Synod document offers new style of being church

Listening, accompanying, respecting, valuing, discerning, welcoming, dialogue are words repeated throughout the new document being discussed by the synod of bishops in Rome this week. Words of condemnation and marginalization were avoided.

Oct 24, 2014

By Fr Thomas Reese, SJ
Listening, accompanying, respecting, valuing, discerning, welcoming, dialogue are words repeated throughout the new document being discussed by the synod of bishops in Rome this week. Words of condemnation and marginalization were avoided.

The document, called a "relatio post disceptationem," sums up what Cardinal Peter Erdo and the nine-member drafting committee see as the current synodal consensus as they move from a week of speeches into a week of small group discussions. The relatio will help focus the discussions in language groups and lead to a final document that will be the fruit of the synod and provide fodder for conversation throughout the church as it prepares for the next synod in October 2015.

The relatio is divided into three parts: "Listening: The context and challenges to the family," "The gaze on Christ: the Gospel and the family," and "Discussion: pastoral perspectives."

The document begins with an extensive quote from Pope Francis describing in poetic terms the joys and trials of families on the evening before the synod began:

Evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour at which one willingly returns home to meet at the same table, in the depth of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which hastens the unending feast in the days of man.

It is also the weightiest hour for one who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans; how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, of abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes the wine of joy has been less plentiful, and therefore, also the zest -- the very wisdom -- for life [...]. Let us make our prayer heard for one another this evening, a prayer for all.

What did the bishops hear as they listened to the voices of families?

"The most difficult test for families in our time is often solitude, which destroys and gives rise to a general sensation of impotence in relation to the socio-economic situation that often ends up crushing them," according to the relatio. "This is due to growing precariousness in the workplace that is often experienced as a nightmare."

It notes the varied cultural and religious context of families around the world, where polygamy, "marriage in stages," arranged marriages, interreligious marriages, cohabitation, divorce, children born outside of marriage, family violence, as well as war can occur.

The pastoral challenge then, is "to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations."

The bishops want to follow the example of Jesus who "looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God."

In thinking about "wounded" families, the bishops found a "hermeneutic key" in the teachings of Vatican II on other Christian churches. Here the Catholic Church affirmed that "many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure," and "these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity."

The bishops concluded, just as Protestant churches have many elements of sanctification and truth, so too, can nonsacramental unions. "Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons," explains the relatio, "it is the task of the church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries."

Rather seeing these situations as pure evil, "the church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings."

"Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects," says the document.

This calls for a new pastoral practice that accepts "the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences," reads the document. "Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage." This would not be true of cohabitations that rule out any possibility of future marriage.

The synod wants to carry out its pastoral practice "with the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher (cf. Eph 4,15)," in imitation of the mercy of Christ. "The truth is incarnated in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it."

Important to this pastoral practice will be "the joyous testimony of spouses and families," who will be key evangelizers for couples before and after their marriages.

"It is necessary not to stop at an announcement that is merely theoretical and has nothing to do with people’s real problems." Pastoral practice "is not merely about presenting a set of regulations but about putting forward values, responding to the need of those who find themselves today even in the most secularized countries."

Source: NCR

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