This article on the 2015 Synod was written by Archbishop Stephen Brislin for the Sunday Argus on 29 October 2015.
“God did not create the human being to live in sadness or to be alone, but for happiness, to share his path with another person that is complementary”. These words of Pope Francis at the opening liturgy of the 14th Synod of bishops – “the Synod on the Family” – captured the positive nature of the process which began more than two years ago. As with the Extraordinary Synod of 2014, this Synod was characterized by remarkable openness as bishops from around the world responded to the Pontiff’s challenge to speak boldly but also to listen attentively. The openness of the Synod, as well as the broad nature of the preparatory documents touching on multiple issues, led to high expectations on the part of some who may feel that their aspirations have not been met.
The 2015 Synod is a watershed in the life of the Catholic Church. On a superficial level it is true that some hoped-for solutions, especially regarding Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried or recognition of homosexual marriages, have not happened. The Synod did not set out to resolve all the complexities of family life. We heard testimony of many problems that exist in different cultural contexts which could not be resolved within the Synod; however, the Synod is not the end of the discernment. In the words of Pope Francis it was about “seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly without burying our heads in the sand”. The methodology adopted was that of “experience, analysis/reflection and action”; thus the beginning was the reality of people’s lives and the struggles they have.
The reflection on the situations of pain and brokenness in the light of the Gospel and faith led to key issues emerging. It was a long process. Every one of the 270 bishops present had the opportunity to speak in plenary session, as did married couples, representatives of Women Religious and “Fraternal Delegates” (representatives from other churches). The plenary sessions were interspersed with discussions in language groups over the three-week period, with far more time being given to the small group discussions than ever before. Despite a variety of differing, and at times opposing, interventions and reports – occasionally vigorously presented – a certain convergence began to develop. Ultimately this led to a consensus on the final document presented to the Pope. Each of the 94 paragraphs of that document achieved a 2/3 majority. This in itself was a remarkable achievement as the “Synod Fathers” came from every part of the world representing vastly different cultures and experiences.
The first of the key themes was a renewed recognition of the beauty and importance of marriage and family and its indispensable nature, not only for the individual to achieve the very meaning of what it means to be human, but also for the good of society. In the family we form our identity as a person, learn to love and be loved, learn generosity, tolerance and forgiveness. Healthy families make a healthy society. Far from abandoning marriage or family life we have to do all we can to promote and strengthen these great, God-given gifts. There is no “typical” or perfect family, every family has its struggles, but most show heroic courage in the face of enormous difficulties such as struggling with poverty, fleeing home and country or raising children as a single parent.
A second theme was the need to be a listening Church – listening to the cry of those in difficult situations, who experience pain in their lives or family histories. In this respect the Synod dealt with a wide range of issues including divorce, domestic violence, sexual abuse in the family and pornography. Too often we have judged, condemned and excluded people. Learning from Christ, we need to have his tenderness and mercy and to allow these to shape our parishes and communities that they may always be places of welcome and acceptance. The Church is open to all who wish to follow Christ. It is not for the “perfect” or the “righteous” – Christ came for sinners and to call them to conversion. Many spoke of the need for Church leaders to apologise and seek forgiveness for the harsh way in which we have sometimes treated people, lacking compassion and understanding of their situations.
The third theme, discernment, was one of the more controversial in its application to those who are in second unions. In working to integrate the divorced and remarried more fully in the life of the Church the pastor should lead them through a process of discernment regarding the broken marriage/family. Some questions would be: how did you behave towards the children of your marriage in the time of crisis? Did you seek reconciliation and try to save the marriage? What is the situation of the abandoned spouse? What were the consequences of the break-up of the marriage on the families and of wider society? The break up of the family has many consequences far beyond the individual and thus such examination of conscience, guided by the pastor, can lead to a deeper conversion and inclusion in the Christian community. It also recognizes that individual histories are different and that the notion of “one size fits all” is simply not possible. Doctrine that applies to everyone is not in question, but individual circumstances and conscience must also be taken into account – not only for those in second unions but also for those in other situations.
The fourth theme was that of accompaniment – at various levels. Those in irregular unions should not be abandoned or excluded but positive aspects of their relationship should be recognized and encouragement given to them. Young people entering into marriage often have little understanding of what married life entails – they need to be well prepared. Accompaniment is also about giving support to those already married especially young couples in the first years of their married life – and those who are in hurting marriages. Experienced married couples play an essential role in accompaniment.
The family is not simply the object of our concern and pastoral activity but is also the subject or agent in God’s plan. God has called families and given them a part in the mission of the Church. They do this in their own families through the upbringing and education of their children, teaching them virtue and respect for human dignity. Married couples witness to appropriate sexuality in a world that sees sexuality as a commodity. The family is also an instrument of God’s compassion, love and mercy towards others, especially those who are poor, marginalized and suffering.
While the Synod may not have reached the hopes or expectations of some, it focussed on the richness of family as a great treasure given by God. It has opened the way for greater mercy and compassion, to lay aside superiority and superficiality and to allow faith to enlighten people’s hearts. There was and is a sense of “journeying together” as we try to become the community of believers that Christ meant us to be be: welcoming and forgiving.
It was a privilege and deeply moving to be part of this great Synod. It will have consequences way beyond the particular issue of family. The relationship between bishops and the Pontiff, always cum Petro and sub Petro (“with Peter and in obedience to Peter”) has become one of listening to each other and discerning. The recognition of cultural and local differences, which demand different pastoral responses, will result in less centralization and far greater scope for local bishops to discern pastoral intervention. As Pope Francis said “what seems normal for one bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous – almost! – for a bishop from another… what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion…”. The synod is over but the journey is not.
Archbishop Stephen Brislin
President Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 29 October 2015.