of family and turns the family “home” into something “liquid,” pliable into soft and changing forms. We stop here, leaving it to the Synod of Bishops on the family that opens this difficult visit to the space of questions and of questions. What remains, however, is the realization that the values that families preserve are great too. Next to the room of pain, in fact, there are bright rooms where the love between parents develops, where you can feel the joy of children, where windows are opened to listen to the cry for help of the poor and to go out to meet them.”I feel a great sense of looking at the world with open eyes from Cardinal Ravasi’s words. A not looking away even when faced with suffering and a simultaneous bearing in mind also of all the good, true and beautiful that there is in that same, suffering world.
Another early reflection on the Synod that I have particularly liked comes from another of the Synod Fathers, the Canadian Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, who read the singing during the opening mass as a parallel to the challenges of the coming weeks:
“We sang [the Creed] in Latin, alternating with the men of the choir. [...] I was sitting in the midst of the bishops who will be participating in the Synod, and I listened to them sing (as I sang along, naturally). One of the bishops would start the verse even before the organ had sounded the note; others sang more quickly than the rest; another, to the contrary, would always end after the rest; some were certain they had the correct rhythm and would sing louder, hoping to impose their rhythm to the others; a few didn’t know Latin or Gregorian Chant very well and were happy to simply murmur... or listen. For a song that was supposed to manifest the Church’s unity in the faith, I must admit it was a bit funny listening to this vocal struggle. Thankfully, we all sang the same words!Cardinal Schönborn has also shared his hopes for the Synod in a reflection on the Gospel from the Synod’s opening mass:
The Synod is a bit like that. Nearly 300 bishops gathered to discuss a fundamental issue: how to help Christian families live their mission in today’s world. Among the bishops, some want to go quickly, while others hesitate and want to move with great prudence. Some are certain that they know the correct rhythm and want to impose upon the group, lifting their voices and speaking out loudly. Others feel a bit lost: they listen, read, observe...
[...] I didn’t want to sing so loud that I would break what was left of the group’s harmony. Slowly, some bishops followed me in this search for unison, and we were able to adapt our rhythm to that of the organ and the boys. I think that, by the end of the Creed, we manifested the Church’s unity a bit more than we had at the beginning.
During the Synod, only one can give us the correct rhythm: the Holy Spirit. Our work as bishops is to discern this rhythm, this vital pulse that the Spirit want to give us.”
“Jesus approaches the question of marriage in a much more fundamental way. He looks at what God originally intended with marriage: man and woman are made for each other, and the two should become one: “one flesh”, a couple: “They are no longer two, but one.” And forever, because “what God has joined together, man must not separate”. Isn’t that clear? Jesus shows why marriage forms an indissoluble bond: God himself has formed this covenant.Turning to the General Congregations, yesterday afternoon and this morning saw both scheduled contributions and “free” ones during the evening session. During the press conference this lunchtime, Fr. Lombardi provided some statistics also about the languages used by the speakers. The majority (over 20) were in Italian, closely followed by also more than 20 speakers using English. Furthermore, this morning Pope Francis addressed the Synod (unlike last year, where he only spoke at the beginning and very end of the Synod), making two points: first that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not been questioned either during last year’s Synod or the year that has passed since and that it remains fully in force and, second, that the Synod mustn’t focus solely on the question of communion for the divorced and civilly remarried since there is a broad range of important topics to be dealt with. Pope Francis also emphasized the importance of work in small groups this year and the continuity between last year’s Synod from which three formal documents are carried forward: his opening and closing speeches and the Relatio Sinodi.
And if it does not work? Is there no way out in sight? Moses has allowed for the wife to be dismissed. Did Jesus forbid that? He does not deny that there are always separations. But he also calls out their deepest cause: “because you are so hard-hearted!” Yes, certainly, if we were all patient, understanding, didn’t hold grudges, kind, loving, then there would certainly be much fewer divorces.
But what if we do not succeed, despite all efforts to stay together? Does Jesus have no advice then? Is there no way out of such an emergency? Here children come into play. Jesus says, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them.” I see it as the prayer of Jesus to take care of children. They are often the first victims of divorce. They need the unity of their parents, so as to feel secure. It is hard-hearted when parents wage their marital wars on the backs of their children. What does Jesus want from us? That we are all more merciful with one another, even when a marriage falls into crisis or breaks. This is the message that I hope to hear from the Synod that begins today.”
Fr. Lombardi then provided an overview of the topics that were discussed, mentioning the question of what language is most appropriate for describing various situations of the family and, importantly, to avoid giving the impression of judging persons and situations negatively. Some have pointed to Pope Francis’ catecheses as a positive example of how to speak simply, concretely and positively about the reality of the family in the world of today. Many have also emphasized the importance of growth in the Christian life of couples and families and about the accompanying that is necessary for helping such growth.
Fr. Rosica, the English-speaking assistant to Fr. Lombardi, who is the Vatican’s spokesperson, then underlined that there has been an emphasis on the family being the main protagonist of evangelization. Poverty, unemployment, war and the refugee crisis all put pressure on the family. “There must be an end to exclusionary language and an emphasis on embracing reality as it is, and we should not be afraid of new and complex situations.” “We deal with the people as they are and lead them forward.” The need for a renewed language was also linked to the Jubilee of Mercy that starts soon and that will also require such a new language. “In particular, when speaking about homosexual or gay persons we do not pity gay persons but we recognize them for who they are: they are our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and neighbors and colleagues. [...] These are our children, family members - they are not outsiders, they are our flesh and blood. How do we speak about them and how do we offer a hand of welcome to them?”
Archbishop Durocher, who was one of the two Synod Fathers at the press conference - alongside Cardinal Celli, shared his perspective on how to relate the Church’s teaching to the reality of the world:
“There is a great unanimity in recognizing that there is a growing distance between the cultural vision of marriage and family life and what the Church proposes and teaches growing out of the teaching of Jesus. And that growing gulf involves different ways of reaction. One reaction is to emphasize what the teaching is, for fear that as the culture moves away from the vision, our own understanding gets diluted. The other fear is that we lose contact with that culture and that we close in on ourselves and become a kind of a ghetto or a sect that no longer has an impact in culture. And all the bishops, I think, agree that the teaching of the Church, coming from Jesus, is a gift for the world, it is not just for a select few. We really believe that the teaching, the vision of marriage which is ours is a good news for the world. So, how, on the one hand, do we hold on to the teaching without it being diluted, and at the same time entering into dialogue with that world in a way that will speak to the world and will provoke its imagination and its interest. And so some of the bishops will emphasize the teaching and others will emphasize the importance of the dialogue and I think that’s why its important that this is a collegial exercise in the sense that we do this together, because we need to hold both those together. I think Cardinal Erdő’s talk was a beautiful, classical presentation of the Church’s teaching and I think there are other bishops who are thinking this is important, we need to hold onto this, now how do we enter into dialogue with this world, and what we have been hearing in the various interventions is that loving look upon the world to try and discern where it is that the message of the Gospel can the men and women of today’s world and the families that are ours.”Beyond the press conference, a gem coming from the Synod today have been the tweets of Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ - director of La Civiltà Cattolica and directly appointed Synod Father by Pope Francis - of which I’d like to share four here:
“Discernment helps us not to see the demon in what are only our fears and our obsessions.And, finally, what better way to conclude an overview of the day’s events at the Synod than with Pope Francis’ homily from this morning’s mass at Santa Marta, where he reflects on the first reading from the book of Jonah (3:1-10):
During #Synod15, when we speak about the family, we are in fact speaking about Gaudium et spes, that is about what the relationship is between the Church and the world.
I have to admit with humility that at times today we are called to face challenges that we don’t understand well yet.
We have to always be careful that, with the excuse of defending faith, it is not just our own ideas that get defended.”
“He really performs a miracle, because in this case he has left his stubbornness behind and has obeyed the will of God, and has done what the Lord had commanded him.
The story of Jonah and Nineveh, consists therefore of three chapters: the first is the resistance to the mission that the Lord entrusted to him; the second is obedience, and when he obeys he performs miracles. He obeys God’s will and Nineveh repents. In the third chapter, there is resistance to the mercy of God:
Those words, ‘Lord, was not this what I said when I was in my country? For you are a merciful and gracious God’, and I have done all that work of preaching, I have done my job well, and you forgive them? It is the heart with that hardness that does not let in the mercy of God. My sermon is more important, my thoughts are more important, more important is that list of all the commandments that I must observe, everything, everything, everything is more important than God’s mercy.
And Jesus too experienced this drama with the Doctors of the Law, who did not understand why he did not let the adulteress be stoned, why he went to dinner with tax collectors and sinners, they did not understand. They did not understand mercy. ‘You are merciful and gracious’. The Psalm that we prayed today suggests that we “wait for the Lord because with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.”
Where the Lord is there is mercy. And St. Ambrose added: ‘And where there is rigidity there are his ministers’. Stubbornness that defies mission, that challenges mercy.”